In the same way as Calder, whom he discovered later in his career, Alex Palenski creates metal mobiles and stabiles which range in size from small to very large. Both an artist and a craftsman, he is one of contemporary design’s rising stars.
Alex Palenski has a lot to live up to. The grandson of a designer who previously worked with the same material, he defines himself as a “metal craftsman” rather than an artist. “I have such vivid memories of staying at my grandfather’s house and of his studio with its very large machines – they were like the ones you used to find in the industrial sector at the time. I remember the noises very clearly, as well as the different materials that he made use of and transformed.” And yet it was wood that Alex Palenski first tried his hand at. When he was around 20 years old he used the material to sculpt and create objects, finding it easy to work with. “I used to think that metal was difficult to work with, it was only later on that I started using it through training myself on the job. I developed my own techniques and that’s how I was able to find my style.” It was at that point that he started creating mobiles, combining mirrors with copper rods.
Then one day he stumbled on an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre that was dedicated to Calder. It was a sheer revelation. Astonishingly, despite coming from a family which was largely open-minded when it came to art – his mother is a painter and paintings conservator – Calder had never entered his field of vision. “Something really struck a chord with me. I liked this research into balance. And I told myself that I could do it too. I told myself that it was possible and that I could forge this path for myself.” He started researching as soon as he got home. He would cut out shapes to then move dynamically through space. “I enjoyed cutting steel, arranging the various pieces. I created my first mobiles using very simple and cheap metals, for around 10-15 euros apiece. I found there was a simple pleasure in doing it myself. Having never received training in art or metalwork, I taught myself along the way and I had to find the resources within myself to fill any gaps in technique, tools or financial means. This self-taught career path allowed me to develop a personal style with my own techniques by carrying out every stage of my projects myself.”
His own vocabulary
Alex Palenski is a direct metal sculptor. As a result, he follows in the footsteps of Picasso, Gargallo, Pevsner and Calder, who invented assemblage sculpture using copper, brass, aluminium, iron, steel and stainless steel. Today he produces two types of mobiles, with the first smaller in size. The small mobiles act as interior decoration and are similar to items of jewellery, carved with a great deal of precision. The other, very large mobiles are made to order and then erected on site. “I derive pleasure from seeing them confront nature, the seasons and the passing of time. I’m keenly aware of how they catch the light and how they interact with the air. ” Treated with anti-rust paint, these mobile outdoor sculptures do not “move”, unlike other sculptures, whose natural patina he enjoys seeing transform the way they play with light over time.
“For my indoor pieces, all the shapes – regardless of whether it’s the base or the blades – are produced from elements which are initially flat (metal sheets) that I work by folding, bending and hammering until I achieve the desired volume, dynamics and lightness,” Alex sums up. By excluding all materials other than metal (no paint or varnish) to only harness the shine achieved by polishing, I’m looking to create an object which is capable of capturing and revealing two essential elements in my life, and in life generally: air and light. ”
He acknowledges that breaking away from Alexander Calder’s influence is an impossible task when you make mobiles out of metal. “I have, however, found my own path by developing my own vocabulary for three-dimensional shapes created in a unique way and from simple materials that I strive to make precious.”
For Alex Palenski, mobiles represent the culminating point where metal’s various properties fuse together: the structure’s lightness, smoothness and, at the same time, strength. It was something that came naturally to him: working the balance, masses and forms, but also seeing how these shapes interact in space; the challenge of translating all the calculations made in the workshop into actual movement.
Alex has two workspaces: one in Paris, which is “a real artist’s studio” where he creates his smaller mobiles and cuts some of the shapes. The other belongs to his grandfather, “with its large machines, anvils and noise”. Two environments which are the complete antithesis of one another. His bright and tranquil Parisian studio resembles a goldsmith’s cave, while in his grandfather’s studio, he equips himself with the same protective clothing as steelworkers and wields a hacksaw, hammer and soldering iron. It is also there that he crafts the bases of his metal sculptures.
Today Alex Palenski’s mobiles travel around the world. They feature in galleries in New York, Rio, Moscow, Taiwan, London and Paris.
Invited by the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain as part of American sculptor Sarah Sze’s exhibition (24 October – 7 March 2021), Alex Palenski will soon have the opportunity to impart his knowledge during two mobile making workshops for children aged 7 to 12.