Permutation on Iron
Tobias Tovera’s paintings inhabit a netherworld between nature, art, and science, by turns evoking mother earth, the cosmos, and inner dream worlds. A spiritual seeker who finds inspiration in mandalas and geometric symbolism, the organic quality of his work has a tranquilly meditative effect, like a sunset or swirling tide.
A sculptor by training—he earned a BFA from California College of the Arts and studied in the master of fine arts program at the San Francisco Arts Institute—Tovera does not use brushes or traditional paints. He creates his images with his own self-taught alchemy, mixing earth-based pigments with mineral salts. Poured horizontally in multiple layers on wood panels coated with iron oxide, chemical interactions between various elements spontaneously create his colors through oxidation. Variable rates of evaporation and different patterns of crystallization and oxidation create layered graduations of texture, color, and space. A single painting may take six months to complete, becoming a topography of the passage of time. Although his approach to painting as a sculptural process has elements that seem random, Tovera carefully experiments to control his materials. “I create test panels, and really there are three or four reactions that I see; different mixtures produce different results,” he explains. “Some surfaces become shiny, some are matte. After months of working on it, I come to a place where I feel it’s complete.”
The unique sources of his natural elements also play a role in the final form of a painting. Tovera has used water from San Francisco Bay and local rivers, and collected minerals from salt flats in the South Bay area. “I like to use new elements in my work. An artist donated her ashes for me to use in a piece, and it was interesting to see those textures emerging. I’m working on an installation for a client in Sebastopol, California, and I’m using water from the aquifer on the property. I’m documenting the whole process, and for the collector this experience is a part of the artwork.”
As a sculptor, his work has primarily focused on installations, and earlier this year he staged a three-month performance installation of his painting process at the Peninsula Museum of Art. Once a week, Tovera poured layers for a single large-scale painting, as a hanging vessel dripped Holy Water and Bay water onto its surface. Using solvents, he lit the surface of the painting on fire. Audiences watched as the painting transmuted from one form to the next, an experience that plays with ideas of finding a space between the spiritual and the physical, and of capturing time, he says. “It’s about peace and nature, time and serenity, but also the notion that we’re in control, but we’re not. The idea of working with iron is that it will continue to change, salt formations will continue to crystalize; it’s a living thing.”
Tovera says he feels an emotional connection to his art, and finds peace and happiness in his work. “The process allows me to get out of my head and to be in the moment—it’s a kind of mediation, not so much described as felt. I think the way that the world’s moving, it’s important to create art that brings people a peaceful or spiritual experience, and I hope my work does this.”
Tovera’s work is currently part of a group show at Bass & Reiner Gallery, 3265 17th Street in San Francisco. The exhibit is on display through January 3, 2015.
Review for 'Art Voices' Winter 2014 Issue
These Hands and Eyes are not Two
Cosmic/earthen; ritual/performance; movement/stasis – binaries productive in contrasting two modes, two things (experience, space, identity, systems of belief); yet what is oftentimes overlooked in such a scheme, that is, the binary, is the place between, joining the two. What might happen if we were to cultivate entropy, at once a fusion of the cosmic and the earthen, the territories, places and non-places that germinate in a region neither here nor there?
If such a fusion were rendered visible, it might be through Tobias Tovera’s Permutation on Iron series – an effort to capture a “third space” that knows not one, or the other – a space of synthesis where the monolithic and micro collide, intermingle, copulate. From the starting points of alchemy and meditation, Tovera mobilizes “living media” (tree/animal/human ash, fire, minerals, solvents and pigments) towards a birthing of this thing, this “third space” unencumbered by totalized demarcations of separateness. Truly, and if alchemy, on the one hand, draws forth minerals and components from “here” and transmutes them into “there,” the act of meditation, on the other hand, exists outside of “here” and “there” (outside of time). Yet, on another hand, through a fusion of “here,” “there” and “neither,” a third process is brewing: mutating and transcending :: transmutating and trans-meditating – a “diversion of life […] that passes between organisms,” a strange energy, a life, thriving on the ebb and flow between two (or more) things, “free action and swirling; it is inorganic, yet alive, and all the more alive for being inorganic.” Yes, inorganic life, in the way of Deleuze and Guatteri, or better yet, for Tovera, (in)organic life – and, for Permutation on Iron, a drive-force via the intra-interactions of the work that spawn a thing and things within the four corners of their habitation.
