Sto Len is a painter, sculptor, and sound, performer-based in New York. Co-Founder of the famous alternative space Cinders Gallery in Brooklyn NY, he chose Vietnam after Japan, London, Australia, Denmark, Canada, and Mexico, to exhibit his last work ‘Water is life’ at the Vin Gallery in Ho Chi Minh City. Sto’s recent work on paper with mono printing, transform the tradition of Suminagashi, this noble art of Japan in the 12th century consisting of painting patterns directly on the surface of the water with water and ink. Renouncing to certain of these marbling techniques, Sto’s prefers to celebrate the nature’s chaos. Today Sto Len’s works infused in polluted waters give a textured and dimensional effect. The result is a combination of past and present, reflecting a large sensitivity, and a degree of abstraction coming from an obsessive observation and work.
Bliss Saigon – Sto Len, you chose Vietnam to carry out some of your research and to exhibit at the Vin Gallery HCMC, your last exhibition ‘Water is life.’ Did you find what you were looking for?
Sto Len: Yes, I did. I usually visit a place with a very open mind, allowing my work to unfold naturally. I’ve visited Vietnam several times over the past couple years and was pretty familiar with Saigon. On this trip, I really focused on the areas that are most polluted, and this brought me to many new places. I took cars, motorbikes and went on foot for hours and hours every day, walking along the water until I found material in the water to print with. I took time to each location to get to know it, taking photos and video, coming back over and over. I hung out near the fishermen, and I would cast out my paper into the water with a rope as if I were fishing. This created some confusion until they understood what I was doing. Sometimes they didn’t understand what I was doing, and that was ok too. Usually, I had an audience watching me, and I thought this was great.
Trash – Pic Stolen
Other times, I was alone, under a bridge while the busy traffic drove over me and I loved discovering that secret space as well. Eventually, I got a small boat and took it out on the water too, which was fun and quite challenging. Ultimately, I was able to create many prints for the show, and I had many adventures in Saigon exploring the water. I began to feel the water here really – its beauty, its importance, and of course its problems too. It was emotional and inspiring, and I’m moved to continue to create art about the water of Vietnam.
Bliss Saigon – Why this obsession with water? What’s your intention behind your work? What’s your philosophy?
Sto Len: Well, as an artist living in the world you become good at improvising and adapting, not knowing what is going to happen and being able to “go with the flow,” just like water. In my art practice, I have the same attitude, a type of trust of the intuition in my process. When I discovered water as an artistic medium about five years ago, it felt so fitting with my life. Plus I fell in love with the idea that I was collaborating with nature, which is to me the ultimate artist. We all have a connection with water though. Our bodies are about 70% water, and without it, we cannot live. The planet’s water system is similar, and yet it seems like people take it for granted. People continually litter or illegally dump, and a lot of this waste finds its way into our water. It has a larger effect than people think and I believe its an urgent situation.
As I began to work outdoors with water, I started to see how I could use my artwork as a voice to show my concern while maintaining a sense of poetry and mystery. Most importantly, I felt like I could create something beautiful with something tragic and I love this type of dichotomy. This work I feel like is essentially about the joy and wonder of water and nature, while also using something negative that humans are doing to produce something positive and spotlight our actions.
Bliss Saigon – Can you tell us about the process of doing your work? Why did you inspire you from the Suminagashi?
Sto Len: Suminagashi is an ancient Japanese printmaking process that means “floating ink.” Its how I started using water as a medium. You paint on the surface of the water with the ink and make a floating painting as if the water was your canvas. When it is finished, you lay the paper on top and create a monoprint. I started with Sumi ink and then moved to all kinds of oil paints, inks, spray paint, enamel, anything that I could get to float. I used inflatable swimming pools in my studio to create the canvas for these floating paintings, and I began to get more and more experimental over a few years. Eventually, it leads me to take a boat out into the waterways of NY and print off of the pollution floating on top. Its a very similar process to Suminagashi but it combined many of my other interests like being outdoors, exploring, and pushing boundaries of tradition. All of a sudden, my canvas was as big as a river!
Bliss Saigon – How do you view the concepts of the real, the hyper-real, the authentic and the imagined playing out within your works?
