Michael Samuels

© Michael Samuels 2020

Art Monthly September 2012.
Michael Samuels, This Was Tomorrow, Spacex, Exeter UK, July 28th -September 15

Dominating the main gallery at Spacex is what appears to be a rather unlikely monument to 1960’s British living rooms. Reaching from one end of the space to the other, the tall, slender construction , comprising fragments of modernist furniture held together with G-clamps and ratchet straps , dramatically bisects the gallery. This is Tragedy of the Commons, 2012, Michael Samuels’ most ambitious work to date and the centrepiece of ‘This Was Tomorrow’, his first solo show in a UK public gallery. Yet despite its imposing scale, the work exudes a curious air of familiarity. Perhaps it’s the fragments of teak drawers and classic cupboard designs; or maybe it is the numerous hi-fi speakers or the Anglepoise lamps, which are hard not to read anthropomorphically. Above all, though, it’s homely quality can be credited to the human scale and the domestic , ergonomic design of the works constituent parts.

Continuing Samuels’ quirky investigations into the formal, material and spatial qualities of sculpture, the works in this show all utilise G-Plan furniture. Launched in the mid 1950’s by Donald Gomme, the aspirational G-Plan brand revolutionised British furniture , combining contemporary Scandinavian-style design with modern marketing techniques. Samuels’s approach to this now retro product line is to cut up, skilfully splice and reconfigure its cabinets, tables and sideboards to create complex, fragmented sculptures that embrace a visual unpredictability while revealing an intuitive inner logic.

The word bricolage is often bandied about in discussions of Samuels’ work and it could be argued that the artist has claimed the mantle of Kurt Schwitters. Yet Samuels’ modus operandi is not as close to Levi-Strauss’s conception of the bricoleur as some have supposed. In his 1962 book the Savage Mind, Levi-Strauss observes that bricoleurs approach tasks by reviewing the resources they have immediately to hand. He stressed that the bricoleur operates within a closed universe and that the ‘rules of his game are always to make do with whatever is at hand’. While Samuels may have previously made with whatever came to hand, his recent works comprise carefully selected elements deliberately sought out in secondhand furniture shops or on eBay. Thus it is perhaps more accurate to consider Samuels as an assemblage artist, one who, in the words of William Seitz, is concerned with ‘the fitting together of parts and pieces’.

Despite Samuels’ careful selection of materials, his method of construction is, by all accounts, decidedly ad hoc. Working without plans or sketches, the impulsive manner in which his assemblages are created imbues them with a performative energy, as evidenced by the three floor-standing sculptures in the mezzanine gallery. These precarious-looking pieces appear as if on the edge of collapse, almost as if Samuels had deserted them moments before completion. Metabolist, 2011, for instance, is a large, complex cluster of interlocking boxes and drawers balancing perilously on an occasional table. Nearby is Metronome, 2012, which appears to be modelled after an artist’s easel. A large, empty frame inlayed with blue LEDs balances on top of another occasional table while smaller frames, inlayed with different coloured Perspex, lie gathered underneath, providing some welcome equilibrium for the awkwardly top-heavy sculpture. The sense of temporality in these dexterous works is heightened by the artist’s consistent use of G-clamps, which suggest that current configurations may be subject to change at a moment’s notice. Samuels’s subtle use of coloured Perspex and blue light breaks up the monotonous shades of teak that dominate each work, revealing the artist to be an astute colourist as well as a brilliant formalist.

Seitz’s 1961 exhibition ‘Art of Assemblage’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York captured a certain spirit of art-making peculiar to the late 1950s and early 60s. Yet that spirit was soon displaced by new developments in art and the world ‘assemblage’ was itself jettisoned in favour of terms such as environment, performance and Conceptual Art. Samuels’s wall-based works, Die Fraktale 14 and Die Fraktale 15, both 2010, appear to hark back to that historical moment while also evoking the work of artists such as Moholy-Nagy, Tatlin and Schwitters. Indeed, in these dynamic assemblages which talk as much about painting as they do sculpture, constructivist influences are overt. With their retro aesthetic, these and other works in this hugely enjoyable exhibition seem to function as meditations on the passing of time, the nature of aspiration and even the status of the art object itself. Despite a constant push towards abstraction, objects such as drawers, table legs and other familiar fragments of utilitarian design are a constant reminder that abstraction is only ever possible in relation to representation

DAVID TRIGG is a writer and critic based in Bristol

Closet Cannibal

Michael Samuels makes abstract sculptures from vintage furniture that other folk might prefer to keep intact.

