South African artist couple Angus Taylor and Rina Stutzer’s home and studio outside Pretoria, at the foot of one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, invites inspiration from nature as much as it seems like a sculpture in its own right.
Angus Taylor and Rina Stutzer are an absolute force in the South African art world. Not only are they both well-respected artists in their own right, but they also run one of the country’s most advanced sculpture studios and foundries, Dionysus Sculpture Works (DSW), which casts a good number of the country’s most respected South African fine artists including Deborah Bell, Joni Brenner and Norman Catherine.
Angus has created some of the country’s most recognisable large sculptures, often combining materials like bronze, steel and stone, although he works with more ephemeral materials such as rammed earth or packed thatching grass, too. Sometimes stacked stones in the form of reclining giants evoke some of man’s most ancient interactions with earth.
He is probably still associated foremost with his figural work – usually male figures, hard to define when it comes to age or race – that engage profoundly with the tension between permanence and the transitory nature of human life. At first glance they might even appear to be made after quite a traditional idiom, but he has always subverted any notion of the monumental bronze statue by putting them in the context of ancient and, beyond that, geological timescales embodied in particular varieties of carefully selected stone.
Although Rina also spends time at DSW in a role that involves broad creative input and implementing core changes on various projects, as well as work on her own large-scale public sculptural works, she is perhaps best known as a painter.
As a counterpoint to the fire and the noise and the heat and the primal energy at DSW, Angus and Rina’s studio at home represents a more private, reflective space where a sense of tranquillity and connection to nature allows ideas to germinate.
Their home studio is an extension of their house just outside Pretoria, designed for them by local architect Pieter Mathews (Mathews & Associates Architects) and built by Angus. It is almost a sculpture itself, clad in granite offcuts from one of the stonemasons Angus works with. In fact, Pieter has said that he drew inspiration from Angus’s sculptural works, incorporating materials that are bold, raw, and honest, so his plan and Angus’s interventions work together harmoniously.
The studio’s enormously high doors – suspended from above and trundled aside on wheels cast from an original Angus found in an antique shop – make it seem almost like a modern interpretation of a tower or even an ancient stone structure like a cairn. In its tactility and earthiness, as Rina puts it, the granite “physically grounds or anchors the studio as the cornerstone of our life”, but at the same time its volume and openness gives it an airy, open quality. With the doors wide open to the semi-indigenous garden and ‘veld’ next door, natural light pours in through the skylights in the concrete roof slab.
“Its ambience changes constantly,” says Rina. “Sometimes birds and bats fly through.” She names Cape robin-chats, speckled pigeons, Cape wagtails, house sparrows and Cape serotine bats among those that “brave it into the studio’s interior”.
“During and after dusk the duets of the spotted eagle-owl and often the murmur of bush babies is audible from the trees surrounding the studio,” she says. “Perhaps the large entrances allow nature as visitor into my mind, my ideas, and into my being. It’s as if the muse is visiting. I treasure it.”
Currently, this studio is where Angus and Rina make maquettes and armatures, and where some of the smaller-scale preparation and finishing takes place (and, of course, painting).
Dotted around the studio are one-fifth scale models of a 5.5-metre high faceted stainless-steel representation of Africa that Rina is working on for a large commission. It’s here that she’s honed its shape and polished its surfaces.
“I work down the plaster, then a mould is taken of that and cast in metal,” she explains. “There are many layers of cleaning up to get those crisp edges, and the flat facets, so that the structure and surfaces show the desired refinement.”
Although there are parts of the process that involved computer-aided design, all the models were first made by hand, which creates a rhythm and balance that would never have been possible with an algorithm alone. “This process incorporates or welcomes a degree of human imperfection compared to the sterility of computerised hyper perfection,” says Rina.
She adds that her work usually involves “grime, patinas, ruin” and the transformative potential of decay, and that the shiny, geometric perfection of this work is something of a departure for her. “I looked at the idea of us looking at ourselves, and Africa being self-aware,” she explains. “That’s why I went specifically with mirror-finish stainless steel. That’s why it will fragment and scatter and multiply.”
Angus, too, works and reworks sculptures here. When we visit, it’s a stainless-steel sculpture, the body of which he’d already cast and finished.
He planned to carve the head from haematite, but decided first to sculpt it from clay and cast it in plaster before carving the final version in rock. He points out that haematite is more or less 68% iron, “which is what the stainless steel is mainly made from, so there is a direct relation between the stone and the cast metal”.
But it’s in the space of this studio that it’s clay features are shaped by hand, gradually built up and scraped away before it’ll be cast, and the rough work done on the stone by his assistants before he settles down to do the finer work himself.
Given the setting of their house and studio east of Pretoria, it’s not surprising Angus and Rina’s thoughts turn to the power and presence of earth: both the transitory and the seemingly permanent. It’s at the foot of the Bronberg, which is essentially the eastern part of the Magaliesberg mountain range. “Around the studio, you have some of the oldest stone on earth,” says Angus.
There’s something he enjoys about the effect of contextualising human achievements in a geological timescale. “It’s humbling,” he says. “It just takes a bit [of the grandeur] out of it.”
He is fond of pointing out that if earth’s existence were represented as a day, humans have only been around for the last 80 seconds or so before midnight. “Most of the time we weren’t here,” he says. “Some of these stones go back to six o clock in the morning.” And, he adds, you can pick them up in your hand and contemplate the time they represent. “It’s tangible.” That’s why he likes to include them in their raw state – collaborate with them rather than making them bow to his will as an artist.
“There’s a Buddhist term, Tsu’jan, which means the ‘is-ness’ of things,” he says. “[The stone] is something already. If you work with that something, it’s a collaboration rather than domination. There’s a narrative already that you can build on.” He sees his work as a dialogue with the “is-ness” of his materials. They speak for themselves.
On a shelf in the spare bedroom, there’s a small rendering of Angus’s sculpture, “Portrait of a Plot House”. It’s a portrait of the house he grew up in – just the features of the house as seen from outside. “I often draw it or sculpt it from memory,” he says. The sculpture explores the ways in which the shapes and surface of a “building to which you have an emotional connection” can express something of the feelings associated with it, a bit like a portrait.
This version is mounted on a stack of rocks, including 3.6-billion-year-old verdite – a representation of the complexities of human memory and experience with its foundations in the depths of geological time. Less than an attempt to deflate something monumental – architecture might represent permanence, but it’s a humble little house – this one captures the poignance of the fleeting memory of a place, and perhaps how the deep time of stone might hold a little of that ephemeral meaning before, as Angus puts it “memory closes its doors”.
Angus and Rina’s house and studio themselves seem to acknowledge that sense of things. It too seems like a respectful collaboration with nature – not just the ancient stones of the mountains nearby, or the fleeting appearances of bats and birds, but of the pursuit of artistry and inspiration that takes place within the studio walls.