Architectural ambiguity as strength and weakness.
In this interview, artist Olivia Bax reveals to us that she has drawing at the centre of her practice, transforming the spontaneity she incites with pencil into bold sculptural works of steel, chicken wire, and collected newspapers. The liberated space of these forms is free from the constraint of planned design, and this freeness translates into the lightness of the works themselves, making them easy to transform and reform around human shape in an exploration of solidity and fragility. This human aspect to Olivia Bax’s bulbous sculptures is also apparent in their curvaceous contours, almost sentient forms and ambiguous materials that lead viewers to stop and examine by navigating themselves around them. “Art demands time”, she states, leading audience questioning to underpin Bax’s practice as she hopes to lure people in through the use of bright colours and signs that point the viewer in the direction of her works. This is particularly the case at her current show at Lily Brooke Gallery. Alongside participation, architectural influence is another key component in these pieces, with balconies being a key reference point through their external and internal spatial attributes. Bax tells us that she also utilises pockets, joints, and handles which all advocate human interaction through their distinctly architectural purposes. These points of connection tell the story of the works themselves, as by supporting them, they highlight their strengths and weaknesses. This playful, almost theatrical, take on sculpture, demonstrates the controlled and uncontrolled aspects of Bax’s practice, which reflects the drama of life itself. This is shown in the artist remarking that “life can be full of drama, so why not reference that in sculpture?”. In terms of the future amplification of her practice, Bax hints at larger and more ambitious works to come as she considers the possibility of outdoor installations.
Visiting your studio, I was impacted by your process, with drawing at the core. Can you explain how you ‘draw’ the skeleton of your works in steel, and the steps that follow on to get to your outcome?
Drawing has always been the centre of my work. When I move from drawing on paper to working with steel, I don’t refer to my sketches, but instead try to adopt the same spontaneity in space as I have on paper. My sketches or doodles are the starting point before the work is conceived. Therefore, they are not concerned with what the sculpture will ‘be’ – how it will stand or what materials I will use. They are free from ‘problems’ so they are exciting. By treating the armature stage as a three-dimensional drawing, I hope to capture in the sculpture what I like about drawing. The steel drawing becomes structural in that I use it to cover areas with chicken wire, papier mâché, and then paper pulp. The covering process is like introducing solid areas, and understanding some of the initial marks.
Paper, steel, chicken wire, papier mâché are common materials you employ. In this context, works that seem heavy are light. Are you keen on teasing the viewer’s perceptions of weight and malleability?
It is important that my work is light, so that I can move it around myself. Since I started making more solid, bulbous forms, with steel armatures, the work is heavier. However, they are lighter than they seem! I hope that the materials (papier mâché, paper pulp) might hint at lightness. In the invitation to my exhibitions, I often use images of myself either beside or within the work or lifting a section of a sculpture to juxtapose the apparently heavy with the light. I enjoy the viewer enquiring about how a work is made as I think it can be a good entry point into the artwork.
Being one of the Art Editors for the quarterly magazine AMBIT, how much has this role influenced your own artistic practice?
It’s a great privilege to see inside an artist’s studio and it can be much more revealing than simply seeing finished work in an exhibition – as I am sure you know only too well! So, when I’ve seen an exhibition I like, it’s wonderful to have an opportunity to contact artists and talk more about their work. Over the last five years, I’ve visited lots of studios and interviewed a lot of different artists. Of course, the artists we feature may subconsciously influence my own work in the studio. I remember being fascinated about the painter Jonathan Lasker’s process, and looking at a lot of his work to prepare for an interview with him (for Ambit 227). Not long after bright yellows started appearing in my work. That’s not to say that I hadn’t used yellow before, but perhaps the interview brought it to my attention again. I work on the art content with Jean-Philippe Dordolo, and next year we are going to invite more guest editors. It’s wonderful when someone whose work I wasn’t familiar with is brought to my attention and I can discover new work.
The title of your solo show, ‘Roost’, refers to nesting and settling, however the piece seems not to be completely fixed. Is this contrast intentional?
Yes, the title ‘Roost’ was to imply making a nest, which is what we do when we make a home. The work has a lot of cavities, inside and outside spaces. I am curious about what we present to people, and what we keep hidden. Navigating architecture is very much like navigating and getting to know someone. Some of the components are loosely attached onto the main sculpture. I suppose the contrast is the fragility in parts versus the solid.
I was fascinated by the playful ‘exposing and hiding’ quality of your current work at Lily Brooke Gallery – especially as it is revealed completely to the passing-by walkers outside of the space, however, seemingly negates interaction when encountered from the inside of the space. Why have you placed this initial physical and emotional obstacle onto the viewers?
