Energy, space and colour – Sharne Wolff chats to Lionel Bawden about his latest exhibition Pattern Spill…
Sharne Wolff: I’d love to hear about the very first time you had the idea to use pencils to make a piece of art.
Lionel Bawden: I was standing in Woolworths in Dickson in the A.C.T. and packs of 24 coloured pencils were a dollar twenty-three each. I saw these packs and they looked so beautiful and so cheap, it occurred to me I had to do something with them other than draw, I needed to use the objects themselves. It was the late nineties and I was working on collaborations with a group of artists in Canberra, initiated by Vivienne Binns, along with Jacqueline Drinkall and Steven Holland amongst others. We were making a relief wall piece like a large map, each of us contributing an abstracted continent in the larger work. I first used coloured pencils in this context, creating a field of coloured stripes. It was then a swift evolution to gluing the pencils into a honeycomb block and carving them to start making river-stone forms.
Lionel Bawden, Pattern Spill II, 2011, coloured Staedtler pencils, epoxy, incralac on perspex shelf, form: 24.0×32.0x25.5 cm, shelf: 7.5 x 30.0 x 60.0 cm. Photo: Craig Bender
SW: Andrew Frost once wrote a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald where he said you’d unavoidably become known as the ‘pencil guy’. Some might feel trapped or cursed by the use of a particular medium while to others you’re one of a fortunate few artists who has received the ultimate gift – something that makes you totally original and unique and can be adapted to almost any subject. How do you feel about the term, and the pencils?
LB: I have always been proud that people recognised the work so accepted the title awkwardly, but tried to be graceful about it. Innumerable conversations involved the moment of vocalised realisation “Oh, you are the pencil guy!” Like any title bestowed upon you, it is all about the way it was delivered, so it has been said in homage and in insult. I kind of pigeon holed myself, as my Sydney exhibition career was focussed for a long time, solely on the pencil works. The ‘pencil works’ are a vocabulary that I am very articulate with. I have a fascination with the ambiguity the medium provides, being deliberately non didactic, after early work grounded in sexuality and deeply personal subject matter. More recently I have re-diversified my exhibition practice, which makes for a broader conversation, but the pencils remain core to my thinking. I feel very fortunate to have discovered this material- ‘the pencil honeycomb’ and to have had this extended dialogue with it. The territory continues to expand and it is rewarding to step away from it and then re-engage.
Lionel Bawden, Secretion II, 2011, coloured Staedtler pencils, epoxy, incralac on perspex shelf, form: 29.5 x 12.0×24.0 cm, Shelf: 7.5 x 30.0 x 45.0 cm. Photo: Craig Bender
SW: Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for the sculptures and drawings in your new show ‘pattern spill’?
LB: I am exploring pattern as a way to generate form and create visual stimuli. Pattern can be a gateway to a kind of meditative state and the works are focussed on creating a coloured pulse from core outward, radiating colour. The works again focus on repetition and pattern as a signifier of this repetition. Pattern is a very human thing, so I felt a desire to introduce a kind of organic frailty, playing with oozy human secretions. There is always a progression from one series to another, so the stalactites of my large ‘caverns of temporal suspension’ and ‘amorphous ones’ become the drips in ‘Pattern spill’. Repetition is a very sexual thing so reaching climax and releasing a secretion is a natural progression. The drawings are a kind of 2-Dimensional crochet. They operate to reinforce some of the concerns and structure of the pencil works, creating a kind of echo of the logic of the honeycomb that is so pervasive. The pattern, colour and process reference to crochet is an attempt to evoke the idea of ‘a labour of love’ and labour as a devotional gesture. I am also interested in making objects in which the duration of the work’s creation remains visible within the work just as a crochet rug holds the sense of time that it took to create within its soft woven pattern.
Lionel Bawden, Losing containment, 2011, coloured Staedtler pencils, epoxy, incralac on perspex shelf, form 1: 31.5 x 12.0 x 24.0 cm, form 2:33.5 x 33.0 x 26.0 cm, shelf 15.0 x 30.0 x 120.0 cm. Photo: Craig Bender
SW: The sculptures in pattern spill are made on quite a small scale compared with much of the work you have shown in the past. Why the smaller works? Did you find these smaller pieces more of a challenge to work with?
LB: The move was strategic, both to reinvigorate the energy within the work and to make smaller, faster pieces as a series of related experiments. This came after an extended romance with very large, white, landscape works, grounded in form, mass accumulation over time and disappearance. It was initially a struggle to get my mind and arms back into making smaller works, as my scale had grown and I just kept initiating large works from the outset. It was a process of reduction- both in scale and breadth of vocabulary- like pulling focus. The forms have a kind of freshness and hopefully a bold simplicity.
