To touch without touching: playfully manipulated monumentality in the work of Olivia Bax

London based artist Olivia Bax creates large-scale, sculptural forms that are bold both in color and in presence. Many of her sculptures possess elements that are of the familiar, such as what could be a handle or a pipe. However, their unconventional form and candy-colored hues abstract their function. Combine that with an irresistible, textural surface, Bax’s work entices the viewer to touch and feel the tactile details that are created by the artist’s hand (print). Using paper pulp as her main material, the viewer is able to see impressions formed from Bax’s hands while constructing her captivating sculptures. This mark making creates an immediate intimacy between viewer and object, giving the structure an element of the human — a physical connection to the artist. Moving around her monumental works, these details offer us an insight into the process, as well as a trace of the maker.

Olivia Bax has a BA in Fine Art from Byam Shaw School of Art and an MFA in Sculpture from Slade School of Fine Art, London. Join us as we discuss the artist’s love for creating larger-than-life works as well as the challenges that come with the task.

AMM: What has your journey been like as an artist so far? Do you have a background in sculpture?

OB: I knew I wanted to go to art school ever since I can remember. I moved to London at age 18 for an art foundation course at Wimbledon College of Art. I was interested in pursuing painting, sculpture or theatre set design. The set I made at Wimbledon was much larger than it was supposed to be and completely impractical. The tutor suggested it would make a good sculpture rather than a set! I did my undergraduate degree at Byam Shaw School of Art (2007-2010). It was a small school with few students. The degree was in Fine Art but I found myself mostly in the sculpture workshop.

AMM: When did you begin making work in such a large scale? What are some challenges you’ve had working in this scale? Have you ever had space constraints while creating your work?

OB: It has always seemed natural to make large objects despite not being tall myself! At Byam Shaw I made large steel sculptures. After graduating, I did a few residencies in the United States and would take advantage of the empty studio spaces by filling them quickly. Of course, making large work presents challenges! When I returned to the Slade School of Fine Art for my postgraduate studies, I went from working in my own studio to sharing an open space with 14 sculptors. The space in which one works has a huge influence on the work one makes. At the Slade, I wanted to make large works but had little space to make. I began fashioning components which I could assemble together in situ. After graduating I moved studios a lot, but I am now in a relatively large space and as a result I can make free standing, bulbous forms. Having room has been liberating too. Finding space has become a huge problem in London, particularly for sculptors. I heard Louise Bourgeois on the radio once, and her advice for young sculptors was to ‘buy good storage’. I couldn’t agree more.

AMM: What materials are used in your work? What would you say is your favourite material to work with?

OB: I use a range of different materials and I like exploring different processes. At the moment, I am using thin steel to create armatures for sculptures. Then covering areas with paper pulp. I mix shredded paper, glue, paint and plaster into a huge bucket then apply it with my hands. I like material which you can manipulate – like plaster and clay. The paper pulp works for me because I can mix large quantities and it is very malleable. Colour is important in my work too, I like that the colour is in the material, rather than being applied to the surface at the end.

Olivia Bax, “Roar”, steel, chicken wire, newspaper, glue, paint, plaster, 170 x 143 x 78 cm

AMM: The surfaces of your sculpture are incredibly textured and tactile. As you use your own hands to create imprints in your work, can you describe your process physically manipulating your material to achieve this affect?

OB: The marks on the surface are not arbitrary but show how the work has come to be. I need to press the pulp onto the surface in order for it to stick to the armature. It can only be applied by hand, hence the surface. I am trying not to disguise how the work has been made and I hope that becomes a good entry point for the viewer.

AMM: Although your sculptures are not literally interactive, a physical connection exists within your work. Is this in order to further engage and connect with the viewer, allowing your work to touch without touching?

OB: I hope so. With pieces like Hot Spot there are actual handles in a convenient place for someone to grab. But I always think the suggestion is more powerful. I hope that when the viewer looks at the work they can imagine the act of grabbing without physically doing it.

AMM: Some of your installation pieces seem to reference everyday objects, such as Palisade, which resembles a less functional fence. Do you find inspiration in these types of functional items? What elements of everyday objects do you find the most aesthetically interesting?

OB: I take a lot of inspiration from things around me – the city environment, architecture, the way that things are made. Palisade was conceived with more of a functioning role than most of my work. I wanted to make a sculpture which could divide a space in different ways. The parts are slotted together in the space. I was thinking about fences and screens.

AMM: Your works invite intimacy, yet are monumental; is ‘big’ best for your expression and why?

OB: I hope all of my work invites intimacy despite the scale. My largest works comprise assembled components so although the installed work may appear monumental the individual components are of a human scale. Sam Cornish, a curator and a critic reviewed my last solo show at 93 Baker Street and described some work as ‘mock-monumental’. I thought that was appropriate. The work is not monumental at all in comparison with outdoor sculpture, public sculpture or architecture. But they do suggest a monumentality, maybe in a more playful, less serious way. I make work in relation to my own means and yes, the work often ends up being ‘big’.

Olivia Bax, “Zest”, plaster, hessian, polystyrene, wood, steel, paper, paint, PVA, silicone and armature wire, dimensions variable, Fold Gallery, London, photo: Noah Da Costa

AMM: I understand your solo exhibition “at large” at 93 Baker Street in London (organised by VO Curations) showcased a wide range of your work. How did the work come together in one space? Do you see your body of work as a continued conversation, or do you feel each piece contains its own narrative?

OB: The exhibition at Baker Street showed a range of work from 2015 to 2018. It was the largest space I have shown in to date, and it was a great opportunity to see the work all together. It was interesting to see how the earliest piece in the show Boulder (with handle) related so strongly to the most recent works Rumble and Hot Spot. I hope that each piece can provide its own narrative but I like playing with many pieces together. A lot of my work is made up of small details, it is satisfying when you can look through one sculpture to another work. It creates a new dialogue.

AMM: Has there been a moment in your career as an artist that you would consider a turning point?

OB: I couldn’t give you one. The best thing about being an artist is trying new things and challenging yourself through your work. If I didn’t have regular turning points, I would be worried and dissatisfied!

AMM: Who or what would you say has had the most impact on your work?

OB: Again that’s hard to answer. I’ve had some excellent tutors in the schools I’ve studied at. I learned a lot from working as an assistant to Anthony Caro. He offered invaluable advice and support. My peers are a consistent sounding board. I don’t believe you can make art in a vacuum.

AMM: What is a typical day like in the studio for you? What music or podcasts (if any) do you listen to while working?

OB: I try and get admin out the way in the morning so I am not distracted when I get to the studio. I’m normally there from 10am and I work flat out. I actually like working in silence, unless I can hear someone else’s music from next door! Then I listen to something I don’t need to think about – classical music or desert island discs! I work until I’m done. I like running home from the studio. Artists never stop thinking about their work, but it helps me process what I’ve done or think about what needs doing.

Find out more about the artist: www.oliviabax.co.uk

Interview by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Magazine.

Olivia Bax, “Hot Spot”, steel, chicken wire, newspaper, glue, paint, plaster, handles, hooks, 150 x 201 x 22 cm