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?

It relates back to the foundations of alchemy. With the elements, there are relationships which are material interactions. When you look at living matter, you see all of the elements, and how it took those elements to make the simplest forms of the earth, and of human life.

When we simplify and deduce life to its simplest form, we see the elements and the beauty that is created when those elements are combined. That is the power of creation.

Since you use actively use fire in your Permutation artworks, setting alight certain materials, do its earthly processes inspire your work?

In my paintings, the fire element not only moves the paint, but it also burnishes. There's a kind of life and death, similar to the symbol of the Phoenix rising from the ashes. When I speak of the five vital forces in yoga, and how those different forces can move energy differently, fire is an element of change and transformation that brings life. In volcanic processes for example, the fire or core of our planet transmutes the physical earth and brings it forth into the air; it is the element that is the vehicle for creating a passage of energetic movement. In that way, fire is a very powerful element.

Water is likewise a fundamental medium in your work, particularly in the Diffusion series. How would you characterise water?

Water is the opposite of fire in spirit as is earth is the opposite of air. Water is the sacred value of life, it is a symbol for purification and healing. It also crystallises when frozen and when combined with salt, becomes another form. When my ice sculptures are melting, the water interacts with the surface in a different way. I find it interesting that water can take on so many forms, but can also be a vehicle and a carrier. It's a key medium for how it carries other materials in my work.

I think of water as being motherly, and fire as being fatherly. We see this in archetypes as well as in mythology. There's a female and a male archetype, creating a polarity; it speaks to the idea of relationships between things that are seemingly different, yet connected. Together they become a force for creation.

A selection of paintings from the Diffusion series

Does your artistic research and experimentation take you to interesting parts of the world?

Often I'll explore new materials when I'm travelling. On my last residency in 2019 I was in Iceland, and I was working with Icelandic salt and volcanic ash, and I was able to incorporate those materials into my paintings. I was also able to cast sculptures with local salt and concrete.

Working with locally sourced materials informs the process and speaks to the importance of place. With my voice as an artist, I feel there is a thread that runs through all of my work with similar concepts; and a similar aesthetic, or similar style. The forms are similar in the way that the shapes emerge, but the materials themselves are different. That's what I find really interesting, growing as an artist – the evolution of using different materials, discovering how they speak to alchemy, to consciousness, to nature. Right now, with all that is happening on our planet, it's really important for us to connect with nature.

Are you often inspired by the individual landscapes of the residences that you've been on?

I am – specifically in Iceland, there is this visual alchemy all around you. I went during the summer where there is mostly light, and you're able to see beautiful clouds moving around the landscape towards and from the ocean, giant clouds of mist and fog that are constantly shifting. Just driving through Iceland is like driving through a painting, it was absolutely stunning.

'Ocrea' from the Permutation series

Since the landscape is geothermal, working with hot spring water creates different textures, because it has a high mineral content with sulphur. It was exciting to work with Westfjord Icelandic salts as they have different gradients of gray. It was very beautiful to work with those materials.

The year before, I was in residency in Brazil, working in a tropical environment. I worked with different minerals and crystals that form in the caves there, the ocean water, and the different sands and earth material. I was casting material with papayas and then creating ice sculptures with those shapes. Brazil was also the first time I used the circle form for painting. I'd never worked with the circle, which was very exciting. I foraged many materials there, collecting them. Even here in California we have many hot springs where I collect water from the hot springs and incorporate them into my paintings.

'Gaia' from the Permutation series

Do you find it important to have that personal journey, to go and forage yourself, collecting many of your materials?

I find that's becoming more important in the work. Even when I choose something that is produced in a factory, I find out where they're sourcing their material. For instance, with the pigments that I use, I'm starting to look at where those pigments are coming from and the quality of those materials and how they interact. It is becoming more specific and integral to my practice.

I believe knowing where materials come from informs the viewer, and it informs the importance of the material – how those materials transcend or speak to the artwork and the composition, I find interesting. It gives more depth and more meaning to the artworks.

'Oceanus' installation, from the Permutation series

Tobias Tovera has collaborated with Artelier's art consultancy on numerous artwork commissions, and is included as part of our 'Artist Walls' collection – visit his dedicated page on our website here.

Artelier's art consultancy plays a fundamental role in all artwork commissions, and as the appointed art consultant for projects we bring artists and clients together to achieve forward-thinking and intelligently curated art installations. Discover more about Artelier's feature wall collection: Artist Walls.