Words: Jane Szita, Frame magazine 2012

London –based Michael Samuels, who has a MA in sculpture from the Royal College of Art, uses furniture that was once the future – early mass produced modernist pieces fro the home , such as those made by G-Plan- to build architectural constructions that render the functions nonfictional and seem to reflect on past and present conceptions of domesticity . His works appear in the Comme des Garçons Dover Street Market stores in London and Ginza, and have featured in group and individual exhibitions

So why the obsession with modernist furniture?

For sometime I have worked with furniture. Initially it was used as an alternative for a plinth, but then I began to approach it as a medium in it’s own right. First of all it was 1960’s domestic Formica furniture and now G-plan. The Formica was all about the palette of colours and history.

You switched to G-Plan. Why?

After working with coloured Formica furniture for the 1960’s I was looking for something less colourful and a bit more sophisticated. The G-Plan appeals because of the tonal palette, within that the history and exposing the veneer and mass production of each piece. I was the first readily available modernist furniture in the UK and became a staple of British households. I like its simplicity and how it is very evocative of a certain period in domestic Britain

Where do you get the pieces from? Are they hard to find?

I used to run around second hand shops, but now I just spend an unhealthy amount of time on eBay. The world is your oyster on eBay

Who or what has inspired your approach?

No one really, unless subconsciously. I try to steer clear of looking for influences, or being influenced, in order to maintain some originality and a unique visual language. It’s easy to see too much these days, so I try to limit what I see.

What techniques do you use to construct your sculptures ?

I don’t really worry about that. Fundamentally it’s more about the aesthetics and whichever way I can achieve something without dwelling about permanence. Often the quickest and most direct way to achieve a structure is with the use of clamps. I find the more time I take the less successful the work becomes, so haste is the key.

Can you continue taking the works into new directions?

Absolutely. I haven’t even touched the surface and I am waiting for opportunity of a gigantic space to push it further.

You’ve got a long running relationship with Comme des Garçons. How did that begin ?

I got a polite email asking me to design a space for the London shop. They had seen my work online. In terms of commissions it’s very easy as there are few restrictions. Basically it’s ‘do what you like ‘ and we will help you. Since then I have done more work for them in London and their new Tokyo shop

Do you think you can continue working in this material indefinitely ?

I am always looking for new materials. In order to stay engaged with my practice I have to keep experimenting. I am not one for finding one particular medium and pursuing it for my entire life. The moment I get bored in the studio is when I know I have to move on.

Did you grow up with this kind of furniture?

Yes. I think most people who lived in the UK will have some recollection of G-Plan or something similar in their home. It was very popular.

How do people tend to respond to your works?

In all manner of ways. I enjoy watching people engage with them, but I guess it’s evenly split between people who like them and people who think “ oh no, what a waste of good furniture “. I am always interested in how people contextualize my work. Often what I see, is completely different to what some one else see’s

What are your pieces saying?

I’d like to think that they continue an investigation into abstraction and the pictorial plane. Using every day materials makes them more familiar, but essentially it’s about abstraction

Why choose such an inherently domestic material? Would office furniture give the same effect?

I always wanted to use something very domestic. I think it helps the audience relate to the work easier as a lot of people would have some experience of the material. Traditional sculptural materials do not appeal to me as they usually come with their own baggage and for me, being domestic makes it less masculine. Office furniture would not have the domestic appeal I am after.

You made a fabulous router shelf for Richard Hogg – any plans to do some functional furniture design for a change?

Richard is in the studio next door to me. It was a simple solution to a problem, and a bit of fun. As much as I like rendering functional objects non-functional I have no qualms about making some works slightly functional, hence the work with Comme Des Garcons. I like the challenge; I have always liked design and architecture, therefore this just furthers my practice and makes it a bit more limitless

Would you object to anyone using your art pieces as cupboards say?

