“In all my works there is a physical process of breaking and putting back together. The language of geometry references architecture as a healing and rebuilding process. The faceting of stone is a slow and meditative reductive process that expresses the relationship between matter and time.”
Chauncey's practice brings together a diverse range of materials including coral, concrete, brick and stone which he ties into a few key concepts around identity, time, and our relationship with the physical world.
The location and context of where the material comes from is an important aspect of the work. This is explored through a laborious and reductive physical process of deconstruction and reconstruction of materials from which an austere yet compelling aesthetic is produced.
Chauncey turns commonplace materials into objects with value and meaning, completely shifting our appreciation of them.
Parliament Building I
Emil McAvoy, exhibition catalogue, Auckland Art Fair 2019
Sculptor Chauncey Flay explores memory, mortality and geological time through meticulously crafted objects in stone, coral and custom concrete. These materials carry wider associations, as do the sites from which they are sourced. There is memory in this material: traces of use and vestiges of natural formation, evolution and decay. Influenced by brutalist and defence architecture, ruins, geometric abstraction and the found object, Flay explores deep time in the context of climate change and environmental crisis.
Flay often discusses the inner processes accompanying his labour-intensive stonework. During hours spent faceting their highly-polished surfaces – using a flat lap with a diamond pad – he finds himself in a meditative state, contemplating the stone which shall outlive him. Echoing this awareness of the ephemeral, in an early performance he placed a finished sculpture back in the pile of rocks at the quarry where it originated. Flay wondered how the local worker who found it might interpret it as he watched the sculpture disappear back in to nature.
Flay selects materials with utilitarian uses and transforms them through processes of deconstruction and reconstruction. He will spend extended lengths of time immersed in looking at a stone, then break it apart with the single blow of a hammer. Its reconstruction with unique alterations leaves the stone forever altered. While often glued imperceptibly back together, Flay is now experimenting with embedded magnets – a natural power – so that audiences can continue to open them up and explore their component parts.
Alongside their faceting in to precise planes, at times the artist also fills in negative spaces within his materials using custom concrete. An example is his work with coral. Once a facet is cut through a block of coral, the negative space within this honeycombed, porous material is filled with concrete made from white Portland Cement mixed with limestone powder and water. This casting process involves using moulds, which, while filling the fine internal spaces within the coral, also fills out the structure in to new geometric forms. This concrete also echoes the hue and appearance of the coral, complete with pits and fine surface cracks. The finished result appears as if carved from a single substance. Indeed, the make-up of the limestone concrete and the coral – which is formed by the accumulated limestone secretions of polyps – are very similar.
The combination of slicing through sections of coral and filling it back in reveals the exquisite organic shapes of its internal construction. This might find an affinity with the procession of deep time visible in tree rings. In this sense, the artist's intuitive process co-creates with the evolutionary processes of nature.
Flay grew up in New Plymouth and studied art at the Auckland University of Technology. He then travelled to Germany and Poland before settling for a number of years in the Cook Islands. Though he recently returned to his hometown, the experience of living and working in the Islands remains a major influence on his practice. During his time there, Flay worked with and exhibited alongside prominent Rarotongan artist Mike Tavioni. The Cook Islands is also where Flay began to use coral, a ubiquitous material he found washed up on the beaches. There coral is melted down over fire pits over long periods, and then used as a white render to clad buildings such as churches. Flay's work draws on these traditions while also referencing the fragility of coral reefs – underwater architectural structures vital to ocean ecosystems, yet under unprecedented threat from climate change, unsustainable fishing practices and ocean acidification.
Some might see affinities in Flay's practice with the recent sculptures of Joe Sheehan – where Sheehan's recent work cuts staircase-like formations in to slabs of stone. Indeed, the pair are friends with a shared interest in carving traditions and practices, and in sourcing stone. Flay's eclectic influences also span as diverse artists as Rachel Whiteread, Christian Boltanski and Ana Mendieta.
Though Flay works in a range of other materials, such as obsidian, jade, green basalt and found clay bricks, his frequent use of greywacke is emblematic of his strategy to reuse, recycle and repurpose. Greywacke is a commonplace roading material, dug from deep beneath the earth in huge rocks, before being ground up and reapplied to its surface as tarseal. Flay's asymmetrical polygons transform the stone in to objects resembling defence bunkers, brutalist architecture, miniature monuments or even spaceships.
While Flay's work might evoke imagined or internal landscapes, the natural and cultural memory embedded in his materials – and the means through which they are transformed – grounds them in the solidity and weight of the real.