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When Chandler Noah and Diego Castaño founded the New York-based art collective En Viu, they derived the name from the Catalan expression for "ongoing motion." This is fitting not only for the speed at which En Viu’s murals and fine-art procurements have enlivened hospitality and design institutions over the past three years—like The Times Square EDITION, the Rosewood Guangzhou, and the Londoner in Leicester Square—but also for the dreamlike narrative of these site-specific works. Recently, the collective has attracted commissions from Manhattan sources connected to Noah’s architectural training, like the Park Hyatt, the Fulton, and Paradise Club.
To hear more about the genesis of En Viu, its inspirations, and its future, Whitewall spoke with Noah and Castaño.
WHITEWALL: How did you two first meet?
CHANDLER NOAH: We met in New York City in 2014, and we fell in love with each other’s mind instantaneously. Both coming from different creative fields (I'm an architect by trade, and Diego is an artist), the fascination with each other's perspectives and capacities was palpable from the beginning. One would be designing an interior, or building whilst the other was painting; both of our languages were mixed and simultaneously influential on each other.
WW: What does "En Viu" mean?
DIEGO CASTAÑO: En Viu is a Catalan term meaning “live” or “in motion”; the name came about during a Flamenco show in Barcelona, a live performance. Chandler saw the words projected onto a wall and immediately brought to our attention how beautiful it looked, and sounded. Once we discovered the meaning, it became clear to us that it would be the name of our studio.
Our first project came after many attempts. We pitched several concepts for various projects before one was realized (usually due to budget restrictions or construction delays). Our first piece would be a homage to the 15th-century master Hieronymus Bosch, for the Times Square Edition Hotel. As our first project, this was an incredible opportunity to collaborate with Yabu Pushelberg and Ian Schrager. The scale of the project was also rather incredible as the 2 hand-painted and highly detailed murals with a final dimension of 30m in length and 4.5 m in height, took nearly 2 years to complete with a team of 7 working around the clock.
Today we have three main points of business: studio commissions, art advising, and our forthcoming gallery called Newchild, located in Antwerp. In our New York City studio, we lead a team of painters for commissions of large-scale artworks and installations, and we also advise private clients and hoteliers on the curation and acquisition of works of art, for both smaller projects and large hospitality projects.
WW: What was working amid isolation during the pandemic like?
CN & DC: It certainly was not business as usual. We have had to be creative with restructuring our workflow; for the safety of our painters and staff, we had to temporarily close the studio, and stop physical production of artworks. However, our digital team has been actively fulfilling requests for proposals, continuing working on ongoing projects, and assisting with our final to-dos for Newchild, before the gallery opens this summer. It has been fascinating to see the pace of things lessen, and experimenting with new forms of staying in touch. We have also found that this calmness has freed us to be even more creative and introspective, which we have reveled in and aren’t taking for granted.
WW: What kept you inspired?
CN & DC: Inspiration for us comes from a variety of sources. We caught up on films we had been meaning to watch, especially ones from Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini and Stanley Kubrick. We love intriguing narratives and beautiful storytelling. We also worked on the conceptual development of several commissions, for private and public projects, in places like Miami, LA, Phuket, Macau, Seoul, and London.
Newchild’s inaugural exhibition, called "A Very Long Wait," also kept us very busy for six months, as well as the design (architecture and interior by Chandler) and construction that has been ongoing for two years. We collaborated with our gallery partner Sarah Vanwelden and have been finalizing details for our digital platforms, the show’s curation, and all that encompasses a gallery’s show.
WW: Tell us a bit about your studio. What's a typical day of creation like?
CN & DC: Studio mornings are generally a quick download with the staff of all that we need to accomplish for the day, studio news and developments, or interesting things that we've come across individually: a show-and-tell of sorts. The remainder of the day is pumping out the work. We move between working with our painters and checking in with our digital team for project reviews. We do function like a 9-6 office, but by nature prefer a more flexible and collaborative structure. Some days we have painters and staff coming and going as a few of them have their own individual practices, which we encourage and support. We are also quite often out of the studio for installs, client meetings, checking out exhibitions as a group, and attending our staff's art openings.
Nowadays, we generally have 8-10 ongoing projects at any given time between studio and advisory, so most days are beautifully chaotic. At the end of the day we like to think that the entropy of art keeps all in order. Entropy is that natural tendency of things in the universe to seem chaotic but in reality is in a perfect balance. Days in the studio are a bit like that, we are not kidding.
WW: Tell us a bit about your home. What's seen inside? Do you collect art or design pieces?
CN & DC: We live in the West Village of Manhattan, and our home is thoughtful, cozy, and very much us. Our favorite design pieces are Diego’s paintings, Chandler’s design prototype, art objects, and pieces that we have made together. As a matter of fact, one of our first collaborations was a massive plaster sculpture that today hangs on our wall. We love history and simultaneously love notions of the future, so we have pieces from emerging artists and designers as well as a 1000-year-old vessel from a Central-American civilization. We would not call our collection eclectic because our aesthetic is particular, but holistically we are curious.
WW: Can you describe for us the mural Grains of Golden Sand which you created for The Times Square EDITION's Paradise Club?
