In her upcoming exhibition Off cuts, Christchurch-based painter Olivia Chamberlain continues her exploration of tone, shape and texture through minimal geometric abstraction. City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston visited her studio in central Christchurch to discuss this new body of work. Off cuts opens in the City Art Depot gallery from 5.30pm Tuesday 16 August and runs through to 5 September.
Olivia Chamberlain, cycle, acrylic and flashe on cotton, 270x220mm, 2022
In your exhibition ‘Spare room’ last year you based your works on the off cuts of paper from your first exhibition with us, ‘Adjustments’. You’ve used ‘Off cuts’ as the title for this exhibition, are you using the off cuts in that same way?
With some of the works in the show I’m using the remains from the ‘Spare room’ off cuts. The ‘Off cuts’ title speaks to the practicality of what I’m doing, the nature of how I’m making the paintings. I’m still using the paper shapes as a starting point but I’ve been doing more drawing as well from the paper cut outs.
Using them as the beginnings?
Yeah, and then manipulating the forms to suit the composition as I construct it.
So are they a little bit less random in that way?
Yes, these works feel more structured and considered. More refined. I’ve removed some elements that I was using in the ‘Spare room’ works – the outlines, hoops and coloured borders.
Was there any motivation in not using those again?
I was thinking about what was necessary to achieve what I want the works to do. I want them to convey my investigation into colour, form and paint. I don’t need those extra elements to get that across.
When I talked to Francis van Hout about his exhibition ‘Disillusioned Thinker’ earlier this year, he was interested in those same things – reducing previous works and seeing how far he could go while still achieving a sense of balance and what he wanted to convey. It seems you’re maybe on a similar track?
I’m distilling what’s going on down into something very simple.
It must take confidence to remove so much.
Yeah, there’s definitely nowhere to hide what I’ve done with these works. I can see exactly how it was constructed and layered. It’s all out there.
Olivia Chamberlain, fragrant, acrylic on cotton, 270x220mm, 2022
You’ve pushed the overlapping forms with this body of work. Are you blending the paint on the canvas?
Because the paint I’m using is translucent I can overlap two washes to make a new colour. The paint is layered rather than blended to show what’s underneath. I’ve really enjoyed this process. When I first started doing it, it was a surprise what the two colours would do. Quite often it results in a third colour I can’t quite describe and perhaps wouldn’t consider mixing.
Is it something that you play around with and experiment with beforehand? Or are you seeing what happens in the final piece?
A bit of both. I think it really depends on how I’m feeling when I’m making them. I might be feeling confident one day and just go for it, where another day I might do some little test swatches on a scrap of fabric first.
You’re using quite vibrant colours in these works, perhaps moving away from the more natural colours of earlier works.
Because the forms and shapes are quite bold with hard edges, I chose colours that suited them.
Olivia Chamberlain, nearby, acrylic on canvas, 737x600mm, 2022
These big works feel tight and structured compared to the smaller pieces, interlocking in a different way from the small ones.
The shift in scale is new for me and I wasn’t sure how the compositions would translate to larger works.
Did you change anything about your process for the bigger scale?
The process changed because it had to. I have to apply the paint very quickly because it soaks into the fabric so fast. It was quite physical making the big paintings. In the scheme of things, they’re not that big but, compared to my small intimate works where I’m making them on the desk, my body is involved in a different way. I’ll paint them on the floor or standing up over a trestle table and I’ll move around the work. I still need to be close to the surface.
You must need to be both quick and precise?
Yes, I have to really prepare myself before I begin. I’m still adjusting to working on a bigger scale. It’s nice to see the flat planes of colour over a larger area.
In the bigger works the variations, which would occur in the smaller works, become quite a visible feature.
Things that you really have to approach the small works to see, like the edges and how the paint sits into the fabric, you can see from much further away. But then if you go up to the bigger works you see other things as well.
Olivia Chamberlain, assorted, acrylic and flashe on cotton, 270x220mm, 2022
You must look at the shapes in your paintings so much – outside of the studio, do you ever find them out there in the world?
It happens that way, I will be in the studio and then go out and I’ll be like, ‘Oh there’s that curve or block’. You notice things around when you’re thinking about them, rather than seeing things and bringing them back into the studio deliberately. Then again, maybe it is happening that way and it’s subconscious.
In that way are there any influences that you have in the work or is it coming purely from the compositional experimenting you do?
Primarily they come from the process of starting with the paper forms and drawings. But I’m definitely thinking of things outside the studio when I’m in here. I think about the seasons a lot at the moment, partly because from the studio I can see everything outside, especially the trees. It’s not that I’m depicting trees but I’m thinking about changes, seasons, time and the passing of time. Also thinking about fruit, I think because I’m working at my house so there are domestic things that cut into my studio day even if it’s just going downstairs to eat lunch.
This studio is quite a bright spot. Does that play into the colours and open space around the forms?
Even though it’s winter and the trees aren’t coloured, I can see so much grass and I know that soon the rhododendron trees will be covered in some of the colours that I’m using. Thinking about the cycles – the past and what will happen soon.
Your painting process also has a bit of a time element to it, with the paint soaking into the fabric.
And the paint changing colour as it dries too.
Olivia Chamberlain, interval, acrylic on canvas, 737x600mm, 2022
The studio is a bit like a watchtower.
I can see everything out there. I can see the sport courts over there and the brightly coloured balls and rubbish bins. At the moment they’ve got little multicoloured cones laid out. And across the square where they’re building those flats, I can see the new pink timber framing. The studio definitely informs my pieces.