The Opening – Chris von Szombathy


THE OPENING is all about introducing the fascinating, quirky and wonderful people working in and around the visual arts in Vancouver. Each week, we’ll feature an artist, collective, curator or administrator to delve deep into who and what makes art happen!

Chris von Szombathy is a visual & auditory artist, designer and writer residing in Vancouver, Canada. His recent Esophaus Now show at Unit/Pitt garnered a great deal of attention and helped pave the path towards his latest project, a show at Catalog Gallery with Drew Shaffer. Titled Love is in the Error, and featuring a monumental interactive sculptural piece, the show opens tonight and runs until February 26th. I sat down with Chris last week while he was in the midst of finishing pieces, and began the discussion by asking him about his recent summer show at Unit/Pitt.

‘Big Desires’ – polymer clay, cardstock, acrylic paints & mediums (2010)

I was really happy with it. That show was a bit of a return for me. A few years ago I stopped doing visual work completely to work on music, and I didn’t really get back into it until 2006. After doing my first solo show at my friend’s gallery, WRKS DVSN, I was able to make contact with [what was then] Helen Pitt Gallery. The show at the Unit/Pitt, I didn’t really promote it, but the opening night was jam-packed. I was really excited. A lot of people in the community had assumed I had left the country since they hadn’t seen me in five or six years. The reaction I got from those people was really overwhelmingly positive. Because of that show, I’ve been able to work towards the new show for Catalog.

I’ve known Drew for about a decade. He’s got a frame of reference that was very different from mine, but at the same time we were hitting on all these similar things. Because we had so many of the same reference points, we already knew a lot of the things each of us would talk about. I have a lot of respect for him and love for him as a friend. We’d been talking about doing a show together for ten years, but quite honestly, if we had decided to do a show back then I wouldn’t have been ready for it. I still don’t feel I’m ready for it. But I’m so happy that we’re doing it, and I have the most respect for his work. I’ve learned so much from the guy that he’s almost my mentor in some ways. He would totally puke if he heard that. He’s one of the ones who taught me how to see things. Both of us have been doing our own thing for the last ten years, but we’ve been in contact. I think what we’re doing is, at least for this city, a little different.

‘A Beginner’s Guide to Craftsmanship’ – polymer clay, glass, wood, paper, hair, acrylic (2011)

The larger piece we’ve done for Catalog has ended up being a perfect metaphor for our working relationship. To build “You Complete Me” (a 2′ x 3′ skinned head) we got a DTES Small Arts Grant from the Vancouver Foundation. We wouldn’t have been able to build it without their help, and the show would have been a much smaller, paler event had we not had something like that. We’re going to be having a large bowl of cherry-flavoured gum balls. You’re able to chew the gum and put the gum on the head, covering it with skin as it goes. Which goes into the title, “You Complete Me,” which is a horribly tacky thing to say to people. It’s a joke between us. That head is so much closer to Drew’s work in some ways. Drew’s work is very process and material-oriented. He transforms materials in a way that I have trouble understanding. He makes stuff that surpasses the material. The head is definitely made out of cloth, but there’s something very body and corporeal about it. My work is very much like gum balls—they’re imperfect spheres, but they’re candy-coated and glossy. Something about them is very saccharine and consumable.

I think it’s really important that things like the DTES Grant exist in the first place, and they tend to fund a lot of diverse work. I think that this large piece ties in really well between me a Drew’s work. Part of the things we had talked about in the grant was how it did tie in politically with the Downtown East Side. I’m not a politically motivated artist, insofar as that I have certain bylines or things that I have to hammer into people. My motives are a lot simpler, really. But I think this piece is good; in some ways it’s very symbolic of how we each work, and it also has a lot of the same characteristics that our individual work has.

‘Needs’ – digitally manipulated print (2010)

You said you’ve known Drew for ten years…

Drew’s work has so strongly informed what I do. Even though visually our work is very different, I think a lot of our final ideas about things are very similar, and we approach concepts very similarly as well. When I first saw his work I was still in art school. I was working with him at the time. We were selling antiques. He’s a little bit older than I am. He has a lot more experience. I saw a piece he did at one particular show. The piece was amazing to me. It was an upholstered box, with an electrical cord that came out of the bottom and went into the wall. The cord was upholstered as well. At that young age, I couldn’t conceive of spending that much time hand-stitching something that was so superfluous to the piece. It had to be all about the concept. When I saw this work I realized I was completely wrong about that. The concept is only half the thing. In fact in some ways it’s the lesser half, the empty half of the glass being full. It doesn’t need to be there at all. It’s really all about what actually is there.