But let us stay here for a moment, on Tovera’s use of the four corners, a shape that is not so much of a square, but a quad-circle, a quad-oval, a pointed sphere – like Navajo or Tibetan “mandala” sand paintings, the four beyond the two, emblems derived from the earth to evoke the infinite: a spiral? A vortex? A brain? Yes: these things, working towards a piercing of bone, flesh and sinews threaded between fusions that breathe the same breath in the present and from times primordial, four: an all-encompassing wholeness for Western/Eastern traditions; the mandala: a link to the primordial, to the now and to the next, a geometric shape that spins and ungulates, regulated, contained, chaotic – an (in)organic genus dancing atop geo-asymmetry, beyond the four: a strain of this reaching towards the unseen. But where, exactly, and at what instant does the (in)organic begin to hemorrhage into infinity for Tovera? Can it be within the reaching, double-arms of Spirillum? The floating, hovering red smoke of Nimbus? The blooming stamen-eruption of Thallus? Yet again… the avertical blood ritual of Marrow I and II? Or… the globular green organelles of Pyrochlore? Inside these things, living, breathing, bleeding – transmutating inasmuch as they have transmuted themselves? It could be, but the infinite will nonetheless haunt this space, reminding us that we are living between the grand, and the infinitesimal – between Tovera and these things.
And, it must be said: Tovera’s paintings are not things “that happen” at a given interval of time, completed, hung, sold and “done.” While such an interval may be of an exhaustive sort, as in the case of the 6-month labor of Pedogenesis, the growth, expansion and “completion” of Permutation on Iron never reach finality. Yes, Tovera’s creations – but a point is reached where his intervention can no longer sustain before the words “it is finished” or “it is done” are uttered. His paintings, living, oxidized, continue to expand beyond the instant where he relinquishes his materials to infinity fully aware that these things do not begin or end with him. Like those artists that might be grouped within the “process” milieu – Eva Hesse, Barry La Va, Richard Serra, Chris Drury, and Hans Haack, to name a few – Tovera’s concern does not reside with “end products” or “end states,” rather, the systems of formation that continue to divide long after he has left the studio, a process that activates in the midst of his absence. And if it is offered (if it is entertained), the questions: at what point does the artist sever his union with the work? At what point does he accept that before these things are mine they are possessions of them-selves? Of the infinite? And in this manner, what, really, is the role of the artist-as-interventionist? Yes, a guide, an ally – but a thing, too, in a long pathway of things reaching in the directions of the primordial and frontiers not yet seen? Zigzagging, “here,” “there,” and “neither” beyond the four corners like the yellow rhizome of Ruthenium or the ever-widening and always opened mouth of Algarite? In fact – maybe? Nevertheless, “mutation, in other words, implies an ongoing, autonomous process of change – a process that is not ‘ours’ because it necessarily involves a degree of randomness: which is also to say, because human beings cannot easily predict or control it.”
