Grey Matters: David Umemoto Loves Brutalist Concrete

Date: March 13 2018

By: Woody


David Umemoto has parlayed a love of imposing grey concrete into a thriving career as an artist. Blending the boundary between sculpture and architecture, David’s work references Brutalism, Surrealism, Italian Futurism and Modernism to visually hypnotic effect. We visited his Montreal studio to find out why he’ll never tire of the grey stuff.

Artists typically put something of themselves in their work. What do your creations reveal about David Umemoto?
I’m very serious. I really like it when things fit. Even though I’d like to, I cannot improvise. I’ve tried to many times, but I never succeeded. I need to work with plans and structure. 

Do you define yourself as a sculptor, an all-round artist, a frustrated architect, or do you sit in the grey area between all three?
A little bit of the three. I’m constantly frustrated, certainly about architecture... and sculpture, and all arts, and modern life in general. Even though I studied and graduated in architecture, I cannot say that I really practiced it. I may design a house for myself, but that is about it. I would not do it for my mother, my brother or sisters, or any friend I like. But, I may consider doing it for a client who would pay me lots of money and sign a waiver.
As for being an artist, I do not think it is really for me to say. When people ask me, I say I am a sculptor, but then from their questions and comments, I can see that they imagine me with a hammer and chisel carving a marble block, then I change the subject. 

Photo: David Umemoto

Photo: David Umemoto

What role has Montreal’s Brutalist architecture played in developing your aesthetic?
Montreal has many great Brutalist buildings; Habitat 67 and the Olympic Stadium are the most well-known. But my favourite Brutalist structures are the metro stations. Some of them are absolutely stunning and they’ve definitely impacted my creations. Since they are very utilitarian, they go unnoticed and underappreciated by many people. Some stations are dug very deep in the ground, some have the scale of cathedrals and may bring out the same level of emotions, at least to me and my brutal friends.

Your aesthetic brings to mind the architect a mutant blend of Oscar Niemeyer and M.C. Escher. Is that abstract familiarity what makes your work so approachable and endearing? 
For me, Escher’s work is very intricate, surreal, and references everyday life. Whereas Niemeyer’s work is minimalist and cerebral. To me they are very different, almost opposites, in the experience that they provoke. If you can see references to both these artists in my work, it is a great a compliment for me. 

Can you describe how you feel about your chosen material, which is so often seen by others as harsh and impersonal?
I can’t remember exactly why I bought my first bag of concrete. It was about four years ago. But I clearly remember my emotions when I unmoulded my first casting; I knew at that moment that something had happened. The connection was there. I would never have expected that four years later I’d be working with concrete full time and doing what I do now.

Photo: David Umemoto

Photo: David Umemoto

Any secrets to working with concrete?
If you’re looking for technical perfection in the results, there are many secrets but I haven’t found them. I’ve searched a bit, but after many years of working with concrete, I guess I just got better. In the end, it is not so complicated. 
I prefer to put my energy into experimenting with forms, shapes and textures, rather than achieving the perfect object. I work with very primitive tools – buckets, trowels etc. – in a small unfit studio. The Brutalist style is much more forgiving. On second thought, some advice: you need hand cream, a physiotherapist, good ventilation, a working freight elevator and a loading dock.

Your bio mentions that you are actively ‘resisting the demands of progress’. How does that relate to your work?
I worked a lot with computers in the past. I liked it for a long time, but at some point it became dull. At the beginning (in the late 90s), it was new and brought exciting challenges. But I feel so much happier now working in my studio, with my hands, feeling the material and holding the final product in the end.

Imperfection is inherent in your work. Your pieces have a lovely raw texture and random glitches.
After many years of working with the material, I take this into account when designing my pieces, knowing I cannot avoid imperfections completely. But I have some level of control over when and where they will appear. Even though the imperfections seem to add character, to be truly honest, I would feel better if the pieces were indeed perfect, and while we’re at it, I would really like an industrial-grade planetary concrete mixer :).

Your work is generally around 12 inches tall. Surely you’ve thought about reproducing your concepts at a much grander scale – is it feasible?
Yes, it is feasible. I’ve been asked the question many times and I’ve given different answers. I still think about it once in a while, but right now at this moment, I’m not sure that it would be suitable or pertinent. 
Creating public art is a big responsibility. Art appreciation is very personal. When you do public art, you impose your vision on so many people and for a long period of time, especially when using concrete. When I create a piece, many people may like it but, more likely, most people won’t. This is normal and I accept it. I would be very interested to see some of my pieces at a larger scale, but that might just be an ego trip.

Colour is so crucial with sneakers and all forms of design, but your work removes that element completely. What are your thoughts on staying true to the concrete palette? Is it limiting or do you feel more free working the way you do?
In general, I like having constraints. I think it helps to focus. My interest is more on the geometry. Concrete is monochromatic but it has a lot of texture, which for me compensates for the lack in hue. It catches light magnificently, which creates beautiful light and shadow effects. Working with concrete every day, I have a different appreciation of the material. I never get bored. Every time I open a casting, I always have the same excitement and I still like to feel the texture. We’ve been together for a long time and we are now quite intimate... I’ve been faithful so far. I am keeping an eye on aluminium though, still grey but shiny!

Photos of David Umemoto by Celia Spenard-ko

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