With the ascendency of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, the popularity of the Outsider Art Fair and acceptance of artists like Daniel Lind Ramos and Jessi Reaves – who work with unconventional materials, – it cannot be denied that who was once outsider is now insider. Fitting this description to a tee, the multimedia artist William York explodes onto the scene. Honing an instinct for aesthetics and an uncanny ability to weave disparate elements fluidly, he works with deliberation and the freshness of youth. The idiom “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” couldn’t be more apt. Scavenging dump sites and abandoned warehouses littered with detritus, William makes swift work of orphaned bicycle parts, license plates, distressed luggage, television sets, apparel. He maintains that within the chaos of found objects spark the nexus of great storytelling. Preparing for two upcoming shows, he opens up about his life during and before lockdown.
VV.: What a delight to finally meet you! I first discovered you on instagram and became an immediate fan. On your profile, you’ve given yourself the moniker “Contemporary Street Bum”. Why is that? You’ve this amazing talent to assemble bric-a-brac and turn them into sheer poetry. It’s humble of you given the scope of your output and imagination.
I couldn’t help but think of Lucas Samaras and his wire-hanger chairs.
WY.: I’d say it’s a reflection of my lifestyle, and obviously part humour, because in reality, a street bum could have made these art works, as they are part inspired by people and places I have seen and known in Berlin. Whether they are punk, homeless or both, they tend to have massive hoards and live in ramshackle arrangements. Varying from overflowing shopping trolleys, to under-bridge fortresses and full squats of trucks, caravans and DIY wooden housing – it’s something along the lines of a scene from Mad Max – and this way of life fascinates me.
VV.: Let’s go back to the very beginning. Please tell us about yourself?
WY.: Sure, I am twenty-seven years old from Birmingham, England. My background started out as a fine art student, focusing on multimedia installations, video art and live projection work but [ I ] eventually got sick of working on technology-based art work so I started from scratch about three years ago.
VV.: How and where did you start?
WY.: I walked away from a sustainable career as a working artist in Leeds when I was about twenty-four (making video art) because I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. I ended up moving to Berlin to take a break from everything. After about six months of fun and procrastination, I started to get itchy feet so [ I ] started drawing. This led to tattooing, which in turn, led to painting. I quite quickly ran out of money when I got into painting despite making some good progress. So I took to the streets, something I had become quite familiar with; scavenging and rummaging. My first idea was to go and cut leather from old sofas to make a collage. This was possibly the most fun piece of art I have ever made and I was hooked instantly. On a quest for more depth and texture, I had the desire to work in three dimensions. I had never made sculpture before so [I] decided to start collecting objects. I thought as long as it’s not costing me any money, I have nothing to lose. This became [the] birth of my practice.
Sculpture with broken chair, blinds, light fittings, kitchen tap, drying rack and hay net cast in concrete.
VV.: Wow! Talk about cost cutting. You’re extremely efficient in that all you had to do was rummage to find materials and bypass the odious chore of purchasing materials! Oh, that collage were that easy!
Tell me, has the pandemic – if any – affected your work pattern or schedule?
WY.: It has affected my practice because I’m currently in England and my studio is in Berlin. I don’t want to go back for another month at least, but [ I ] need to collect some paintings for an upcoming exhibition. It has also help[ed] me make up my mind to decide to move back to the UK.
The current situation has had a very beneficial impact on my health more than anything and my motivation to work a job outside of the art world; I’m currently waking up at five a.m. to go and work in a warehouse. It’s very physical and adds a lot of structure to my day so I am actually enjoying it.
VV.: Is sculpture your main medium?
WY.: Mostly, although I still work on installation, collage and assemblage. I also started painting again just before the pandemic started, but with more synchronicity to my sculpture practice.
“I tend to go for objects that have a story”
VV.: Tell us about your process?
WY.: It varies depending on if there is a brief, a concept or an application. Once this has been decided, I figure out where I want to source my materials and what processes I need to apply.
