City Art Reader 25: Olivia Chamberlain

20th Nov 2019

Olivia Chamberlain is a Christchurch-based artist who creates sharp, vivid, abstract paintings. Her works are meticulously planned, finding an elegant line between organic forms and crisp colour fields. Cameron Ralston discussed with Chamberlain how this new body of work was formed and the challenges of establishing an ongoing painting practice. Adjustments by Olivia Chamberlain opens at City Art Depot 5.30pm on 26 November 2019 and runs through to the 16 December.

Olivia Chamberlain painting in her studio

Cameron: Are you still using botanical forms as the main reference for your paintings?

Olivia: I wouldn’t say so, but as they have been a point of departure in the past they have led to what I’m doing now. There’s probably only one form in these paintings that came from a leaf but it speaks to the other shapes I’m working with now.

So these works are more abstract?

Yes, I’d say they’re abstractions. One of the first works I did in the series is the only work that depicts something, even though it’s very abstract. Last summer, I was in the car and there was a rubber band on the dashboard reflecting onto the windscreen. I thought about it every now and then for a few months until I turned it into a painting. I think the organic oval shape may have caught my eye because I had been thinking about plants and leaf shapes before that and had been looking for something similar to move on with.

In your 2018 exhibition Loungers at Next Gallery there were a couple of works which incorporated that oval shape – were those the beginning of this?

Yeah, those works were at the tail end of what I had been thinking about and maybe an indication of what was coming.

Olivia Chamberlain’s artist studio

You’re working here with paper and card constructions – how does this figure into the making of your works?

I’ve been using this technique for a while, even when I was at university and painting more representationally. I would take photographs of my subjects, cut them out and move them around, so even though I was painting from life I was constructing the compositions as well. I’m still cutting paper, but I’ve been looking around op shops for coloured card – you may remember as a kid those pads of construction paper, there’s so much of it in those shops and they come in so many different colours. Some colours are quite unusual, and might not be available to buy from an art shop. So, I might do a drawing on these, cut it out, move it around, reuse it, trace around it, combine it with another colour. Some of the shapes are recycled from work to work. I’m quite interested in how drawings change through the process until they reach the painting.

‘dream catalogue’, Olivia Chamberlain, acrylic and Flashe on cotton, 2019

I notice you have painted some works on canvas which is a variation from what you have been painting on previously. How have you found the change in material?

I found the roll of fabric in an op shop, and the colour worked really well with what I’d already been doing. I’m painting the same ground colours on the fabric but allowing some of the fabric to come through. I haven’t really painted on canvas since very early on at university – I didn’t enjoy it then because it had so much give and tooth in the weave of it and I was using really little brushes at the time. But now I’m stretching the fabric over the boards that movement isn’t there.

I’ve always thought of your work as having very sharp lines. Has the change in material been a challenge to that?

Yes, it has been. I’ve always been aware of where the viewer stands in relation to the work, how as they move closer more of it comes into focus and you see it differently and stepping back it might dissolve a bit. At a distance, the work on fabric still looks crisp and has the quality of the works on board but up close they are softer and have a different character.

Olivia Chamberlain’s artist studio

What draws you towards the bright colours you use?

I just came across the paper and fabric, but I found the green and pink paints on sale at Gordon Harris in these glass jars – I was just attracted to the colours. It’s called Flashe, it’s a vinyl acrylic paint. It dries so matte and has this beautiful finish that I had been looking for in the regular acrylic paints I had been using as the grounds. But then I’ve talked to someone else who got a totally different finish from the same paint. It’s always interesting what each artist brings to their materials and how they make those work for them. Other colours are from mixing up what I have or referencing the coloured paper I’ve found. I’m trying to work more intuitively than in the past, I used to be quite rigid in the way I worked.

Yes, it seems like you do a lot of planning before you put paint on the board or fabric. Are you allowing the forms to change as you paint them?

I do let them change, however the fabric can be quite unforgiving so I’ve only got one chance to get those right – I’ve done one of these paintings three times. But you’re right, there’s still a lot of planning in the building forms out of paper.

‘new commute’ (detail), Olivia Chamberlain, acrylic and Flashe on board, 2019

I think it’s to the benefit of the works, they feel very considered. That said, you also allow the paint to slip off the facing surface of your paintings – is this left intentionally?

I let the paint dribble a little bit, because the surface is so clean and crisp I like that you can see some of the material and how it’s been made.

Where does the title for the show Adjustments come from?

It was a word I had written in my notebook for a long time – maybe a couple of years. For this show it speaks to the way I construct the paintings – constantly jiggling them around a bit and then changing and switching things in and out. So partly it reflects the way I made them but it’s also a word that’s relevant to this time in my practice coming out of art school and figuring out how to continue making work.

Has finding time to make art been difficult since leaving art school?

I don’t think any of us knew what was coming when we left. It is tricky. I’m working full-time when I wish, like lots of people, I was painting full-time. So it’s constant adjustments, a balancing act. It’s very different to when we were at art school when I could work on painting all day every day. It’s a much slower way of working now which is maybe why my practice has changed so much – maybe what I was doing wouldn’t have been sustainable. Sometimes during the working week I’ll be thinking about what I did in the studio over the weekend and so on return to the studio I have had time to mull over what is and isn’t working. But it takes a while to find your feet. I had to force myself to seek out that show last year so that I had a deadline and made something complete and finished. Now I feel a lot better about my practice, like I’m on a good trajectory.

‘power play’, Olivia Chamberlain, acrylic and Flashe on board, 2019

Are these works individually titled?

I always write down words that I’m thinking about or overhear or notice. I keep lists, usually in pairs and then assign them to works. In the past the titles have been what I’m depicting in the works so were very descriptive but these are words that I am just pairing with an image. They have a different relationship. Words are strange because people have so many associations with them. I’m still trying to figure out how they work together with the images.

Especially with abstract works, the titles can have quite a profound effect.

People who have seen these have read them in different ways, they want to find something they can recognise or relate to.

Yes, that’s quite common, I think it’s a natural response – searching for an entry point into the works.

A lot of this show is me learning new ways of working and methods of image making. I’ve really enjoyed making these works.