Once they own it, they can do what they like. I am not precious

Art Review March 2010.
Michael Samuels, Villa du Parc Centre d'art Contemporain, Annemasse, France, 18 December-27 February

If you were to compress the space and furniture of an office in the same way that, say the French sculptor César once compressed cars, perhaps you'd end up with something approximating the works of Michael Samuels: a table overrun by objects, desk lamps inserted in drawers themselves fixed by clamps, the whole assemblage tangled up with various frames and boxes, or with built –in neon lights, or various disjointed platforms. These structures are, however, not damaged by a process of destruction which is indifferent to them, but are instead dismantled or carefully sawed by the artist, then finely glued, reassembled and condensed into slim structures. As with César's compressions, there is no question of utility here; what is present is the détournement and repurposing of objects that stylistically hark back to a similar historical moment, to the 1950s and 1960s, and the rise of consumer society, which would become the critical focus of so much of the Pop art and Nouveau Réalisme of the time. A bygone era is thus frozen in the elegant equilibrium of these dismantled furnitures. It's an equilibrium which is the product of human ingenuity that delights in the assembly of improbable form as a kind of precarious game.

In the midst of recognisable objects, colours start to become organised, between the contrasting surfaces of red, yellow or blue Formica, reddish wood and illuminated boxes, created either by a green bulb or by neon mounted under plastic strips. If the furniture's colours are deployed without modification, the lighting elements, by contrast, offer varying intensities, especially with the use of changing LED's. In all these structures, square and yet dynamic, it's easy to see echoes of the work of the Constructivists:Tatlin, Pevsner, Gabo, and Moholy—Nagy are evoked and replayed in controlled bricolages. If art history reveals itself through these various references, however, it does not cast a shadow over the homespun brilliance of Samuels's sculpture, made up of carefully selected objects gleaned by the artist from eBay.

Graphic, chromatic, abstract, these creations float in space without being completely detached from their narrative power and concrete presence, in which feet are to stabilise, lamps to illuminate, clamps to assemble. There's something here close to the world of theatre: it's as if stage set and backstage are both presented equally, special effects are part of what is there to be discovered and the actors are none other than ourselves, the spectators, who move around these sculptures, trying to understand, to enter into the story told by the structures themselves, as well as by the past story these objects contain. Faced with the inspired DIY, the viewer can only be swept up by the strength of this suspended chaos and a virtuoso momentum which is as surprising as it is elegant. Karine Tissot

Michael Samuels tests the boundaries and our preconceived ideas of objects and space, presence and absence and fiction and reality. Interested in sculptures formal language and its material presence, Samuels uses furniture sourced for its distinctive quality and appearance and reconstructs it through experiments in form, colour and placement.

Reconstructed and refigured, sliced and spliced, the new forms created by the artist are deprived of their original function. Rather, they take the form of monumental and playful structures fulfilling ambitions beyond their sole purpose. Tables balance precariously upon each other, formal shapes are cut from tabletops only to reappear elsewhere, table legs, free from their original role, pervade new territory, whilst other tabletops are united so that colours sit alongside each other forming contrived hybrid surfaces. In many instances coloured light and LED's are incorporated into the arrangements, so that everyday Anglepoise lamps sit upon dysfunctional tabletops casting carefully selected coloured light which at once infiltrates space and questions what sculpture can be.

In a similar move to the Deconstructivist architects Samuels questions the functional aspect of Modernist simplicity but also places the furniture within a new dislocated space so that the familiar is made strange; unheimlich, or unhomely. A further similarity can be seen with Scwitters Merz pictures - which can be read as the artist's own programme of displacement - or his later Merzbau installations. Like Schwitters work, Samuel's sculptures are juxtapositions of abstraction and realism and a balance between content and form. What at first it appears to be playful and instinctive decisions made by the artist are soon exposed as being carefully considered and conceived sculptures. The artist's most recent sculptures hold a significant presence, dominating the space, and in instances towering over the viewer, they appear both optimistic and precarious and are a triumph in composition.

