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 on paper and on canvas. Chamberlain discussed her upcoming exhibition Spare room with City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston. Spare room opens 5.30pm Tuesday 11 May at City Art Depot and runs through to 31 May.
Cameron Ralston: The titles on these works are quite interesting: ‘spare room’, ‘after thought’, ‘left over’. They have a similar feel – is there a link between these?
Olivia Chamberlain: Like with my previous exhibition here, I have been keeping notes of words that I think of, overhear or read. Then I go through them and pull out a group that I want to use. It’s nice that you’re seeing a theme. These paintings are made using the paper offcuts of the shapes I used in my last show, kind of the inverse or scraps of what remained.
Is that where the ‘spare’ comes from? The leftoverness of it?
Partly, it’s a good connection. My new studio is in our spare room so it’s a practical reference to where the works were made.
Has moving studio changed anything about the way you paint?
I feel these works are a bit brighter. My last studio didn’t really have any natural light and the new room is super sunny and a lot more open. So possibly, subconsciously.
‘left over’, Olivia Chamberlain, acrylic and flashe on cotton over board, 300x250mm, 2021
The works do feel more contrasting compared to the previous exhibition. Last time it seemed you were quite keenly balancing the compositions and the way things were arranged. These new works don’t feel as strictly harmonised.
The shapes I used last time were softer and more organic. The contrast you’re referring to in these pieces is a result of using the discarded paper rather than the original shapes where I was really trying to make works that were balanced and harmonious. The offcuts were always going to be more unsettled.
Are you creating limitations for yourself in using those offcuts?
Yes, limitations in a deliberate way. I’m interested in setting boundaries for myself and then having to work within them or as the work progresses noticing what habits or rules I’m subconsciously setting as well.
What sort of rules?
Such as using the forms that I already had and where I’m putting them on the canvas – they’re all quite central. All the formal elements are repeated and deliberate.
‘day trip’, Olivia Chamberlain, acrylic and flashe on cotton over board, 270x220mm, 2021
You haven’t painted directly on boards for this exhibition. What’s the motivation for moving away from that and towards these softer fabric works?
I had a few works on cotton in the last show and I was getting more interested in the way the paint behaved on the fabric rather than the wood. I knew what the paint would do on the wood, but on the fabric it’s a bit more uncertain. I have to work harder to either control it or let it do its own thing.
Does it soak in?
Yes, the fabric is quite absorbent and I’m using super watered-down acrylic paint. Depending on the pigment it can either bleed a little bit or just stay exactly where I’ve put it. So, this body of work is also about me figuring out how the paint behaves and when to control it or not.
You get a real fullness of colour, especially when viewing in close to them. The way the paint has soaked into the material means you don’t get speckles of the ground colour coming through and interrupting.
There’s also some variation even though it’s still the flat areas of single colours that I’ve been using for a while now.
Is that something that you’ve tried to manipulate
I usually just let it happen. You can pre-empt it sometimes, like if I add more water I know what it’s going to do. Colours like the dark green get dark rings around the edges whereas the pale colours don’t. It’s all about learning how the different colours operate.
‘side walk’, Olivia Chamberlain, acrylic on cotton over board, 270x220mm, 2020
Did you have made-up compositions from the paper cutouts that you were referring to when painting? Did you trace around them?
Usually I have the piles of paper shapes and draw around them just onto paper so that I have a line drawing to refer to. When I paint them I usually paint around the edge of the paper cutout. I’ve been thinking about words such as constructed and built, where I’m constructing an image out of nothing, using these parts to build something on the surface.
Do you use that word ‘constructed’ in an art historical context or are you referring to your actions?
The actions, because I’m physically making something and that’s what these paintings are about – the formal aspects of making a work. The decisions around form, colour and composition. But the art historical aspect is interesting and I think I mentioned to you that I’d been looking at some artists that were part of cubism and constructivism.
You also mentioned that you were taking colours from the world around you, including other artworks. Do any of them contain specific references?
I couldn’t look at any of the works and say ‘that represents this moment’ or ‘that was what I was looking at’ because it evolves. It’s probably more just noticing when you’re out for a walk and you see two colours beside each other and you take note of it. You might not go home and use it straight away, but you think about it or remember it for later.
‘arrangement 2’, Olivia Chamberlain, acrylic on paper (framed), 330x285mm, 2021
Your previous exhibition Adjustments was in December 2019, one of the last before Covid-19 entered our lives. Has your art practice changed at all because of it?
Well, I didn’t make much work during that initial time. It seemed to coincide with me thinking about how as an artist you are making things and using things and wondering how to justify that in a world that is already full of way too many things. So, during lockdown I wasn’t productive at all. With these works I’m making use of what I already have, I’m not buying new materials. That comes into me setting rules for myself – using paint that I already have. I think you have to be a bit more considered about what impact that has.
Do you think you’ve reconciled those feelings?
Not entirely but I also don’t want to stop making work. I think that’ll be an ongoing process.
‘arrangement 4’, Olivia Chamberlain, acrylic on paper (framed), 330x285mm, 2021
Is this your first time showing works on paper?
Yes, and probably the first time I’ve shown two different types of work together.
How do they relate to one another?
Firstly the forms. The works come from the same place. When I first started making the works on paper they were more like studies where I was painting smaller scaled versions of the works on fabric. I feel like I’m able to be more loose and experimental on paper so the shapes evolved a bit. They share a similar colour palette with the works on cotton and they’re also using a watered-down acrylic paint. These are more about interactions between the shapes. I was interested in how dark saturated rings develop around the edges and where the paint pools.
They feel more playful.
I think it’s a nice contrast. The works on cotton are more structured and deliberate. Because it’s more immediate I can try things out on paper without too much pressure. Even though the edge is still very crisp, the forms themselves are not as even as the ones on cotton. I might have a form in mind when I start applying the paint but where I take the brush is more instinctive, not as planned.
With the works on cotton you said you have a distinct plan for what you’ll be painting. Is it the same with these works on paper? Or are you more adding forms onto one another, building compositions that way?
I’m building right onto the paper with the paint. I would start with a shape in mind and then carry on. I would do little freehand drawings that are based on paper compositions.
I’m interested in where the moments of variability are in your regimented process.
I’ve got boxfuls of paper pieces. It’s a process of sorting until I have a pile I know I want to use for the body of work. When sorting through them I have moments of thinking ‘that shape is good’ and looking for other forms that’ll pair nicely with them.
You’re looking for those appealing moments.
There’s a balance between everything being planned and structured and the moments of intuition.
‘wash out’, Olivia Chamberlain, acrylic on cotton over board, 270x220mm, 2021