I like the view from the street. Particularly with the yellow floor, the whole space glows! I hope that passers-by might be curious enough to stop and look. ‘Roost’ is very much ‘on view’ to the outside world but of course there is a lot more to see when you get up close to the work. If it teases someone to ring the doorbell, then that’s great! For those who come into the house and view the work from the door of the gallery, the work is quite oppressive: a large wall of paper pulp. But there is a small steel mesh square to peer into. I want people to navigate around the work, to look and discover. The experience of looking at the work is very much part of the work.
Your studio wall is filled with photographs of buildings, in particular, balconies. What fascinates you about these architectural spaces and how we inhabit them – and have you translated this research into your current solo show at Lily Brooke Gallery?
I became particularly interested in balconies during a residency in Hong Kong (2016/17). I saw a lot of ad hoc structures built on to the sides of buildings in order to increase living quarters. They often seemed precariously hooked on to the original architecture. I like how balconies aren’t inside or outside spaces. When thinking about the show at Lily’s, I thought about how her gallery is a home. So the living space was at the forefront of my mind. I was thinking about balconies, storage spaces, and ‘vide poche’, which is a great French word to describe vessels for loose ends. I was interested in public and private spaces and what we present to people.
Vessel forms, pockets, joints, handles, and hooks are very apparent motifs in your overall practice. Why do you recur elements that allude to joining or supporting?
These are all things that keep appearing in my work. I suppose that I keep using them to try and understand them for myself. For me, they are all emotive; I want my sculptures to carry feelings. The joint of a sculpture, or the way it is being supported tells the story about how the work is made. I am not trying to trick anyone, although I like how people struggle to work out how ‘Roost’ got through Lily’s door!
Small yet with a big presence, your work ‘Eyrie’ seems to point the viewer at where to look at, demanding attention in an almost god-like, elevated positioning. Can you explain why you use ‘pointing’ as a tool to direct the viewer to your works?
I never thought of ‘Eyrie’ as god-like! I like how ‘Eyrie’ and ‘Roost’ are in conversation. After I made ‘Roost’ I realised that it was about being confronted (on entering), peering in, looking through and looking down, but that there was nowhere to look up. ‘Eyrie’ finishes the cycle. ‘Roost’ loosely refers to windows, shelves, and storage units. In the same way, ‘Eyrie’ looks a little like a dysfunctional light. It is true that I use large hooks to ‘point’ the viewer. Perhaps it is because I don’t think we look at anything very carefully any more, it’s hard to keep up with quick streams of information. Art demands time. Maybe I am trying to be helpful by directing people in the right direction?
There seems to be a body-like aspect to your pieces, due to their human scale, curved forms, and apparent marks of touch… would you agree in saying that your sculptures lie in the intersection between abstraction and figuration?
This is a difficult question because I find the word ‘abstraction’ problematic. ‘Abstract’ has become the word to describe ‘non figurative’ work which means that it is such a broad term, I am not sure that it is helpful. I am not studying the figure either so the work isn’t figurative. I want my work to be ‘human’ in that I want people to try and relate to it. ‘Abstract’ implies that the work is distant from the world. We need more vocabulary to describe art because I am not that happy being in the intersection!
Can you develop on the ‘controlled’ and the ‘uncontrolled’ aspects in your practice?
I suppose there is ‘control’ in that I must make-work within my means. I use free newspapers that I collect in London, and unwanted household paint because it is a cheap way of generating a lot of material. I like the results, so I keep using it. It is good to have some restrictions such as how I select colour. But when I am making in the studio, I don’t want to feel ‘controlled’. I take the perimeters and try and push against them, to make what I want within my means.
We spoke about theatre, and how it’s meaning has developed within today’s exhibitions in my recent studio visit with you. Moreover, the press release of your show written by Hywel Livingstone refers to your work as a ‘theatrical trap’. Can you develop how you approach the idea of ‘theatre’?
Calling an artwork ‘theatrical’ can also have negative connotations but I have never understood why. I like theatre! A friend told me that ‘Roost’ sucked him in, and he had difficulty getting out of the work. I suppose he meant literally, there isn’t a lot of space to stand back! Also, the work doesn’t offer answers in that there are a lot of hidden, shut out places – behind the scenes of the ‘open’ stage set. And, the floor is yellow! Life can be full of drama, so why not reference that in sculpture?
Which upcoming projects have you got lined up?
I am finishing a publication / artist book for ‘Roost’. I am writing a proposal for an outdoor sculpture, and I have a few shows in the pipeline for next year including one with a painter friend of mine, Dominic Beattie. He uses a lot of colour too, so it should be a punchy show!
In which direction is your work heading? It seems that the scale of your works is amplifying…have you thought about exhibiting your work in an open air and/or public space context?
I hope to make some outdoor pieces next year. I think the problem with a lot of open air or public sculpture is that they have simply been ‘scaled-up’ and fabricated. There seems to be no room for trial and error. I want to try and find a way to make outdoor sculpture with the same integrity.
Words by Vanessa Murrell