Changing Subject Matter from Public to Personal, Sam Tufnell Puts Himself Front and Center

Sam Tufnell, Stormcatcher, Installation presented by IV Gallery, 2020. Volta, NY

By LAURA SHIRK, September 2020

While in lockdown, Sam Tufnell has been commuting weekly between upstate New York and New York City. He remarks that every day is the same, but every day is chaos. Considering the current global state, while there has been a genuine shift toward digital, diversity, and inclusion within the industry, as an artist Tufnell has experienced minor change. “We’re solitary creatures that tend to live in our heads, so creatively I’m thriving,” he says. Lacking a sense of community, the art world is establishing new ways of exhibiting work and engaging with audiences. With small crowds, no opening receptions, and crossed fingers, the artist believes that the galleries and grassroots will survive. 

During his first year at Bard College, Tufnell leaned toward sculpture as a medium because he liked its nature and physicality. Describing welding as his first true love within the medium, the artist explored a personalized approach. “Although I didn’t know a lot about contemporary art, I knew that I didn’t want to just zap these pre-formed pieces of steel like I was using some type of industrial hot glue gun. The blowtorch was my favorite tool, and I enjoyed the mark making of welding, which one usually attempts to minimize. I really wanted to get away from making steel look like steel,” he explains. Across multiple mediums, Tufnell continues to resolve the conflict between sculpture and monumentality and reject the art establishment. Because minimalism, pop art, and conceptual art have become not only formulaic, but also redundant, in his opinion, Tufnell knows when to let the material takeover from his head and hands. Looking ahead, the artist is interested in studying painting, which he deems is a more sophisticated form of art.

Sam Tufnell, Detail from Stormcatcher, Installation with IV Gallery, 2020. Volta, NY

In the early 2000s, Tufnell had the fortune of visiting Ian Hamilton Finlay before his passing in 2006. The poet, writer, artist, and gardener was in the process of legalizing his estate as a public temple at the time. By refusing to rely on scale, hanging cherubs in trees and weaving his work throughout his land in the form of stone tablets, Finlay strayed from making an archetypal American sculpture park in favor of a Victorian-style garden. As a result, instead of dominating the landscape, Finlay encouraged the viewer to explore the land and initiate discovery. 

After reading Dave Hickey’s critical essays on art and beauty, Tufnell started to build his Roses & Trees series to examine the notions and parallels of the two. In many ways, he wanted to create a steel garden similar to that of Finlay’s public temple. Portraying the absence of people, Tufnell aimed to present work without anything figurative and capture the character of a vacant space. Fast forward ten years, the artist wanted to move away from the romanticism of the concept and achieve an even more deliberate mockery. The answer: branding the gnome as his mascot for public art. 

Sam Tufnell, Still Life with 3 Rubik's Cubes, Resin, 2019. 12" x 24" x 9"

Until recently, most of the artist’s subject matter has been more about the objects that people leave behind rather than the people themselves. With the human experience and the presence of the everyday as recurring themes throughout his body of work, Tufnell’s Salvage displays the related topics in the most literal manner. The series consists of castings of real-life garbage cans, garbage bags and leaves found on the streets of New York. Trying to make poetry of trash and making sculpture about the landscape, he examined human waste and public consumption. Comparable to the medium of painting and the series of Salvage, Still Lifes challenges the preconception that a sculpture is often a singular object and conveys the relationship between objects. Based on pictorial sculptures, the series is an expression of the present consumer culture. Discussing the re-purposing of items and articles in new packaging, Tufnell shares that today’s version of a still life is more like a coffee table cluttered with Uber Eats. In some cases, we’re the product. Through metaphorical meaning, Tufnell elevates the types of things that are regularly tossed away.  

For most of his career, execution was a top priority. However, since the creative process often masks random opportunities that material(s) can pose, the artist’s “factory-like” workspace has become more experimental. Quarantine life has provided Tufnell the perfect excuse to turn himself into his subject matter. His reason for choosing to develop a self-portrait series: it doesn’t feel right to keep ragging on the rest of the world. Mastering the art of the mistake and focusing on the material (more than the concept), the work in progress and new sculpture series will feature his own head. Admittedly, he’s getting as weird as he wants to be and loving every minute of it. On the evolving agenda: experimenting with abuse of power on a social scale, including both forms of power such as surveillance and individuals in power.

 Sam Tufnell, Self-Portrait, in progress

“At this stage, I’m completely unabashed in my use of materials and processes. I don’t allow myself any restrictions due to some aesthetic concept that sounds impressive on paper. The studio is not a place for timidity. However, I also no longer rush to finish. A work is never really complete until it’s left my possession. I believe that a truly great work of art involves a passage of time in the artist’s thinking. 

“I want the viewer to experience a sense of freshness when dealing with familiar imagery. Art has the ability to break down profound misconceptions and I want the viewer to experience the same revelry that I do in the studio when I find something new,” shares Tufnell. Depending on the medium, he likens materials to musical instruments – you always want to choose the right one for the symphony.

Coming up, Tufnell is in the process of developing two new series that he’s planning to exhibit at IV Gallery in Los Angeles and 5Myles in Brooklyn. When the rules and restrictions of COVID-19 are lifted, head online or in-person for a depiction of people and power.    

For more, please visit his website:

And follow him on Instagram: @samtufnell. WM

Laura Shirk

Laura Shirk is a Toronto-based freelance writer known for profiling international artists and retail marketing campaigns. Currently, she contributes to CREATIV Magazine, Marketing Trendz and Duty Free & Travel Retailing Magazine. Her work has also appeared in Elite Daily, Culture Trip and Makeful. Connect with her on Instagram: @elleeshirk.

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