While by no means, is Tovera’s work wholly “random” – his paintings are intricately planned-out modes of motion, mediation, medium and mapping :: mixtures, trajectories, pourings, and triangulations; still, when it comes to the living nature of his media – lives capable of morphing into and through a variety of forms, unknown to the looker or Tovera – there is a mutation: randomly transcoding atomic compositions and bodily forms, invisible – elements that interact with each other upon the event of Tovera’s interaction with them. We cannot see such intra-interactions or predict them, yet feel them all the same, underneath like an active virus or bacterium, or an elixir running steadily through our veins. A case in point? Surely – for Hermetica: a three-month performance installation Tovera engaged weekly at the Peninsula Museum of Art (Winter 2014) where the routes and methods of fusion, entropy, (in)organicism, alchemy and meditation became tangled inside a mechanism of planned randomness. The audience, watching. Tovera, pouring – using living media, but this time with the new lives of holy water and bay water. Again, fusion: pure/toxic, vitalism/poison. The audience, watching, Tovera, pouring, with a white vessel installed above dripping the holy/bay water intermittently, splashing in an unregulated flow atop freshly applied minerals and solvents. The drip, the visible / interrupting Tovera’s performance whilst contributing to its inception, dripping into the fire (beyond the mandala), speckling the grounds below – a space beyond the infinite, it we should fantasize: the hyper-infinite. Dripping, dripping, dripping… “dripping,” the sounds sung by Hermes Trismegistus echoed through the vocal chords of water and retinas. What can be controlled, here? What can be surrendered to infinity? What is “ours,” in this case, or “Tovera’s”? Is it the water, dripping? The audience, looking? Or the intra-interactions of the living media?
Perhaps some, or none. Still, Tovera’s work will seek-out that middle space, the third, “like scavenging in a tide pool for the small, speaking objects that are briefly revealed there before the water rushes in again.” This, after all, is fusion, where my body becomes indistinguishable from yours; yet re-formats and segregates itself, like oil and water, as quickly as we collide. But if it was possible to take a snapshot of the collision, to unlock that brief, radioactive instant – there would be a vision, yes – forged with hands versed in the ways of alchemy, meditation and alloy. It would be in a different space, in a fissure – with glimmers, shadows, whispers, and waters. And in proximity, you may see Tovera, in meditation.. In presence.
Review for 'Hermetica' 2014
Driftwood and ocean waves and clouds gathering against the sky. Fiery sunsets you pull over to the side of the road to watch. Tobias Tovera’s paintings evoke these natural phenomena without overtly representing these subjects. And like the sounds of water or the sight of a sunset, his paintings are meditative and tranquil and soothing. But that’s not the end of the story.
Tovera’s work avoids the traps associated with idealized depictions of “nature.” Nothing is grandiose or romanticized, unrealistic and therefore off-putting. By merely mimicking the forms, patterns, and colors found in nature, his work operates on the level of reminiscence. Crimson layers like petals bloom from a glowing yellow center in Inner Space, conjuring thoughts of both exterior and interior landscapes. In Outer Space, aquamarine and blue spread outward in concentric ripples. It triggers something—a sky at dusk, the inky depression of a tide pool, the cross-section of a tree. The artist doesn’t force the viewer into these interpretations; our minds are left to wander and search through previous sensations for a match. We take the work on our own terms.
This open-ended quality also characterizes Tovera’s process, a tender balance between his will and his materials’. The artist chooses colors and controls the portions he pours onto the wood surface. After that, the wood decides how the pigment will evaporate, where it will permeate and dry into layers, where it will build up into patterns of rich color. Unlike the abandonment and exuberant splashes of Jackson Pollock, who dripped and dropped paint onto a canvas, Tovera remains self-aware throughout his application. If he bears resemblance to any Abstract Expressionist, it would be Mark Rothko, whose color field paintings were infused with a sacred hum. Tovera brings a reverential awareness to his artistic process, embracing the moment when the paint leaves his hand, ever-conscious of and fascinated by the disjuncture between his intentions and their manifestation.
This attachment to process aligns Tovera with a diverse group of painters currently working in and around Los Angeles, dubbed the “Flow Painters” by Peter Frank in a March 2008 issue of art ltd. The informal group’s work is united by a shared interest in and embrace of the paint’s physical qualities. Writer Frank connects this process to Eastern systems of energy, writing that “the equilibrium that flow painting maintains between the hand of the artist and the nature of the media employed—and especially the balance that must be established between what is intended and what is achieved—finds its most vivid model in the Eastern comprehension of the flow of energy.” This description certainly rings true for Tovera, who, in addition to being an artist, is a student of meditation and Eastern energy work, and his work is permanently installed in therapeutic and leisure environments, such as spas and hotels.