CN & DC: Grains of Golden Sand is an infinitive surrealist hand-painted landscape that envelopes the walls of the Paradise Club. It is 30m in length and 4.5 m in height, and it was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's poem A Dream Within A Dream and Dante’s Divine Comedy, with one side of the club resembling heaven and the other hell.
In composition, the painting is quite complex: constructed from sweeping architectural elements, a color palette reminiscent of the Dutch masters, and containing approximately 400 figures and objects throughout. The piece took nearly 2 years to complete with 7 painters working around the clock. In addition, we had site-specific constraints that kept changing and evolving throughout production, forcing us to reinvent solutions to once-solved problems, but we loved the challenge. The lighting for the artwork is also otherworldly. The lighting system shifts the hues of the mural from clean blues to deep reds during the club's cabaret show, it's quite the spectacle!
WW: The piece took two years to complete and encompasses around 400 figures and objects. Tell us a bit about the creative process of this piece.
CN & DC: The process of creating Grains of Golden Sand was simply enriching. Creatively, we dove into our subject matter and tried to imagine a feeling or a thought that captured the essence of what we wanted the viewer to experience. Once a direction was agreed upon with the client, we began developing a narrative in heavy detail. We were deeply curious about the reading of Bosch during his process (Gutenberg invented the printing press during that time and there were some books available, like Dante’s Divine Comedy), and did our best to understand his vision of life and embody his truly visionary spirit. We worked on the digital composite of the murals for months before actually putting them into production. We assembled a team of traditional painters, people with strong backgrounds in classicism, but we had to realize the piece using contemporary materials. Our process involved looking to the past to create notions of the future.
WW: Where does your creative process typically begin?
CN & DC: Our creative process is like a symbiosis, not only between us but with our clients and with our artists. From the drafting boards to the installation of the pieces in their final location, it is all a collaboration. The beginning phases of our projects are the most intricate part because this is when the universe of Diego, Chandler, studio, and client must align. At times things seem to align immediately, on other times things require a bit more cooking. Projects seemingly never end for us to be honest. We are very critical of our own work, and have a tendency to look back once a project is technically completed, and critique and talk about what we would do differently if we had a second go. Good or bad, we definitely do this.
WW: Tell us about some of your creative inspirations overall.
CN & DC: We draw inspirations from our travels, exhibitions, films, poetry, music, it somewhat runs the gamut. For instance, in Grains of Golden Sand, we were inspired by the work of the Dutch masters, specifically of Hieronymous Bosch whom the piece pays homage to. The title comes from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. The poem is the story of two lovers who part ways, and at this moment, they come to the realization that all they lived has been a dream. By metaphor, the speaker describes the grasping of grains of golden sand on a beach as an attempt to hold his memories, but the grains slip through his fingers. He concludes that everything he sees or feels is just a dream within a dream. Like the poem, we were drawn by the idea of a place where reality and illusion cohabit. In this realm, the human condition flourishes and the internal dialogue of good and evil finds expression in two paintings.
WW: You've painted several permanent murals for hotels and restaurants, e.g. the Park Hyatt, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s The Fulton, the Rosewood Guangzhou, and The Londoner. Do you consider permanence or longevity when creating? Tradition or futurism?
CN & DC: Often we find ourselves imagining what life would have been like in the 1920s, or 200 years from now. The past and the future are romantic notions that we tend to cling to. We also have a keen interest in phenomenology and how we as creatives can influence feelings, thoughts, and behavior through the creation of a space or being immersed or enveloped by a work of art.
WW: Can you tell us a bit about Newchild, your gallery in Antwerp?
CN & DC: It is a contemporary art gallery and digital platform based in Antwerp, Belgium that embodies all of our interests. We partnered with art expert Sarah Vanwelden who has worked for Christie’s, Axel Vervoordt and is now the Gallery Director of Morentz. Newchild will provide a physical platform for both established and emerging artists by creating offbeat exhibitions, and collaborating regularly with curators and other galleries, as well as participating in international art fairs.
Our intention with the gallery is to promote the dialogue between fine art and design, and challenge the notion of art viewing by curating works that encourage artists and artisans to move outside their traditional areas of expression. In addition to an ambitious exhibition program, Newchild will be hosting a series of events and experiences in Antwerp and other art and design epicenters.
WW: Chandler, for five years, you were an architect at Yabu Pushelberg. What did you learn from George and Glenn?
CN: Working for George and Glenn was like a crash course in interiors at a hyper-accelerated pace. When I started working with them in 2012, I was fresh out of grad school with an M.Arch degree and had no real knowledge of interiors. They both are full of humorous quips, analogies, and advice. I couldn't speak more highly of the two and adore them both as friends and creatives. What they have built over the past 40 years is astonishing and inspiring. Diego and I very much admire them.
WW: What type of project are you looking to work on in the future that you haven't yet?
CN & DC: We are looking for fun. We hope to continue our exploration of who we are as creatives and to continue to collaborate with clients that are open and have a unique vision. We’ve been quite lucky so far. We are incredibly excited to see what comes of Newchild and what doors Newchild will open for us.