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Rafael Klein

  • United Kingdom
  • Rafael Klein is an artist who was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up on Coney Island. He is primarily a sculptor and painter, though he has also published over 20 artist books which have been acquired by the likes of MOMA, Tate, V&A and The British Library. He has had over 60 solo exhibitions around the world, and divides his time between London, UK and Puglia, Italy, with studios in both locations. He has a number of public sculptures around London including his most recent commission for Dulwich Picture Gallery. His artwork is also held in private collections around the world, and he has delivered artist talks in a range of settings. In his earlier career, he studied at the University of Chicago before moving to New York City to study at the Arts Students League under Knox Klein. He then left New York and lived in Italy, before moving to London. His earlier art was primarily painting-focused, and he cites cartoons and superhero comics as being a significant influence during his earlier years. He describes how he made cartoons of his school teachers at school which were featured in his school yearbook, and he later sold cartoon portraits, along with producing cartoons for advertisement. He describes how he never took the fine art world seriously when he was younger, seeing it as somewhat pretentious, and saw illustration as a superior art form. However, this changed when he went to the Arts Student League, where studying under Knox Klein and learning more about art inspired him to delve into this world. Initially, he focused on paintings and screen printing, as there were no metalwork facilities at the place he was studying- this came later. He was painting a lot of landscapes and his surroundings- describing New York as super gritty at the time, and capturing the hustle and bustle of his surroundings in his work. However, he didn’t really like the hustle nature, violence and capitalism in New York, so left in 1984. He recently went back to visit, and expressively describes the gentrification of an ever-changing New York as ‘a beast that’s eating its own shit and then shitting it out somewhere else.’ After living in Italy for a while, Rafael settled in London, where he learnt more sculptural and metalwork techniques at a foundry and welding college, and sculpture became a big part of his artistic practice. He explained that his sculptural work has always done well in Italy, as the crafts and craftsmanship are much more valued there. Despite this, in the UK he’s worked on a lot of public sculpture commissions. He says he likes public sculpture as has a sense of community ownership, and he likes to introduce collaborative elements into this work so that it’s somewhat informed by the people who use the space it’s situated in. He does this by hosting workshops and often includes people ideas, suggestions and drawings in the final work. He describes his art as situationist, explaining how it’s impacted by, but also impacts upon the landscape or gallery where it’s situated. Even the art he makes in London and Puglia is different, as he only works with oil paints in Italy but uses enamel in his paintings made in London. He predominantly produces his paintings on metal rather than canvas, so that the work is more durable and robust, and he adds sculptural elements into some of these. Rafael was responsible for opening and setting up the metalwork and sculpture department at City and Islington College in London, where he worked for a number of years in the 90s. This undoubtedly influenced the lives of the students passing through, and his influence can also be seen elsewhere- he described how after a friend stayed with him and after spending some time with his art in London, he was inspired to open his own gallery in Italy. He opened the gallery with a solo show from Rafael, which he says was one of his favourite exhibitions to date. A lot of Rafael’s work today is inspired by the Anthropocene and dystopian future landscapes, with his most recent body of painting work entitled ‘landscapes of the future.’ Though he switches between painting and sculpture, across all his work you can see the human form and landscapes as a common theme. His books tie the works in together, and more recently he’s also worked with video and animation to bring his books and artwork to life. His most recent book, ‘The Venice of the mind’ is a homage to Venice, with pop-up, fold-out images which he’s drawn, and this has an accompanying video. Rafael wraps up the interview by giving his advice on how to be a successful artist- he says the key is perseverance and tenacity. He talks of peers who have been picked up on by galleries later on in life in their 90s and have then made it big- this wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t persevered and continued to produce work. Despite this, Rafael acknowledged that success can also be down to luck, and describes how grateful he is to have had such a great career and life. However his success and impact is clearly down to a lot of passion, hard work and talent- his work is extremely prolific, and this can be seen in not only the amount of work he’s created over the space of his career, including 20 artist books, but also the amount of solo and group shows he’s done around the world. It was an inspiration to speak to Rafael and hear his journey, and I hope you are as inspired by his story as much as I am. Rafael has a presence that is hard to translate into words, but it’s not difficult to see how his energy would have inspired his students, along with his friend who entered the world of fine art and opened a gallery. Thank you Rafael for your time!