Sto Len: Well, the work is real in my mind because it’s honest – what you see on the paper is was what was floating in the water at that time. It’s almost like a photograph of that moment, but there is no fakery, no computers or Photoshop used. It’s not photorealistic, or in the way, I think you mean “hyper-real.” It’s abstract, so it’s not meant to convey a specific image however the imagination of the viewer always sees things. I love when people tell me they see a face or a woman or a horse or whatever – it’s great when viewers discover those things and they are always right. The material is authentically real pollution however and whatever you may see in it does not change how it was made. So, I guess its operating on several levels at the same time.
Bliss Saigon – Sto, You are a painter and a sculptor. What’s for you the difference?
Sto Len: Well, I think painting for me is mark making. However, I want to make the marks, whether it is with a brush, a stick, some mud, trash or some oil paint. Sculpting I think means all the other stuff I do. For Water Is Life, I created a Funeral Boat Altar, which was a three-dimensional installation with an actual boat, candles, fruit, ghost money, etc. I don’t like to be labeled as just a painter or a printmaker because I like the freedom to do other things too. When I create my sound performances, it’s a type sonic sculpture where I interact with real objects to create sounds. I’m not so interested in labels though, so I don’t really think about it too much.
Bliss Saigon – You lived in the USA and was Co-founder of the Alternative Cinders Gallery in Brooklyn New York. Can you tell us a bit more about that period? Does living and working in NY influenced your work?
Sto Len: Well, I have lived in NY for about 18 years, so it’s a big part of me, of growing up, and creating art. I started Cinders Gallery in 2004 with another artist, Kelie Bowman, because we wanted to see that type of artist-run space in NY. I did not intend to run a gallery, but I did it because it needed to happen! I did not feel like there was an art community that I could be a part of in NY and with so many great artists around, I felt like we could create it, and we did. The gallery had a space for about seven years, and it was a huge thing in my life. We curated over 100 exhibitions, had performances, sold and made books, and created prints with some of my favorite artists. It was more than a gallery though, it was a real community space where people could meet, hang out, experiment, and support artists they really loved. And the art was really good in my opinion. There was no elitism or pretension, and the people who came to our shows were amazing people that I loved seeing and hanging out with. I learned so much by working with artists I admired and doing every job, from janitor to the curator. That was a special time in NY, in Brooklyn specifically, and it’s a time that cannot be recreated and I’m very cool with that. Nothing lasts forever but that time influenced me deeply. The power to create space for people is deep. NY will always be a part of me, even if I’m thousands of miles away, it’s in my caffeinated bloodstream. But NY suffers from a big head, thinking it’s the center of the world – it’s definitely not. I love being reminded that when I travel when I see amazing things happening elsewhere, it’s inspiring and important to me to find that, to try to be part of a global conversation. That’s the future.
Bliss Saigon: Today, what is your favorite Art gallery there and why?
Sto Len: Hmmm, that’s a good question. I don’t really have one.
Bliss Saigon: They say if you could be anything but an artist, don’t be an artist. What career are you neglecting right now by being a full-time painter?
Sto Len: Haha, probably a photojournalist or a cafe owner by the sea.
Bliss Saigon: What piece of your artworks would you like to be remembered for?
Sto Len: Anything. I mean, if someone remembers one thing I did when I’m gone, then I’ll be happy from beyond the grave. That’s success.
Bliss Saigon: Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or collaborations?
Sto Len: Water is Life at Vin Gallery in HCMC is up until January 6th. We are doing some fairs this year together, and I’ll post that info as it all gets confirmed. Cinders (which now does occasional curatorial projects and operates an online store) is curating a bookstore booth at the Art On Paper fair in NY this March 2018. I’m going to be printing the waters of Spain this Spring, and I believe I will be back in Vietnam this April 2018 for a special performance event. More details are coming….
Sto Len | Water is Life
1 December 2017 to 6 January 2018
Vin Gallery, 6 Le Van Mien, Thao Dien, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
You can follow Sto Len on Instagram: @stoishere
On his website: HERE
Vin Gallery: HERE
Art on paper fair: HERE