Michael Samuels graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2000. He has exhibited throughout the UK, including the Millenium Galleries in Sheffield, The Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, Gasworks, The Pump House and the Djanogly Gallery and has been nominated for the Jerwood Contemporary Painters. Samuels has had solo exhibitions at the Architectural Association and this is his second solo exhibition at Rokeby. Internationally, he has exhibited in China, America and Europe; his work can currently be seen in Idylle at the National Gallery of Prague, later in the year he has solo exhibitions in America and Berlin. His work is in international collections including The Zabludowitz Collection and the collection of David Roberts. (Beth Greenacre 2008)

Erector Set

Michael Samuels' sculptures suggest barely visible traps and little pitfalls. Never played out as full-blown atrocities or spectacular disaster, his works nonetheless- as we approach them more closely- suggests things that might go wrong. Tables and chairs, balancing precariously, may fall. Or, in the earlier works, the seductive travel agent's idyll of a South Sea island. Soon leads us in the direction of discovering that Utopia may lack the means by which to feed us, or perhaps even the slight suggestion that we could end up as food sources ourselves….

This is not to suggest that Samuels' works are pessimistic or negative. Quite the contrary, they often have a joyful playfulness and wide eyes awe of a child, able to make extensive narrative fantasy out of basic matter. There is a way that his work as a sculptor is unabashedly geeky: the way he uses honed technical skills to nurture the maximum impact out of fairly mundane materials. It's not unlike someone's dad locked away in the secrecy of the attic, building the ultimate model railway. Michael Samuels' work is most definitely that of an artist whose ode to the unsung hobbyist is implicit. His work is dripping with admiration and appreciation of the rather beautiful human drive to make complex and elaborate facsimiles of the world in all its detail on a small scale. Or to knock up technically precise household furniture in a garage workshop. And, even if we argue that these activities share certain control freak elements with megalomaniac militarists- the model railway is not far from the battle of little soldiers- that are almost benign. There are few weekend carpenters or model railway enthusiasts who turn their hands to the production of weapons. The relevance of all of this to Samuels' work may not be apparent at first. In the main, we rightly understand his work- particularly the recent bodies of work that have eschewed the use of scale models representative elements in favour of working in a more non-illustrative way: as being concerned with the formal aspects of objects in space. His trop that's is less concerned with actually constructing a representation or narrative illusion as and end in itself and more with questioning the reading of various meanings attributed to sculptural forms within a space. Of course, narrative and representational elements are essential to this core area of research. Without constructing and experience that overly refers to recognizable contexts- domestic furnishings and common tools-those questions about the visual language of objects would be insufficiently evocative-too abstract- for the kind of questions he poses for the audience.

And yet, despite all the validity of this and the consummate skill with which he undertakes these more formal practices as a sculptor, Samuels' personal narrative preoccupations –these stories to which his psychology appears to default- are never far away. As is evident in the work itself, these are often funny stories. His humour, perhaps not ever truly cynical or twisted, still draws us into a kind of schadenfreude in whish we are asked to consider the collapse or unravelling of safe little realities. We are not asked to cackle the evil inappropriate humour of someone defiantly laughing in the face of God as millions of souls perish. It is the humour of Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. Instead, we are alerted to the possibility of domestic scale disaster as furniture topples somewhere in suburbia or a backpackers retreat to a tropical paradise turns out more like the story in Alex Garlands 'The Beach' (1996)

Perhaps it is pure speculative projection to look to London based Samuels' Australian upbringing. And yet, this work that shares certain commonalities with the narrative structures that we find in much of Australian creativity, particularly in film. It might be reasonable to say, for example, that the most powerful Australian creative products have often taken stereotypical aspects of Australian cultural identity- such as a certain geographical isolation, an outdoorsy suburban lifestyle or anti intellectualism- and subverted them with certain kinds of humour into something that become both impregnated with a distinctly Antipodean flavour, whilst finding resonance way beyond that notorious geographical location, so far from many more densely populated regions of the globe.