But his work also shows in art galleries, and it is in this latter environment that Tovera’s abstractions are particularly intriguing. His work’s organic quality—the sense that his paintings are natural organisms rather than depictions of such organisms—highlights the similarity between our expectations of “nature” and our expectations of “art.” We look to both for an aesthetic charge, a sight or sensation that will provide us with a sense of connection. By beholding something whose beauty is universally irrefutable, we feel a part of the whole. Increasingly alienated from our capitalist society, we seek out the aesthetic as a soothing balm.
That’s a complicated way of saying this: We expect art to give us a sense of connection to the world and ourselves. We expect nature to give us the same thing. Tovera’s work, in its embrace of entropy and fluidity, its references to and imitation of the natural world, plays on this parallel set of expectations. Are his paintings nature or art? Maybe they are both.
Review for the Micaela Gallery exhibition catalog / 04-09
The Medicine of Space
Tobias Tovera’s exhibition at the Melting Point Gallery features four powerful works that also function together as an installation exploring themes of life and death, religion, medicine, healing and consciousness. Creating an environment that at first glance might be mistaken for Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory transplanted to the bowels of a Masonic lodge through using a range of materials from hospital equipment, to sound recordings, copper, moths, and even a pew, Tovera links the physical and man-made world to the spiritual one. The resulting aesthetic although immersed in the traditional, occasionally mystical, past, is clearly aligned with the technological present.
Tovera’s exploration of medicine’s unquestioned power in today’s society is most evident in The Progress of Life & Destruction (2002). Secreted behind a hospital screen a gurney supports a sheet of copper onto which saline solution drips continuously, the oxidization promoted by the salt creating a verdigris patina over time. A metaphor for the absent body and a healing medium in itself, the copper glows in the light of the operating lamp evincing a seductively soothing quality. Its dual nature recalls both the floor sculptures of Carl Andre and works by Chen Zhen who, sharing Tovera’s skepticism about the faith placed in intrusive Western medicinal procedures, posited a return to traditional Eastern remedies, based on the belief that the entire body, rather than just the locally affected area needs to be treated.
A cautionary element is again manifest in the more recent Custodian of the Law (2005), which also exemplifies the invitational, interactive element that Tovera uses to great effect in fostering an exchange between artistic space and the observer. A highly polished kneeling pew, a sculpturally beautiful object in its own right, faces a light box depicting the all-seeing eye, here digitally manipulated by the artist to sit atop the unfinished pyramid. More familiar to most as the reverse of Great Seal of the United States printed on the dollar bill, the individual elements of this symbol have long held a place of great importance within the Rosicrucian and freemasonry traditions. Referencing both materialism and religion, Tovera juxtaposes the secular and the religious to explore the intricate, and often paradoxical, relationship between the material and the spiritual. Whilst the Masonic devices represent constructed theologies and secrecy, they exude an inaccessibility we face also when trying to comprehend the tenets of medicine, for example. In this particular case, however, the patient would seem to be society and the illness a crisis of faith.
References to religion, or spirituality, continue throughout the exhibition whether in the video triptych, Relocating the Center of Gravity (2004–05), an exploration of the divided self, or in one of the audio components of Knowledge Spins Where Larva Once Formed― a professional hypnotist’s voice subjected to a triple-reverb shift, that takes on the echoing intonation of a minister’s pulpit sermons. Indeed, the audio rhythms act as a counterpoint to the somber gravity, not without beauty, of the works, and also emphasize the life and death cycle. In Knowledge, particularly, we are inescapably faced with our mortality in the form of a lunar moth transfixed inside a light-box for eternity, its compressed lifecycle, a mere 24 hours, comparable to the passing of our life cycles within the greater picture.
While his ultimate belief in healing through connecting to the spiritual aspect of people and the world marks Tovera as a shaman, the artist steers clear of any attempts to proselytize or convert. Rather he seeks to draw attention to the disjunct that exists between the spiritual and the material, the individual and society, interior and exterior, the subconscious and the physical, and the alienation we may feel from those things most intended to give us succor and relief―religion and medicine, for example―suggesting we trust instead to ourselves for answers.
Review for the Melting Point Gallery exhibition catalog / 11-05 / p.1-2