It’s wonderful to have a great concept, but hopefully the way that everything is received is that the decisions you have made are considered. If it’s done well enough, people who come into it will be left with a rich experience, and that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to look at it and be suffused with emotion. Or, vice versa, they don’t have to look at something and thing, “Oh, that person’s got a lot of references! Very intellectual things happening!” A rich experience can be one or both, but it’s gotta be rich in some way. It’s like having a really good piece of chocolate cake: sometimes the icing is really good, and sometimes the cake is really good, and occasionally you get a piece of cake without icing and it’s the best thing you’ve ever had.

Me and Drew are really drawn towards the idea of making objects. I think we’re both not only interested in making objects, but in making objects that function only as those objects. So in that way, it’s not like we’re making something that is looked at and then needs to be interpreted. We’re making things that look like exactly what they are, and then people can interpret what they are on their own level. Drew’s work is a lot more corporeal. He deals a lot with body and desire. And I don’t mean just the physical desiring of a person or of a body. It’s more of a desire for objects and how disgusting and tacky that is. My work is more concerned with how the objects we have around us say more about who we are and what we deal as individuals than the things we talk about or make. The incidental materials are where all the meat is.

‘The Shape of Things to Go’ – polymer clay, styrofoam, inkjet stickers, etc. (2009)

For both me and Drew, I think we both feel that the work speaks for itself. The work has to come first, and by ‘work’ I don’t mean the work and the writing that comes with the work, or the work and the place that you’re showing it at, or the work and any other peripheral kind of stuff. ‘Work’ just means the work actually doing it and completing something, and having it be a work. It is an object that you spent the time with.

More importantly—and this is a thing that I think me a Drew both agree on—is that both of us don’t really believe in that notion of the mundane or banal. We also don’t really believe in irony. I know that with this kind of work, especially with what I do, it looks like that totally might be the case. But irony is stupid. The problem with irony is that it’s specialized language. In order for something to be ironic, you have to recognize that it’s ironic. If you don’t have the background to recognize it, it’s going to go right over your head. What’s most valuable to me is when people tell me what they think about work. There’s no right or wrong. What they say is generally more interesting to me. But if I’m trying to be ironic with something, then there’s this huge segment of people that are going to look at this and then the conversation we have is going to be missing something crucial. When people are listening to music and they have a guilty pleasure song, what they’re really saying is, “I just like this thing.” But what they’re actually having to say is that, “I shouldn’t like this because of some conventions that I adhere to, but I’m going to like it, so then I’m going to say I feel guilty about liking it.”

The other thing about the mundane and banal stuff: I use a lot of stuff that’s geared around models and games and everyday things, like junk food. When you talk to other reviewers, or people talking about art, it’s celebrating the banal or celebrating the mundane. But everybody’s life is mundane when you get down to it. That is already setting up some kind of hierarchy of information. I don’t want to separate what I do or my thoughts about something from eating shitty food or watching shitty reality television or playing video games. I guess me and Drew don’t feel there’s any hierarchy. There’s no division between what’s called high and low culture. The only thing that divides it is money. That’s unfortunate, but that’s how it is. But if you remove that money stuff, you’re left with a system of your own preferences. I always make things as if they are things I’ve wanted to have found somewhere. If you get right down to looking at what a lot of times people are talking about in visual art works, and the themes that they talk about, that is always the most ‘mundane,’ ‘banal,’ ‘boring’ stuff anyhow.

You’re setting up a challenge for yourself. You’re using objects in your pieces that are established in a vocabulary of consumerism and cheap enjoyment. You’re not making it easy.