Samuels' works do have inherit qualities with the materials and motifs that we can readily see holding a resonance for such cultural narratives. The Formica and wood of the recent sculptures readily fit with the laid back suburban lifestyle that we understand form soap operas beamed around the world, complete with aesthetic qualities that denote practicality and perhaps even a preference for comfortable nostalgia rather than chic sophistication. The miniature car park in which a drugs deal might have gone wrong has more of a whiff of a deserted nighttime lot besides a suburban mall than downtown ghetto. And the picturesque islands on which ironic horror might occur are all too frequently the ideal destinations Australian travellers who are ambivalent in their denial of being stereotypes.

It is into this world that Samuels takes us and it is with in the lives of the people he encourages us to invent through the imagery of such work that his small-scale dramas or tragedies are introduced. In this, its shares a lot in common with the best of Australian cinema or fiction. Furthermore, again showing certain similarities with tendencies in other Australian art forms, it is exactly this tension between the modest, domestic scale of the tales told and the actual depth and complexity of experience related that the power of the work lies. Understatement as a means of addressing serious content, especially through humour, is present in Michael Samuels work in much the same way that it is in the works of Australia's most talented filmmakers. The little dramas played out on Samuels' islands have a quirky almost cute side to their humour: these are not really dramas that we should take too seriously. And yet, of course, they are. They are every bit as much about failure, damage and death as any dark Teutonic misery-fest. Underlying the laconic and non-confrontation al imagery, his are works that address exactly the same traumatic questions about human existence that other tropes address in far more angry or aggressive manners. This questioning or underlying morbid preoccupation, however, is far less evident or, at least, far more sublimated and dissipated in the more recent works. Toppling over, after all, is not necessarily as serious as languishing in starvation on an island surrounded by shark-infested waters. And it certainly seems that Michael Samuels is, for the present at least, turning his attention to questions sculptural rather than existential. Or, in any case, not in the very human sense. Existence - of the object in actual space and all of its tangential ramifications- remains at the heart of these new works.

One might even go as far as to say, the more recent body of work has become less about the potential for toppling over and far more about evoking a sense of joy and pleasure in remaining erect. These are works that elaborate the clever mechanisms and techniques by which the often-monumental piles of furniture remain upright, epic, proud and gravity- defying. They are much more about architecture and engineering, perhaps even making the linkages between these esteemed and import ant disciplines and fairly basic human drives for ordering and creating things from the grubby shambles of the natural world. The kid flipped in to a hyperactivity episode by the appearance of Lego or Meccano is, after all, an essential prerequisite if we are to continue to grow adult architects and engineers. The little gasps of cleverness at Samuels' precise cutting of legs or insertions of joints into the cannibalized domestic-looking furniture - facilitating that the whole stands almost illogically straight and stable- makes the links between the solutions that children learn to find with toys and the marveling respect that we feel when we see an architect do something clever and seemingly impossible with concrete and steel. If the possibility of collapse and failure are never entirely absent in the more recent work, they are certainly not one of the main narratives playing out in the centre of the frame as they often were in earlier works.

It is also perhaps testament to Samuels's skill and evolution as a sculptor that these new works can operate on various levels without overly elaborate explication. A friend, recently critiquing the work of a talented young painter said, "He has a lot less to do." Implicit in this sharp-eyed comment is the recognition that, as an artist develops, his or her restraint and editorial skills become an increasingly powerful strength. There is a way in which Michael Samuels' more recent bodies of works demonstrates that the almost obsessive narrative details that he used in earlier works, now having undergone a process of full exploration, are not required to address the topics raised by the newer bodies of work. Of course, the same level of craft is still there. But, like a much more experienced musician, here it is not necessary to dazzle with conspicuous trills and overt decoration. Bold blocks of colour used repetitively, replicated incisions of similar proportion or forms repeated in different scales all work as a sculptor's version of a restrained palette or minimal variation of form. As a result, the very precise and insightful discourses about aesthetics and composition actually made by these work s arrive silently, without fanfare. Samuels quite intentionally draws us in to a state of delight with the aspects of the work that are immediately and overtly clever. But it is only when we linger longer, that we realize that these sculptures are not nearly as incidental as they seem. If the initial experience appears to be about serendipity, it soon turns out that these works are entirely about a planned, constructed reality, By displacing our thinking through the initial reading of the work - the red herring that we are dealing with something that is almost certainly about domestic forms only- Samuels cleverly makes his more architectural points quietly. Only when our curiosity makes us spend time with the work to understand exactly how it was made do we undergo certain realizations. Like Todorov's theories s on the detective novel, the works run two narratives in opposing directions. We live out the forward narrative. Ours is the story of the audience investigating how the work has been constructed. And, in so doing, we uncover the backwards narrative, the story, unfolding in reverse order, of how the sculptor has made the work. With lessons learned as children, we take something apart in order to learn how it was put together.

