Engels the Artist

Artist Q&A with Engels the Artist

Engels the Artist is a painter who subverts the materials of a painting. Staples march across the picture plane. Wooden stretchers peek through raw canvas. Canvas is punctured, torn or shredded. The strict economy of line and texture, the use of everyday objects, and makeshift elegance recalls his grandmother’s home in Haiti, which against all odds had splendor.

In 2019, Engels the Artist had a solo show at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase New York. He has shown extensively in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. The National Museum of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Skoto Gallery, New York; FiveMyles Gallery, New York; Zane Bennett Gallery, Santa Fe; and others have exhibited his work. 

A monograph on Engels the Artist was published by Neuberger Museum of Art in 2019, and his work has been written about in Hyperallergic, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News

Engels the Artist works in Brooklyn, New York.

“Cotton Pearl”, oil on canvas, 60 x 40 x 8 in | 152 x 102 x 20 cm, 2017

Who is your favorite artist of all time?

I like so many artists from so many different periods. The impressionists and the artists of the Dada movement speak to me directly. The tenderness of Cezanne. Bob Thompson’s play on the classical and the raw. One of my favorite artists is Antoni Tàpies. His work is tactile. His used materials like string and marble dust. He grew up during the Spanish Civil War. He looked at destruction and made something sacred, tranquil. His work makes me feel like I am on a journey. It is transformative. 

How did you become a professional artist?

I did not get into art. Art got into me. I knew I was an artist when I was 11 years old. I grew up Port-au-Prince, Haiti with my mother, grandmother, aunt, uncle, two sisters, and two brothers. At the corner of my street, was the Cathédrale Sainte Trinité. Some of the greatest Haitian artists of the 20th century, like Philomé Obin, Castera Bazile, Rigaud Benoit, Gabriel Leveque, Adam Leontus, Wilson Bigaud, Jasmin Joseph, and Préfete Dufaut, painted the cathedral’s magnificent murals. I remember my sister giving me a bath when I was really little. She said, “Engels I will marry an artist,” and she did. That is how I knew how important art is. My brother took me to visit the great Haitian artist Jérôme. In Haiti, there was such reverence for art and artists. These are the memories that shaped me.

What are the influences and inspirations in your work?

I never attached to any movements in art or to any group. I did not go to art school. I am self-taught.

Solitude. Process. Life. Art is the only place on earth where freedom exists. No laws. No need to conform. No allegiance to anything. Always searching. Constant change. Possibility.

Music keeps me company when I work. Music holds memory and feeling for me. Edith Piaf. Toto Bissainthe. Sometimes I will listen to the same song, a thousand times over, until a painting is finished. When I am working, I do not feel that my feet are on the ground. The music is playing. I enter the work; we become one. I am floating. That is my inspiration.

Engels, portrait by Richard Numeroff.

How is your work different than everything else out there?

Above all else, I am a painter. Yet, my work tends to be three dimensional. I use color with restraint. It follows form. I set up a tug-of-war between the materials and what the piece is about. Sometimes the works are scarred and rugged. Other times, spare and elegant. My work has tension between life and death, fate and free-will, hope and wanting.

When is a piece finished for you?

I cannot control how the work evolves. I let the work happen. I expressed what I feel. A piece is done when my eyes go up, down, left and right with no disturbance. Nothing is foreign. There is nothing left to do. Then I stop. 

What’s different about your current body of work?

Early in my career, I used a lot of paint. Now I use less paint. I use staples or stretchers as paint. Sometimes I use the canvas itself. The canvas acts as the paint. The canvas is pushed forward. Backward. Crumbled. Stretched flat. I bring what is traditionally in the back of the piece—the humble materials that shape the painting—up front. Everything is flipped. What was hidden is now in plain sight. Equal footing. What is the purpose to hide the stretchers, the staples, the raw canvas? Or, I may play with the picture plane, use five stretchers instead of four. The expectation of a rectangular standard is there, but it goes awry. I may put stretchers in the center of the painting and have canvas winding in and out. There is no separation between canvas and stretchers, and paint and staples. There is no separation between back and front. It is fluid. That is the way I love to work.

What would you like collectors and curators to know about your work?

Sometimes people look at who I am and where I come from and expect my work to look a certain way or to deal with a certain subject matter. I cannot escape who I am. Who I am shapes my work. It gives it context. But, why should I paint a particular way or a particular subject matter? That is colonialism. I am part of the world. My experience is global. 

I am free to think. To question. To keep being surprised. The visual language may call and echo, but each work is its own thought. Otherwise, what is the point? 

Something happens over time. Experience. Maturity. The work evolves. It is a dynamic process. I am in it for the long haul.

“Rise Up”, oil on canvas, staples, frame, toy sink, and zipper, 25 x 30 in | 62 x 76 cm, 2020

Tell us about a few of your career highlights or moments that have greatly affected your career?

In the fall of 2019, the Neuberger Museum of Art held a 10-year survey of my work. The show was curated by Patrice Giasson. The show was accompanied by a monograph, the first of my career. The book is beautiful. Hardcover. 144 pages. When I learned that the book is in the library of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions, I understood that my work entered the dialogue of art history. 

What’s coming up for you?

I will go to the studio and work, just as I have for 30 years. And, of course, I am waiting for MOMA. 

What advice would you give to an artist just starting out today?

Learn to see. Trust your instincts. Work every day. Be consistent. Love what you do. 

Who are some of your favorite underappreciated artists that you don’t think get enough attention?

There are many great artists who have been pushed to the margins simply because of who they are, especially artists of color and women. I appreciate the work of artists who have worked for decades. Mastery takes time. I have always been a fan of William H. Johnson’s work. His visual language weaves modernism, African sculpture, and folk art. His work is deceptively sophisticated.

“Heaven Is Free”, oil on canvas, staples, tray and piano parts, 19 x 28 in | 48 x 71 cm, 2019

To learn more about Engels and his work, please visit www.EngelsTheArtist.com.