Responding to environments through shape, substance and colour shades.
Curiously and intuitively acknowledging her surroundings, urban environments are artist Clare Burnett’s playground. ‘I see cars as coloured sculptures’ she responds, when I ask her about cities as a stimulating influence. Whether it’s London, China, or Mexico, where she has fuelled her practice as an artist-in-residence in past occasions, she often wanders around the streets scavenging objects which are later reassembled at her studio. As a result of these expeditions, both cardboard boxes and car tires are candidates to be strained away from their original value and context. A further arrangement between found and made elements aims to break preconceived hierarchies inviting attention to their materiality. Besides matter and shape, Clare also incorporates color as a key element. Initially a painter, she used to collect pigments to fabricate her own palette, driving her to think of paint as a material and color as an altering factor of forms, having a direct effect on the way the viewer perceives them. Further influences originate from her background in humanities, prompting her to address contemporary dilemmas such as consumerism, globalisation, and technology. Interested in her use of shape, space, and viewer interaction, I sit down with her to further understand the creative process involved in building both large and small scale environments that raise dimensional and social awareness.
You initially studied Architecture and Law at Cambridge University and spent a few years working in healthcare communications before attending Byam Shaw School of Art. Do you think studying art after these experiences affected your work? Did you have a more mature approach than if you had gone to art school earlier?
I don’t think I was more mature – I think I would have been too immature to go to art school at 18 and would probably have lost my way. For a while, I regretted not going straight away, and it would certainly have given me my twenties to develop my practice, but I realise now how each experience builds into everything you create even though it’s not clear at the time – the spacial awareness from architecture means I’m always thinking about how artworks relate to what surrounds them: I’m interested in dilemmas of our 21st century life which have strong positives and negatives – technology, global trade, ownership, etc. and I’m sure these ideas began when I studied law and the neutral spaces it seeks to create. Working on the government HIV/AIDS information campaign in the late 80s with so many people dying has informed everything I have done since and feeds into my work, especially ideas about leaving little behind and temporary work.
Since 2015 you have been President of the Royal Society of Sculptors. Do you feel a responsibility to keep sculpture thriving in the 21st century, especially by providing a path for emerging artists?
I really do. It’s such an interesting time to be thinking about sculpture – on the one hand, we own more objects than ever and on the other hand, we lead much of our lives virtually, especially at this strange moment with COVID-19. There are so many opportunities for making work but equally many obstacles, especially for those struggling to pay increasingly expensive rents. This is acute for emerging artists who we all need to succeed for sculpture to stay relevant, but also for those with families or caring responsibilities who may not be able to afford either time or space for their practice.
At art school, you created laborious 2-dimensional pieces which gradually became more abstract. Thinking back, would you have expected your future work to transition to sculpture?
Well, I had a terrible experience with a pot at school which threw me off track and I lost my confidence but now, looking back to before then I was always playing with materials and making things so I’m less surprised. Also, although I worked mainly in 2D I was principally concerned in space and process and I started making my own paints from pigments, thinking of paint more as a material than a skin. I think the green shoots were there – they just took a long time to come out.
Having been in your London studio for 11 years now, do you find working in a busy city integral to your practice? How does the urban landscape influence the colour, shape, and context of your work?
I love working in cities – seeing how all those elements interact with people – how cars are like coloured sculptures, what people buy in the shops, how buildings make spaces to hold everyday sculptural happenings. A lot of my work begins with scavenging and thinking about how people relate to the objects around them so London is such a rich source for me, but I’ve loved being able to do residencies lately and being influenced by those new spaces.
Your work ‘Hold On’ shows a strong response to sociopolitical issues at the time, such as Brexit and the Grenfell Tower fire that occurred nearby to your studio. Do these investigations occur as a way for you to process feelings, or do they manifest naturally as a result of your interest in the urban environment?
It felt such a violent time – Brexit then Grenfell a year later. I grew up in France and Belgium and felt very dislocated for a while, and very angry. So this series of work, made in the summer after the Brexit vote, was all I could manage at first – squeezing my anger into the clay and casting it in heavy bronze.
Colour plays an integral role in your practice. Your work transitioned from vivid colours – green, blue, red – to black and white for a period, such as in the 2016 work ‘Displaced’. You have since returned to using colour, mostly working in pastel tones. How would you interpret the varying hues that your sculptures embody?
