In Olivia Bax’s sculptures, many of the works have a pocket or basin fused to a lopsided armature. They allude to a tool or instrument, conjuring images of transferring liquids through pipes or valves. Bax’s works are made with a variety of material from hand-formed and welded steel to cardboard, polystyrene and newspapers salvaged from the street. She mixes household paint deemed "wrong" by hardware stores into her material resulting in vivid colours in a rough, pulpy surface texture. Her inspiration ranges from distilling processes, religious fonts to optimised pockets of urban space. She was recently inspired by an elaborate foot cage used to heal her cousin's broken leg which realigned the bone from the outside. This led her to consider making sculpture the "wrong" way round; armatures become idle handrails and grilles, abstract drawings in space that echo public architecture yet resist logical form and function.
Olivia Bax (b. 1988, Singapore) lives and works in London. She studied BA Fine Art at Byam Shaw School of Art, London (2007-2010) and MFA Sculpture at Slade School of Fine Art, London (2014-2016). Recent solo exhibitions include: Home Range, Holtermann, London (2022); Spill, L21, Mallorca (2022); Off Grid, Mark Tanner Sculpture Award Exhibition, Standpoint Gallery London (2020) toured to Cross Lane Projects, Kendal (2020/21) and Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens (2021); pah-d'bah, HS Projects, London (2021) and Chute, Ribot Gallery, Milan (2019/20). Prizes include: The Mark Tanner Sculpture Award (2019/20); Kenneth Armitage Young Sculptor Prize (2016), Additional Award, Exeter Contemporary Open, Exeter Phoenix (2017) and Public Choice Winner, UK/Raine, Saatchi Gallery, London (2015). Bax’s work was acquired by the 2020-21 UK Arts Council Collection.
You worked for a number of years as a studio assistant to Anthony Caro. How has that time influenced your practice?
I worked for Tony Caro as an assistant more than 10 years ago. At the time it put me off using steel (only because I was around it 5 days a week!) and made me curious to investigate other materials. When I returned to steel a few years ago, it was for the practical reason of using a suitable material for building armatures. In Tony-fashion, I like how easily the material can be cut, re-purposed and re-used. However, to me it feels like a new material, independent of the Caro-connotations. The obvious difference is that I use a thin (lightweight) bar which can be manipulated easily without the need for heat or more industrial processes. I’m interested in using the material as a drawing component not as the finished piece.
Tony worked a bit like a conductor - directing others to lift, tack, move, hold. He often let the assistant working on the sculpture decide where joints were welded or bolted. That prompted my fascination with joints: to what extent can I exaggerate and emphasise where and how materials join. I was precious about the finish of work before working with Tony who used to encourage assistants not to make things “too well” in case “it took the art out of it”. Overall, working with him gave me the most informative art education. He was exceedingly generous with his time and I am grateful for his encouragement and the opportunity to be involved with his work. The experience has made me consider my own position: what to accept and more importantly what to push against!
You often use very bold colours. What is your decision making process when it comes to colour and the finish for your sculptures?
I use household paint sourced from hardware shops. It has either been mixed incorrectly or someone has ordered but not collected. The paint is a crucial component of the pulp and helps the material bond as well as provide the colour which becomes, of course, inherent to the material itself. I enjoy how my choice of colour is limited by what is available. I seek out bold or bright colours because I enjoy how loud and emotive colour is. Colour helps to reinforce my focus on materiality: colour helps exaggerate the form. The finish of the sculpture is not arbitrary; it shows the way in which I’ve pressed, smeared, moulded the material onto the armature. This process is also important in helping me to make sense of what I’ve made.
How much planning goes into making a piece of work?
When I am working on a solo exhibition, I think hard about the relationship of one work to the next. I often work in series anyway because making sculpture generates a sequence of questions, resulting in more work! In the studio, I don’t consult pre-fabricated drawings but work intuitively and respond to the work in front of me.
What has inspired you recently?
In the summer I visited the purpose-built ski resort of Avoriaz, France with my partner and his family. The stark architecture has been influenced by the surrounding Alps, informed by the natural environment and climate. Yet there are no traditional chalets. Both the inside and outside spaces have been carefully considered to meet the needs of skiers and snowboarders in the winter snow season. We were there as pedestrians in summer, without snow. I found the jarring of purpose and reality in the off-season interesting and it made me consider my sculptures’ “roles” and how this notion could be explored and subverted. It also made me consider how sculpture might adapt and mutate “out of season” and what makes the “right” surroundings?
If you could exhibit anywhere in the world, where would it be?
That’s difficult! I have always wanted to go to Japan. I did a residency in Hong Kong a few years ago and the experience has fed into my work ever since. It was interesting returning to that part of Asia because I was born in Singapore and spent my early childhood there. I would love to visit a traditional paper-making plant in northern Japan and see more Japanese architecture (in particular structures with thatched roofs). I’m not sure where the venue would be for the exhibition? Somewhere near a good sushi bar?!
Inside or outside?
A couple of months ago I received a studio visit from an architect. I told him about my fascination with public spaces.
The cashier at my local supermarket is placed so that the customer has to walk around the whole shop in order to pay. Fast food restaurants are comfortable for the first 10 minutes and then the seats start to become uncomfortable and the lighting appears too brash. Railway stations are funnels to keep people moving. Handles on the bus, train or tube are often too high (for me), or too low (for many).
The architect told me that handles, seats, shelters and public spaces are designed ‘for the average man’.
A world for the average man.
Gallery spaces are designed to encourage people to slow down and to look.
Sculpture is good at getting in the way.
There are often handles placed in my work. They have been purely aesthetic in the past but recently they are becoming an important tool to lift parts in place, and dismantle them again.
They are not averaged.
Averaging by Olivia Bax (a short story from Yellowfields Volume 3:
Intuitive Geometries, Women making Contemporary sculpture)