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Tobias Tovera on the elements, alchemy & earth minerals

As international art consultants, Artelier specialises in curating art and feature walls for luxury residential, hospitality, yacht and aviation projects. Artelier's feature wall collection – Artist Walls –presents a collection of artists whose originality of ideas and dedication to their materials makes them true contemporary masters. Through collaborating with Artelier, they have created large-scale custom art commissions that reinvent the concept of the mural for the modern age, pushing the possibilities for feature wall art.

Tobias Tovera's artworks take inspiration from his deep affinity with the five elements – Water, Fire, Earth, Air and the Ether – and encourages the viewer to meditate upon natural processes. Using ideas of alchemy, Tovera transforms organic materials, such as earth-based pigments and mineral salts, into new forms.

His paintings and feature walls are divided into two bodies of work: Diffusion and Permutation. Diffusion sees Tovera pouring pigment onto the painting's surface, gradually accumulating complex layers of infused colour. In Permutation, Tovera burnishes poured materials by lighting them on fire, and finishes the painting with a variety of crystallised salts. While differing in materials, the two series of paintings share Tovera's fascination with the cross section between nature, art and consciousness.

Could you give an overview of how you develop your artworks, from beginning to completion? How different are the processes for your two painting styles, Diffusion and Permutation?

I pour all horizontal; it's based around the painting's material and how it interacts with the surface, how the material accumulates. In that way they're much like sculptures, more so than paintings or illusions; although oftentimes people see a geological reference in them, references to a macrocosm or microcosm. In terms of technique, there is a lot of experimentation. Often I'll use test panels to see which outcomes will be favourable, so that when I'm pouring I'll have the right reaction or the right kind of texture, or palette of colour.

With the Diffusion series, it is based on evaporation; similar to watercolours. Each layer interacts with the previous layer, and through this process of accumulation, the forms emerge in a way that becomes structured.

A detail of a painting from the Permutation series

Then, with the Permutation series the process of accumulation is similar, but the material transmutes through crystallization and oxidation. To create a Permutation work, I pour a solvent that oxidizes into the surface, I light it on fire to cure and burnish the paint. At the same time an ice sculpture with layers of saturated mineral and chemical acids melt and transmute into the painting's surface.

I then finish the painting with salt. I collect salt from salt ponds locally in South San Francisco, or a salt farm. After I collect the salts, I distil them and pour them into the paintings. There's a definite process of accumulation to complete both Permutation and Diffusion paintings.

A selection paintings from the Diffusion series

Considering the processes accumulating materials, how much time does it take in between layers and stages?

With the Diffusion series, being solvent-based, that would evaporate within an hour or two depending on scale. With the Permutation series, generally it's about a day per layer. I may spend months on those, if they're large-scale. It depends on the time of year and if I'm working outside, because the sun interacts with the painting and allows it to dry faster.

Therefore, the passage of time becomes a key part of the process. After each pour the art transforms into whole different piece. I prefer to work on a series of paintings simultaneously, which can be seen in my installations. I pour them at the same time and I install them as a series together, because each one speaks to the other and is in a relationship with the other. I have been interested in ideas of self-organisation, how a flock of birds move or how a plant grows; if I create paintings in a relative pattern, I am curious how that affects the outcome individually and as a whole.

Tovera performing a painting from the Permutation series

How do the processes of alchemy and transformation inspire your work?

Change and time have always been central to my art practice. I'm interested in combining elements to create new forms, I use processes where materials interact, change or transform. Alchemy speaks of healing and the movement between the elements. In my artist statement, I speak of transmuted states and energy systems, systems that break down and build up, as well processes with opposing forces: like chaos and order, ebb and flow, the hand of the artist and the material.

My interest in transformation was present from the beginning. In undergraduate school, I studied sculpture and was interested in the material object of things and accumulation. I had studied fibre sculpture in the textile department, and in working with the warp and weft I created matrixes that are about time and accumulation. From that, the different kinds of sculptures and installations I made were about capturing time. I was interested in creating a topography, or an experience of time, much like the rings of a tree or a geode.

'Aquifer' from the Permutation series

In graduate school I explored further and started studying alchemy and materials that metamorphose. I was working with iron oxide and different substrates and chemicals that create a reaction, which led to working with salt and exploring my artist's voice with materials that spoke to alchemy. It was from that that I developed my second body of work, the Permutation series.

In what way are the five elements – Water, Fire, Earth, Air and Ether – significant to working with your materials?