VV.: How do you discern “good rubbish” from “bad rubbish”? Are you searching for something specific?
WY.: I tend to go for objects that have a story. They can be old, beaten up and sometimes older than me. I also assess the objects considering their age, aesthetic and obscurity, but it’s instinctual – when I see something, I know if I can use it or not.
VV.: Are your sculptures made of an amalgam of old and new materials or are they sourced from one single site? Do you have a favorite dump site?
WY.: I tend to get most of my material from the surrounding areas that I was living in. I knew a few spots so I would often go for a walk and haul my findings back. Every now and then, I would use a trolley or something, which is hilarious, because when people [saw] me with a massive pile of junk, I [would] get some very funny looks! [I assumed that they thought] I [was] a junkie or a crazy person. I actually revel in this, for me, it adds this performative aspect to it. It’s also nice when people see the final product. In the studio complex I was living in, people would wonder what on earth I was doing with such a pile of shit, and then, when I showed them the final product, they were either pleasantly surprised, or didn’t get it at all.
“People would wonder what on earth I was doing with such a pile of shit…”
VV.: Ha ha ha! Every artist has his or her detractors. Can you fill us in on the thinking processes behind the making of “Rauchen Verboten”, “BPX 1820”, “Ode to Lonnie” and “Found Object with Exhaust Pipe…”?
WY.: It’s not a complicated process. I feel like some objects really speak to each other, and either have harmony or dissonance. I make my work the same way that I cook; I see what I have in and I throw it together until it looks or tastes right. Moving forward, I will employ more foresight and experimentation in [my] processes, so [as] not to become a one-trick pony or [become] complacent.
Found Barrel Sculpture with Dog Chew Toy, license plate, pallet, fake flowers, rope, rusty tins, branches and fabric. Approx 180x120x120.
VV.: Sure, sure. How do you know when a sculpture is finished?
WY.: When it feels balanced. I also don’t like to overwork or overthink things too much.
VV.: Some of your work is quite elaborate. Do you have assistants helping you?
WY.: No, I work alone. Sometimes I have some help in handling from friends because some pieces end up quite heavy.
VV.: When I look at your work, I see hints of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley. Even Claes Oldenburg. Who are your influences?
WY.: I would say Nam June Paik and Damien Hirst really captured my interest and imagination as a young student. Then Robert Rauschenberg, Lonnie Holley and Anselm Kiefer inspired me to look at other artists working with found objects and ready-mades in depth. This has led to me finding out about so many amazing artists such as Abraham Cruzvillegas, Haegue Yang, Ibrahim Mahama, Michael Dean, Peter Buggenhout to Jessi Reaves, Judith Scott and Keita Miyasaki. There are too many to list to be honest!
VV.: Do you have projects in the pipeline?
WY.: I currently have two upcoming exhibitions that I am working on: “The Earth Eaters”, a group show curated by Camilla Cole of @cole_projects in London, and “Sifting through the commonplace”, an exhibition in Dublin with my friend Paul Doran.
“The Earth Eaters” was supposed to be at the end of April, but no longer has a date although it is still planned…when the time is right. “Sifting through the commonplace” is still set to open on the 20th August which is sounding hopeful.
I have never actually had the chance to meet Camilla in person yet, so I’m really looking forward to working with her and some of the other great artists included in the show…the model [for Cole Projects] is absolutely unique and exactly what artists like me need, so we have spoken briefly about working together after the show, which for me would be an absolute honour!
“You have to believe in yourself”
VV.: Incredible! William, you’ve covered so much ground in such a short span of time and have had quite a revolution. What advice would you give to an aspiring sculptor or artist?
WY.: Get a studio. It can be scary especially if you can’t afford it or if you don’t have a clear direction with your practice. Don’t worry about market or gallery trends. You have to believe in yourself and doubts are normal (for me anyway). Don’t lose any sleep over social media. Work for the sake of working and try lots of different mediums and processes. Most importantly enjoy making art!
VV.: Thank you for those wise words! I know you’re on to great things!