I think one good thing about what I’m doing is that it’s not like I think any of the stuff I just said is actually important for people to know when they look at the work, because that’s my stuff and I’m not trying to direct people’s thinking towards any particular subject. As Drew likes to put it, art objects are just objects that are there to be considered. So having that in mind actually makes things quite free. I don’t have to worry that my point is coming across because people’s points are more interesting than mine. Part of the reason why I use hamburgers and a lot of junk food, like in that Unit/Pitt show, is also because they are very common points of reference. So in that way, yes, it is banal. But if someone is coming into it the objects are very common. That is not about celebrating the banal, but about using a language that’s available to everybody to understand. They’re archetypes. I like cultural theory a lot. I do. I love it. I think it’s very interesting and I think it’s very neat, but that to me is not really that important for people to know. And I also don’t really think that people should feel like they need to know that stuff to enjoy work. And I know that that’s not popular, because the whole gallery system…

Drives itself on the mind.


(untitled) – digital image (2010)

Your opening at Unit/Pitt was packed. People left one opening, probably having seen some very specifically conceptual work, and then when they reached your opening there was a palpable kind of relief, these beautifully constructed pieces that are so enjoyable to immediately look at. It felt fun.

It’s funny you mention that to, because both Drew and I like works that are kind of funny. We like things that are funny. We like laughing. Even though we’re not trying to make jokes, ultimately a lot of the stuff that we’re talking about—even the tagline of the Catalog show is “Pathetic solutions to pathetic problems”—I think that’s really funny. The funny thing for me additionally is that [the tagline] can also be “divine solutions to divine problems.” Most of our problems are pretty pathetic when you come right down to it. If you’re getting fed and you’ve got air and water and you’re not freezing to death at night, you’re problems are probably pretty pathetic on top of whatever else you’ve got to deal with. But at the same time, that’s not to devalue those things either. Our interactions with every little thing that we deal with is part of how we understand processes that are very complex and very deep. For me, I use the junk food because this is stuff that we have all around us. It’s really commodified. It’s not even really food. It becomes iconic. But that everyday stuff is kind of like a little gateway. We choose to attach something else to it, to have an association with it or an expectation of it, and as soon as you have an expectation of it robs it of its power to become available to you.

My whole plan is, how can I make work that is seen really quickly? I like work that is ingested really quickly. To me that is important. Especially at an opening. People aren’t going to sit around and look at the work. They’re going to be looking at each other and talking, and they might see the work walking through, and it might leave an impression. It’s like advertisement. The only thing I’m really selling, if anything, is a dialogue between the person who is seeing the object and themselves. In that way, even though I like to hear what people have to say, I’m much more interested in what they’re saying to themselves.

You have a book published, and you’re hoping for a second?

Yes, with the same publisher, Drawn and Quarterly. I’m also working on a book for Simply Read, a children’s book publisher from here. One of the reasons why people didn’t see me for so many years was because I’ve been an agoraphobic since I was seventeen. The last couple of years especially have been so much better. For a long time, social life was just non-existent. In lots of ways it still is. There’s still lots of things I can’t really deal with with a lot of ease, and it fluctuates. Working on books was nice because it gave me the comfort to be able to work on what I was doing without having to worry about it taking over. Also, I started working digitally a lot, too, because I had a lot of space constraints.

Do you have a direction for the next year, beyond the show?

After being out of the community for so long, coming back into this whole thing has been really interesting. I’m interested to see where it goes. If I could be anything, if there’s any goal I have, it would be to help be a catalyst for people to have things happen. Doing this kind of stuff is quite solitary. Working on it is very solitary. But hopefully through your friends and from showing it to people, that’s where you build something with it. In terms of concrete things, I think me a Drew feel this will not be the first and last show we’re going to do together. Both of us are probably going to look for individual shows, still. We both love this city. I’d like to stay here, if at all possible. I like the people that I like here quite a bit. I don’t really follow any discipline as classically as it’s presented. I just want to turn every discipline into what I need it to be, what would serve my interests, my preferences. For myself. If anything drives my instinct, perhaps its that. Perhaps, perhaps.


Love is in the Error, a show of works by Chris von Szombothy and Drew Shaffer, opens at Catalog Gallery on Thursday, February 9th, from 7-11:30pm. The show will remain up until February 26th.

All images courtesy Chris von Szombathy