Dion Horstmans is content. It’s a demeanour rarely attributed to a working creative these days, but then again Horstmans is not a regular artist. The Bondi-based metal worker had a series of careers (actor, film industry prop maker) before the hobby he’d cultivated as a child called him back. He recalls sketching the shapes and patterns of his oceanic backyards in both New Zealand and the Cook Islands for as long as he’s been able to hold a pencil. And it was this never-ending fascination for nature’s graphics that eventually led him to his unique style of geometric sculpting. Installations and objets d’art welded from high grade steel, these three-dimensional asymmetrical works have become some of the most sought after pieces of modern art in Australia.
Horstmans’ process from plan to production begins not unlike that of a spirograph drawing or a string diagram where acute angles are created, repeated and stretched until they are eventually crafted into a dynamic, metal prism. But, as he explains, the physical works are ultimately a platform to create light and volume. That is, the space around his pieces, the light that stops and starts through their angles and the shadow-scapes they cast is what excites him most.
For Horstmans, creating art is an emotionally safe place. After a tumultuous upbringing, the more he is planning, welding, grinding and polishing a new work in his Sydney studio, the happier he is. Though his style is a pragmatic, idealistic dichotomy – where mathematical sense meets subjective design – it works. In fact, his lineal aesthetic and well-honed technique has seen public commissions, gallery exhibitions and commercial installations become a regular part of his success for more than twenty years. Here he talks to ICON about style, modern art and how, if you buy one of his pieces, he’ll probably come to your house and hang it himself.
ICON: What are you working on at the moment?
DION HORSTMANS: Right now I’m doing a bunch of residential commissions and a commercial piece for BMW in Melbourne. I’m also working on a commission for another big development in Melbourne, so I’ve been busy making scale models for that.
ICON: Does making commercial pieces mean less time to create more personal works?
HORSTMANS: The reality is they’re both quite creative and everything helps to push the boundaries of my practice. The public works allow scalability. What I mean is, when I make things that fit into a home it’s great but when I get to scale them up for a commercial venture, maybe three or four times in size, it becomes quite a different beast. I love it. Every commission is about problem solving and ultimately that’s what I’m constantly doing.
ICON: This idea of problem solving, does that come from your preference for geometric art?
HORSTMANS: Yes, it does. I’m always playing with space – trying to capture it. Every piece I make is born from a previous one. Every work is born in the dark, born from the shadows. If I had my way I’d make all my white works go on white walls and dark works go on dark walls – so that the shadow becomes more the music than the sculpture itself.
ICON: So, your work is more about refracted light than the created piece?
HORSTMANS: One hundred percent. I’m not making figurative pieces like Donatello or David, put it that way (laughs).
ICON: Can you tell us about how you came to be who you are today?
HORSTMANS: You mean a 55-year-old man with a bald head and grey beard (laughs)? Well, I was born in New Zealand but grew up between there and the Cook Islands. I’ve always lived by the ocean. I’ve always been surrounded by natural shapes from things like coral, coconut and pandanus, things like fish scales and fish bones. Those graphic, emotive shapes have always been in my life. Since I’ve been able to hold a pencil I’ve been drawing. It was a language I knew and it was a place I could go to to feel comfortable. I grew up in a dysfunctional, violent family in New Zealand, so when I went out to the Cook Islands it was somewhere I felt safe. In 1996 I had my first daughter and it was then I changed from pencil and paper to working with three dimensions. In the beginning I worked figuratively abstract, with a kind of rolling form. From there I went into a kind of geometry. I started off with flat planes as opposed to linear angles and then started extrapolating shapes – diamonds and triangles – two of the main shapes throughout the Cooks and most of the South Pacific, whether from a shark tooth or the patterns on the back of a turtle. I started putting them together three-dimensionally, then, by accident I was carrying a piece one day and I saw its shadow on the ground. I thought “Far out! That’s the next step. That’s where I need to go now”. Since then I’ve gone in leaps and bounds to this world of geometry and space and volume. I can’t add for shit, I have to use my fingers to add up (laughs), so even though math is not my strong point the ideas of volume, space and balance are natural for me.
