No Nonsense, Gabriel Stromberg
"No Nonsense," Gabriel Stromberg

Gabriel Stromberg's mastery of the foundations of art and design fuel his creation of pieces that perform both as fine art and forms of communication. The latest exhibit from the Seattle-based talent, A Series of Shapes, opens today in Non-Breaking Space, where it will be on display through May 31. The gallery, which is run by local creative agency Civilization, was co-founded by Stromberg with now-chief executive Michael Ellsworth and Corey Gutch, the firm’s Principal and Interactive Director. In the hours before the opening party, I sat down with Gabriel to revisit his creative process, find out about the motivation behind the show, and learn what he wants viewers to walk away with after viewing his new works.

For those viewing your work for the first time, how would you introduce yourself and your mission as an artist?

I actually have never been asked this question before—I think I am definitely a graphic designer first. I am a creative director, I am a co-founder of Civilization, and these things are the things that I am really proud of. I think that there is a language there that has always spoken to me. If you think about where design exists, the spaces that it exists in the most is marketing, it is in media, it is in communication, it is in information. All of those things are becoming so personal and engrained in our lives in such a new way. Marketing counts as one of our new social rituals, we are learning how sacred information actually is. I think that if design is really the thing that gives expression in these areas, there is potential for design to become even more sacred and personal.

Who did you collaborate with to create these works and the show itself?

The catalogue was [by] Cold Cube Press, the screenprints were [by] Broken Press, there are some sculptural installations, like the night swimming installation, that could not have been done without Joseph Kent and Sallann Corn of Fruit Super, Darin Montgomery, Brian Beck. These are people whose work inspires me, and I actually get to call on them to help me make this work, and I am so privileged to work with these people. It was really fun, and I learned a lot, and it was really amazing. There is also something truly great about doing something that you have never done before, and I think one of the things that you learn by doing that is that you learn how to go with ideas of perfection or an idea of right and wrong, and you go with how it evolves. I did some pieces in brass for the show, and had never worked with brass before, and I loved how it turned out, but definitely had to roll with the punches. The only reason that they turned out the way that we did was because I had amazing people who helped me.

What personal narratives do you explore in the show? Which pieces explore this most?

A lot of the narratives that are being explored in this exhibit come from after the election. After the election, I was talking to other creatives—what do we do? How do we respond to this?—and I think that now in the wake of that, we are in a time of introspection, we are really assessing things like culture, behaviors, perceptions...

Gabriel Stromberg
Gabriel Stromberg Summer Lee-Schoenfeld
The zeitgeist of the moment was to re-think, re-evaluate. In that spirit, this show is really about questions. Can design ask those questions, can it present solutions? Can it be unresolved? Often, you see design and feel desire, you see something beautiful, you associate it with perfection, pure form, perfect symmetry. I started thinking—can I make something imperfect? Can design be personal? I had a lot of things that I wanted to explore in the show —a lot of things that I wanted to communicate. I had this checklist, and I went for it, and I feel like I checked everything off. From the ancient Egyptians to alchemic symbols to symbols in magic, company logos, people see these symbols and they believe in their power, they create a reality around these symbols through a sense of recognition. For instance, a circle can stand for the sun. That is so universal, and it can go across different cultures and belief systems. With a circle, if you put it on a wall, of all the people who can see the sun, it is very easy for them to connect it with the sun. It can also be the moon, it can also be the earth, it can be an apple — and I love that it is a way to create a visual element that can rise above all the dissociation and dissonance. In that way, I think that symbols are powerful, and a lot of the show is about acknowledging that. I wanted to explore these symbols and the space they create, the power they create, in a more magical way.

I have these two pieces, they are life rings that would be on a boat. I wanted to do these pieces for a while, but I kept thinking to myself that they were too weird. I took two lyrics from different songs, one from a Luther Vandross song and one from a Kate Bush song [and put them on the life rings]. For me, the idea is that because you read these lyrics in a circle, it never ends. I started thinking about the idea of a mantra, the fact that if you say something, that is a way to establish intention and actually create change. One is a mantra for positivity and the other is a mantra for abundance.”

In a 2016 interview with Amanda Aszman of Print Magazine, you mentioned the “structure and human centeredness of modernism [and] the displacement of post-modernism” in a description of your work. Is that a point of focus in this show? How did you revisit those ideas?

It is very interesting to me that I said that at that time. Modernism is very human-centered in that it is all about creating things that speak to human experience. I think that is really applicable in our digital culture, we are now interacting with digital design, and I think that modernism laid the groundwork for digital design in the sense that it is so grid-based—there are certain principles that work really well and work with digital design. I also think that there are certain elements that can translate to this idea of perfection and idealism. When modernism first evolved in response to the World Wars and the revolutions that started in the ‘20s and ‘30s, people were trying to create a new reality through this work. Now it is so tied to commerce that I feel that it can sometimes feel a bit oppressive. I often think that this kind of displacement, this kind of imperfection, things feeling wrong or incorrect—breaking the grid—can make things more human. Life is rarely perfect, or symmetrical, or ideal.

What do you want patrons of your exhibit to take away from their experience? What do you want them to think about?

I want them to look at it as a series of explorations and investigations. I don’t really have any expectations—with the show, I am definitely taking some of the same processes and perspectives that I use with my clients, but I am not presenting solutions, I am not solving problems. It is not trying to impress you. It is asking questions. It is me experimenting.

A Series of Shapes runs April 5 to May 31st at Non-Breaking Space.