What is art? The now-tired cliché of the aging art world endures. For Paul Seftel, a self-described painter working out of an artist’s studio space in Brooklyn, his so-called “concrete pieces of consciousness” serve to elevate the viewer to greater understanding. More than ‘what is art,’ his work begets the question: why is art?
“On one level, paintings are decoration,” said Paul in his workspace, “But really it’s about what you can gain from looking at something. We’re such a surface culture, but things are breaking through. I think those things are within us.”
To achieve the aesthetically textured and environmentally provocative effects of his work, Seftel grinds minerals and sand for layering. He manipulates the buildup of pigments to brighten the result, technically contradicting the regulations of science. Typically, the combination of colors in light is white, and the combination of colors in pigment is black. As such, the light-pigment paintings Paul is creating are, even at the first logistical sense, both revolutionary and recontextual.
Seftel’s use of materials is deliberately deconstructive. The minerals are actually found in oil paint, but his remaking of the work questions its value in end form, and its endurance throughout generations as an artifact. Pontificating on the ideas he seeks to express, Seftel added, “It’s only a physical object almost by default.”
His hyper-focus on meaning may stem from a series of formative experiences starting at a young age. Growing up in London, Seftel was fascinated by dichotomies of so-called normalcy. He grappled with his own development both by working with special-needs students into his teenage years and reading intense literature at his all-boys school, with books ranging from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to E. M. Forster’s Passage to India. As the intensity of his education, his environment, and ultimately his feelings rose, so too did the overarching realization that Seftel sought something more. He bought a one-way ticket to New York City, commencing a long stretch of wandering that arguably pinnacled in the deserts of New Mexico.
The rest is history — and mystery. From buses to youth hostels and onto Navajo caves, cosmic lucid dreams, and a certain peace pipe ceremony that the artist remains reticent about, Seftel learned to project his interior state into the artwork. “It’s really about going deeper into the environment, and into ourselves,” he explained, “But there is a way to enlighten people — I know, a powerful word — through beauty and truth somehow.”
One particular incident recollected from the road illuminates the exploratory aspect of Seftel’s work. Though he briefly returned to the British education system after New Mexico at the University of Edinburgh, Seftel took a trip to Java, Indonesia alone. In Java, he fell into a deep ravine, almost 80 feet deep. He miraculously survived, but his right hand was badly damaged in the accident. He read this as a sign to return to New Mexico, where he abandoned the conventional uses of his hand — partly due to recovery, but also as a chosen discovery. On an artistic level, he refused representation or even writing his name, instead focusing on carving stone and wood, using rags to move scattered gemstones and dust around the finished works. The painting became almost primal in its raw found gestures, a catalyst which continues to affect his work today.
Seftel estimates that he has made over 200 paintings in his lifetime. His work is currently represented by Thomas & Paul in London, and is in the private collection of violinist Joshua Bell as featured in Vogue. He has been featured in a private exhibition, “Artists For Dalai Lama,” in Frankfurt, which was viewed by and specifically curated for His Holiness. While Seftel also spent substantial time in Colorado, he has been based in New York City since 2007.