ICON: Are you influenced by other artists?
HORSTMANS: Yes. The other important side of my work is research and referencing other artists. Whether it’s Constanin Brâncusi (a pioneering 20th Century sculptor) or the incredible primitive art of New Guinea, they all inspire me. I’ve got one thousand art books…though most modern artists today probably just use Pinterest and Instagram…
ICON: Does your current coastal backyard of Bondi in Sydney inspire you?
HORSTMANS: Yes. I go down the beach every day and swim in the ocean, I find that really, really grounding and very much takes me back to the place I get to when I’m making art – that flow state. It makes me feel at one with something.
ICON: It’s interesting that most of your influence comes from the natural world when your particular angular style is so cohesive with modern architecture. Does the manmade world inspire you, too?
HORSTMANS: Absolutely. And I get to play with that a lot. One of the commissions I’m working on at the moment is for a development in Melbourne – an amazing building with an incredible faceted and folded design. I keep thinking to myself why do they even need a piece of artwork (laughs)! For me, architecture is art that we live in. Fashion is art that we wear. Jewellery is art that we wear. Without art we’re not human.
ICON: Is fashion important to you?
HORSTMANS: I haven’t really changed my style since I was a kid! However, if a fashion house came to me and said they wanted to collaborate I would one hundred percent do it. I would look at what the ethos was behind their brand and where their ideas come from. For example, if someone like (celebrated Australian fashion designer) Akira Isagowa asked me, I would look at where his inspiration comes from. I would work with his references rather than being inspired by the fashion itself.
ICON: What is the process for creating one of your pieces?
HORSTMANS: Depending on whether it’s a commission or a personal work, I start with one piece and evolve it, recreating it maybe fifteen times. I make the same piece over and over again, constantly tweaking it, as if it was a cell out of a Felix The Cat cartoon. I’m always making variations of the same thing. The time it takes can vary from five pieces in a day to one piece in a day, depending on the size. For materials, I use solid round Bright Bar steel, that can be anything from 5mm up to 20mm in diameter. If it’s larger than 20mm then I use pipe – but it’s all high grade steel. To create the shapes I have a grinder set up to cut, a MIG to weld and then I have another grinder for the sculpting part. After that, I go over everything with a hand file.
ICON: Do you have a favourite piece?
HORSTMANS: No, I don’t. I’m super excited to see my current pieces go up in Melbourne, they’re my favourite pieces right now. I’m very present.
ICON: How should your sculptures be displayed?
HORSTMANS: If we’re talking about a residential piece, I like to personally come and hang it. And I often do! For me, each piece has a direction. It has a top and a bottom that you might not be aware of, so clients might hang them upside down or on the wrong angle. It’s also really nice meeting my clients and seeing a piece inside a home. Up until that point it’s just been lumps of steel I’ve cobbled together in my workshop. Seeing it inside a beautiful home…it becomes something else.
ICON: There is a lot of conversation around new forms of art, in particular NFT’s and the virtual world, do you think this is a positive thing?
HORSTMANS: I think it doesn’t matter. As long as people are talking about art – and long as the piece is original or limited edition – it’s a good thing.
ICON: Is the world for a modern artist an exciting, expanding place?
HORSTMANS: I think so. I’m privileged but I also hustle. There’s an equal amount of artists out there in the system who think they need to be represented by a gallery – and galleries have their place – but there’s also a lot of other development in the industry. I’m in a really great place. I’m having a great time.
Photography: Daniel Goode
Cinematography & Edit: Tim Jones
Video Colour Grade: Greg “Elvis” Constantaras
Fashion Direction: Kim Payne
Grooming: Cat Smith
Talent: Dion Horstmans