It is only really at the point at which we realize this that we uncover Samuels' more subtle points about art and architecture. These are points, for example, that elaborate that although creativity may be driven by fairly prosaic and practical activities, they are, in them selves, never enough. Aesthetic choices remain essential. What makes one of Michael Samuels' sculptures more than just a cleverly balanced pile of furniture - or a beautifully designed building stand out from mundane practical banality- is insufficiently explained in purely pragmatic terms. An artist's or designer's choices must ultimately find that aesthetically pleasing space in which the whole adds up to more than just the sum of its parts. Rather than lecture or theorize on how one can achieve that, it ultimately needs to be delivered, the rules by which it stands or falls never entirely tangible or able to be definitively explained. Ken Pratt, Wound magazine 2009

Les sculptures et pièces murales de Michael Samuels détournent le mobilier en formica des années 50-60, matériau symbole de l'essor économique et social de l'après-guerre. Entièrement réalisées à partir d'éléments de mobilier de couleurs vives, récupérés ou achetés sur Ebay (tables, chaises, plateaux…), parfois augmentées de sources de lumière domestiques (lampes, ampoules…), ses constructions, entre merzbau et architectures totémiques, explorent les frontières entre objets et espace, présence et absence, abstraction et narration. Des pièces détachées issues de chaises, tables et autres mobiliers courants, articulées et empilées dessinent d'hétéroclites ensembles dont l'équilibre semble précaire. Des pieds de table détachés de leur fonction initiale flottent dans l'espace, des agencements formels faits de plateaux et tiroirs ne sont pas sans rappeler, façon recyclage constructiviste, le style des Tatlin, Pevner et autres Gabo, les agencements chromatiques d'un Laslo Moholy-Nagy.Karine Vonna 2009


A travers ses sculptures, l'artiste cherche à « taquiner » nos idées préconçues et tester nos limites entre objet et espace, entre présence et absence, fiction et réalité. Intéressé avant tout dans le langage formel de la Sculpture, M. Samuels a choisi d'utiliser, comme matériau de base, des tablettes en formica, extraites de mobilier typique des années 50. Chacune de ces plaques est étudiée en profondeur afin que l'aspect esthétique ne prime sur l'aspect qualitatif, et vice-versa.

Démantelées et découpées, reconstruites et reconfigurées, les nouvelles formes créées par l'artiste sont totalement dépourvues de leur fonction originelle. Ce travail est essentiellement basé sur l'observation et l'expérimentation poussée à l'extrême. Les choix et décisions prises tout au long du processus de création sont intuitifs et non définis par une esquisse préparatoire : l'artiste n'imagine pas sa sculpture terminée, avant d'en arriver à ce point.

Alors que l'expérimentation des formes données au matériau récupéré est poussée au-delà de ses limites, le choix des couleurs est, quant à lui, limité par la palette des teintes existantes, et parmi laquelle, l'artiste ne garde que les couleurs pastel. Pour contrer cette restriction imposée par le choix du matériau, l'artiste augmente ses possibilités grâce à l'intégration de lumière dans ses sculptures. Il utilise des éclairages à LED, qui, placés de façon judicieuse, génèrent la diffusion d'une lumière colorée, donnant, à chacun des tons de base, la possibilité de se décliner en de multiples intensités.

Si les sculptures « en-pied » de M. Samuels s'apparentent aux « Déconstructivistes » des années 80, pour qui les apparences visuelles sont caractérisées par une imprédictibilité stimulante, un chaos contrôlé et une opposition à la rationalité ordonnée, ses sculptures murales, quant à elles, se rapprochent des « cubistes » sélectionnant les facettes les plus pertinentes de l'objet déconstruit, introduisant des éléments de la réalité et détachant la couleur de la forme.Carole Levy 2009