I often work with a single colour for a period of time, seeing it everywhere I go, experimenting with different versions of it, and placing it in different spaces to see its reaction to what surrounds it. I’m interested in how coloured objects hold their own in a busy visual environment. Much of my interest in colour comes from the pigments I used when I painted more, where I would find one pigment – a very specific ultramarine with a greenish hue made in Germany for example, and learn how it worked over a period of time – by mixing it with other colours and by setting it against them, and I still like to work with a single colour for quite a while. I think of Black as a colour too, and return to it as a sort of home base periodically. In the difficult period we discussed before, it felt as if it was the only solution and I seemed unable to introduce any other colours. But I suddenly got to breaking point with Brexit, maybe a bit like grieving, where I felt the only solution was to come together and, with that, I felt a need for stronger, brighter colours.
In ‘Pink’, you removed the colour from its gender associations and stereotypes. As a female artist, have you ever found working with a certain palette has affected the way a work has been viewed?
It’s so easy to add gender associations to anything – whenever I talk about welding to non-artist friends there is a slight surprise which I suspect has something to do with their image of a female sculptor should be. And ‘Pink’ was definitely looking at how this colour has become a symbol of gender. So with that palette, in particular yes, I think it was relevant but usually I don’t think it is, although I may be wrong.
You have taken part in numerous residencies, including Leighton House, the Hogchester Arts Residency, and at Studio Block M74 as part of the Brooke Benington Residency Programme. Have any of these led to you producing very unexpected work?
Yes, each time. And each time I have started a little unclear about what to do or where the residency might go. It feels very liberating to leave behind all the clutter of the studio and to start with nothing. Usually, I begin rather nervously, wondering if I’ll ever have another idea again. I wander around, collect bits and often start some works that go nowhere. Once I can get my hands on some new materials or a new process – pewter casting in Hogchester, market plastic in Mexico, paper pulp in my ‘home residency’ at the moment – unexpected things begin to happen and somehow I’m always surprised they have.
A sense of curiosity is very present in your work. Being intuitive and risk-taking, do you plan sculptures, do they become realised through experimentation, or is there an interplay between both approaches? Has your instinctiveness evolved over time as you have become more confident within your practice?
I have realised over time that if I plan too carefully it always goes awry. I scavenge and collect ideas but the work only really starts to get going through play and experimentation, so I never know quite what will happen. There is a great quote, I think by Picasso, about planting the seed of an idea then forgetting about it and letting it grow alone. You’re right that I do feel more confident that something will happen eventually but I always have a shaky moment at the start of a period of work.
Bright yellow became central to the work produced on your recent residency in Mexico City, a similar shade to your earlier commission ‘Song of the Sun’ in China. What specific aspects of the lively environment inspired the route your work took in this period?
In Mexico, I did a bit of travelling first and was struck by the clarity of the colours and how they translated from buildings and traditional clothes through to plastics and toys, but I didn’t have any specific ideas about how to deal with them. When I got to Mexico City I started by fiddling around with forms I had seen in the Mayan temples. Gradually, wandering around the city, I started focussing on the plastic in the market, specifically the yellow plastic which I hadn’t expected. But as you say, I had just worked on a commission in China where I had used yellow for different reasons – as a juxtaposition to the heaviness of the steel girders I was using, and so the work would stand out against a busy environment – so I expect my eye was tuned in to the colour.
Displaying works in groups is an integral factor to your practice. In ‘Improvisations’, you placed sculptures alongside found objects, removing any hierarchy between them. Could you elaborate on why this concept of status is important to you?
In life and in my work I’m very wary of hierarchy. I try to see things, materials, and people for what they are not how they are perceived. For example, bronze, revered by so many, is over 90% copper, yet copper has much less kudos. By putting things in groups this becomes clearer – their relationships become more equal and they start to perform different roles in the work.
How does the act of collecting contribute to your making? Are found objects used to generate new ideas, for example through playing and experimenting with them?
It is critical – the act of scavenging from my surroundings is the starting point of much of my work. I’m always interested in how, if we all walked down the same street, we would notice different things. The things I notice include questions I have, colours I am interested in, groups of forms and interactions with how we live life and these change over time. Once I bring things back into my studio it’s like being in a laboratory and I can start to play with them.
The rectangle is a recurring shape within your work, and you have mentioned the connection between this structure and digital screens. For example, ‘Open and Shut’ explores the outline of a laptop. Can you elaborate on your interest in this shape and how some works explore the subject of technology?