SW: I seem to be repeating the word ‘repetition’ a lot when describing a lot of recent art making. Obviously the making of your work involves much of it – both in the process and the patterning. Do you do all the work yourself? Is it enough for you that the patterns and your subjects are constantly changing?
LB: I do all the construction and machine sanding myself with a small Dremel rotary tool. I sometimes have help doing the final stage of hand sanding, when the form has already been resolved. So it is like polishing jewels, but it can be laborious so I have appreciated the assistance from friends and lovers. Repetition is central to my work. Process has become increasingly important. The work was initially very grounded in material qualities of geometry, colour as well as metaphor and beauty. I am a believer in beauty as a transformative quality and respond to it as a viewer when I look at work, so am driven by it as a maker also. The process of construction is all about repetition, gluing one pencil to another, endlessly and the hand-sanding process has a certain, almost onanistic repetition about it. This making has increasingly influenced my thinking and my subject. Life is repetition and then variation amidst repetition. Repetition is not only human, it is very animal and universal- the seasons, the orbit of planets, the tides, lots of ‘back and forth’ and ‘in and out.’ The ‘in and out’ of fucking and eating & shitting are essential, necessary, repetitive qualities of sustaining human life, so once you start thinking about repetition and it becomes central to your making process, it is easy to get caught up in it. My process speaks deeply for me of what it is to be human, whilst remaining grounded in a thirst for finding new forms and seeking variation and the pleasure of new forms, patterns, new shifts and accidents.
Lionel Bawden, jewel linking (pattern spill), 2011, coloured pencil on BFK Rives paper, 86.5 x 66.5 cm. Photo: Craig Bender.
SW: Do you prefer to work with a certain size or type of pencil?
LB: I use hexagonal Staedtler drawing pencils. The hexagonal shape of the pencil is essential in forming a honeycomb, so carpenters pencils or round pencils would not link back to nature so directly. Staedtler Pacific has generously supported me for many years giving me countless thousands of pencils. I lost count at around 500 thousand.
SW: It seems to me that your work often seems to blur the distinction between landscape and figure, and also perhaps between real and imagined worlds. This means the viewer is required to spend time contemplating both the medium and the subject. Is that a deliberate intention on your part?
LB: I like to blur boundaries and the reading between figure, landscape and thing. I am satisfied when a form has multiple readings and refers strongly to specific form, gesture or phenomena whilst staying open, not closed in meaning. Our real and imagined worlds are a blur of experience and fantasy, which is increasingly blurred in real life, so I am definitely fascinated with exploring forms that occupy that murky territory between known and unknown. Within the pencil works, subject or concepts are essential to generate form. The level to which those concepts stay palpable within the finished work is highly variable and less important to me that using a set of ideas to reach that new form and then see what associations and sensations the form evokes.
SW: One of the things I’ve noticed about your sculptures is that they are universally fascinating for all audiences across age and culture divides. Have there been any particularly interesting experiences when showing them overseas?
LB: From my experience the intimate, material response from the viewer, of some kind of tactile affinity to the pencils within the work, is the same across continents (at least in China and North America where I have observed it.) There is a certain satisfaction when recognition of the pencil occurs. Whilst it remains mysterious to some people they still seem to connect intimately with some familiarity or visual sensation taking place.
SW: There’s a lot of shape and geometry in your work in addition to scientific references in the aesthetic – such as the cell. Were you interested in science and maths at school?
LB: I have become more interested in maths since I was introduced to pure mathematics during art school by a maths major at ANU, who described maths as a kind of poetry, which I was never enlightened about during high school. Equally my post high school fascination for science has blossomed since reading about quantum physics. Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention in class and missed the good bits. Professor Brian Cox in the BBC’s ‘Wonders of the Universe’ tells us that our bodies are made in the stars, that every element in our bodies originates in the death of stars. I love this idea, linking our bodies to infinite time and space. I see pattern and the honeycomb as a kind of doorway into this infinite expanse as our cells, our structure and our repetition links us into a dynamic relationship to the whole universe. I was always drawn to the idea of ‘fuzzy logic’. That name held the whole allure of science to me. The way I engage the world is with a kind of fuzzy logic and latching onto the poetics of ideas and the enquiry itself, rather than an interest in facts and figures, results and answers.
SW: It’s a digital age …so are you keyboard, or pencil?
Karen Woodbury Gallery
Until 17 December 2011.