It is everywhere isn’t it and we look at them often without seeing them – from our screens to the paper we write on – far more than ever before. In a way, it’s obvious, because we stand at 90 degrees, but I think in terms of art it has changed everything. Firstly paper size – our ideas are designed to fit on A4 – if the standard paper was long and thin no doubt our ideas and writing would be different. But then the screens. At the end of the 19th century, paintings stopped being windows on the world and the picture plane came forward. But now we have gone back to looking through rectangles into a world beyond, defined always by the shape of the rectangle of the screen. So I suppose I’m interested in it formally but also philosophically about how our seeing is controlled and what is going on outside that box.
In the past you have created forms inspired by piles of cardboard boxes left outside buildings, seeing them as sculptural and reminiscent of consumerism. By working with everyday objects, there is an embodied context to the materiality of each of your sculptures. Are there any specific issues you are trying to raise for the viewer?
Just recently I made a sculpture from discarded yacht wheels I found at the scrap yard. They were sold simply for the weight of the stainless steel – all value from their purpose or design stripped away. With this, as with the cardboard boxes, I am inviting the viewer to look at the formal and material qualities of something and to question their preconceptions of value and purpose, especially the effect that mass production has on this.
In your practice, you work with both a traditional hands-on approach and also with advanced technological machinery. Do you see the future of sculpture changing as innovative equipment, such as 3-D printing, becomes more prevalent?
I definitely do, but I think artists have always used the tools and resources available to them so it’s a bit like adding to a sculptor’s palette. I see new opportunities around me and want to try them and incorporate them when they are useful. It’s definitely a very exciting time though. For example, medical robots can make sculptures across the world, 3D printers can print objects no other machine or hand can make and, once the rectangular screen can be left behind there will be a wealth of possibility for artists. It will be really interesting to see what happens.
Interaction between the audience and your work is present in your large outdoor sculptures, such as ‘Song of the Sun’. Is the way a work interacts with the viewer as important as how it interacts with the space it occupies?
It really is, especially for work in public. I am interested in the relationship between the public and artworks because people don’t have a choice about seeing work when they are outside, so I think it should be more of an invitation and less of a request. I like putting work in the public space which has a resonance with issues of physical elements of that space and allowing the public to build their own links. In the case of ‘Song of the Sun’ it is set in a large city in China, Hengshui, with building work all around it. I was inspired by thoughts about the strengths and weaknesses of this fast development. But I also love the fact that people can rest and play on the sculptures and run around them.
While your outdoor sculptures are large scale, your indoor works appear smaller, fragmented and displayed in groups. How do you assess the dialogue between your interior and exterior work?
When I make small groups of work there is always an ambiguity of scale – a bit like architect’s models, I imagine myself walking between the objects as well as looking down on them and I have always thought of them as architectural spaces. So there is a strong relationship and, at both scales, the spaces and paths between the objects are as important as the objects themselves.
It seems you are unfazed by working with a range of materials and techniques, evident in your studio which contains numerous tools and machines. Are there any new skills you would like to learn, and how would they inform your work?
At the moment I’m trying to learn the 3D design programme, Maya, so I can build a dialogue between experiments in my studio and the virtual space of the computer. I’m finding it slow-going, but was inspired to learn it by my experience in China. I worked with engineers here to build the file to send to China for my work to be made and it was exciting to watch them build programmes that bent the beams virtually. Also when I got there I wanted to change something and there were no workbenches or tools for me to do it – they wanted to work solely from a computer file, so I felt quite de-skilled. I’m hoping that, once I become comfortable using it, I will be able to play with space and scale a little like I’ve used Photoshop before to see how large a work should be or what colour within a space.
Considering your work is influenced by the city surroundings, are there any spaces you are especially keen to produce site-specific work in?
I’d love to work in more museums and out in the street, both full of multiple references to relate to now. I’m more interested in this than wide open spaces where the interactions are fewer. I particularly like the idea of being given a space I haven’t known before and discovering what goes on there.
After raising a family and teaching art, your own practice is now becoming a priority. Can you identify any of the struggles, or benefits, from waiting to pursue creating full time? Are you aiming to return to your education career?
I love teaching but really feel I need a break from it at the moment as it was beginning to crowd out my practice. I’m sure I’ll go back to it in some form but at the moment I’m enjoying just making small interventions – for example, whilst we’re all in lockdown, I’ve started a street art WhatsApp group for all ages and stages. Each week I make a summary document of all the wonderful work that’s been made. In my studio I’m experimenting with paper pulp which I posted and have triggered a street craze.
Words by Vanessa Murrell