Negotiating the Space Beside: A Conversation with Sculptor Colleen Brown

Interview with: Colleen Brown

By: Lauren Lavery

The afternoon was rainy and grey as I stood outside Unit/Pitt studios in Vancouver, my mind wandering as I listened to the sounds of the strengthening raindrops on my umbrella, when I was approached by the artist who, after a quick handshake swiftly led me through a maze of descending stairs and hallways into her studio space at the gallery. As we settled in at the table in her cozy space, I was immediately struck by the interesting array of colours, textures and materials inhabiting the room: some scattered about, others attached creating interesting shaped forms, seemingly in-process of becoming new sculpture. Since my introduction to Brown’s work from past professors, I have been curious about her process in creating sculpture considering her unconventional artist’s education – initially completing a degree in psychology before returning to art school – as well as her thoughts on art education, unconventional material choices and rearranging sculpture.

Lauren Lavery: You have most recently completed a master’s (MFA) degree from Milton Avery School of Arts at Bard College, New York in 2010, but previously you graduated from SFU with a BA in Psychology. What happened, if anything, which made you change your mind and want to go to art school (first Emily Carr, BFA) and be an artist?

Colleen Brown: When I was young about 17, I thought that I could go to either university or art school, and I was interested in both. I applied to art school and university, this was in Alberta, [and the art school] had a form letter that told you why you were rejected, you know, there were a lot of options. So I ended up teaching at Douglas College, I was a TA, or a lab technician, to get the label right. And that was awesome, it was a great job, but what ended up happening was on my way to work every day I would think about this sculpture, and I thought about this one sculpture for a year. And I actually just got bored just thinking about it so I thought, I’ll make it, and then I won’t have to think about that anymore. So I made it, and it was terrible of course, and then as soon as it was done I had a thought for the next sculpture, and that just kept happening over and over and over again. And so I took some supplementary classes at Emily Carr and I started going to the life drawing classes, but anyways it just made me way more into it and I discovered that you are able to pursue, what I understood as intellectual pursuits, studying philosophy or whatever I was getting out of studying psychology, [and] you could also pursue that in art. But nobody was going to tell you that you aren’t allowed to do that because you don’t have a PhD. Which is sort of the problem I was having in psychology, like no please don’t tell us your original thoughts I don’t care because you don’t have the authority to speak. And nobody does that in art.

LL: That’s true, and even just looking at art through the communications side, they kind of force you to take all of this information and narrow it down into one point, and that’s it. But with a lot of art writing or art essays, you’re coming from this one piece of work, or this one theory or philosophy and you’re opening it up into all these possibilities, and it just seems like why would you want to always bring it back to, it can only be this, you know?

CB: Yeah, like get it right! [laughs]

LL: Has art always been an important part of your life and way of thinking? How has art making changed your perspective on academia and education in general?

CB: Obviously I was interested in both, art seemed to be more satisfying in the sense that you could just write and do your own thing, and in terms of an art education, Bard was definitely the most informative space for me to be in and learning about how people learn, or maybe how I learn. There was no written component to Bard, it was a completely studio-based program, which is why I went there because I thought I needed to, because, I can read a book, you know? Everything about it was different than any of the institutions that I’ve attended here. It’s a small program, it’s a private institution, so there’s lots of cash there, but it’s isolated, it’s in upstate New York. There’s nowhere to go.

But I guess going there just made me realize that there are a lot of things that are really unhuman about the way that we educate people in larger institutions. I work at UBC… in classes in the engineering and communications department, not in the arts, so there’s a class of a thousand students. I don’t even know why they’re in that room, it just makes no sense to me at all, except that you’re getting a thousand tuition fees. It seems horrible.

LL: I always find it really interesting cause I work for the city and I teach art classes through the recreation centre, but I find that with most of the kids they are really open to everything and they can look at something and discuss it and have ideas about art up until about ages 8-10. As soon as they hit that age, they can’t think abstractly anymore, it’s like they’ve completely lost that ability, and [for them] everything has to be figurative, but of course I’m not going to force them to think abstractly if they don’t want to, but it’s very strange that they become this way. They’re also always like, “is this right? And “I can’t colour this that colour” and “I can’t do that”, but you just forget that I guess, I definitely did, once I had left school and went to art school and I had to reteach myself to think this way again, it’s really a very strange system we have going.

CB: There’s something we have going, like a truism in Emily Carr anyway, if you get a student that has been really, really praised and has gone through some kind of art school or program, it’s because they’ve learned how to do something. You have to beat it out of them because they are just going to go to where that praise is and never do anything else.

LL: What did you find were some important influences for your practice from having the opportunity of attending both art and regular academic school?

CB: Certainly Liz Magor was a huge valuable person in every possible way. In academia, I had a prof named Hal Weinberg, he did neuro-psych, which I was never very good at, but was really interested in, and so he let me into all of his classes. But he had a really philosophical way of approaching what would appear to be a purely physical pursuit, right? So that’s [where] I got my interest in brain imaging, but it was really his combination of a very serious scientific mind with a very open, philosophical approach that was the most exciting about him.

LL: How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it?

CB: I make sculpture. I make sculpture that prepares or brings different materials together. I’m interested in the sensuality of the material, but it’s often things that we don’t think of as being very sensual, like wood and steel. Things that are in our lives that I find attractive both to touch and to look at. I like working with common materials. If there’s any kind of politic to the work then that would be about being with others, I try and stay away from work that seems to be talking about an individual interior, and that is mostly a personal choice in my art making. If I want to talk about experience, the experience that I want to talk about is between two or more, so I am pretty much always looking for, in a sculpture – a free-standing sculpture – something that will put the viewer in a relationship with being beside it, as opposed to being in front of it. So that’s like an aesthetic pursuit, I’m trying to find that place where… I mean honestly, I haven’t seen it. I think I’ve seen it, where you’ve come to something aesthetically where your choice is not to come to it face-to-face, but to come to it beside. I’ve seen it represented, or illustrated, you know where somebody has put like a painting on the wall and there’s a sculpture standing in front of the painting and if you want to look at the painting you have to stand beside the sculpture. But that seems like an illustration of that possibility, it doesn’t seem like your automatic choice to be with that sculpture, and be beside it. I don’t know how to make that thing yet. That’s what I’m looking for.

LL: I find that your material choices in your sculpture is relatively unmethodical in your usage of traditional sculpture materials, (wood, plaster, concrete, etc.) and you seem to gravitate to more unexpected ones such as door mats, metal piping, magnets, rubber and more recently, keys. What is your method when deciding on materials to use when realizing these sculptures, if any?

CB: After Bard, I started pursuing things more just for the pleasure of it. It was something like my own interest or my own delight in things was something that I’d never learned. So I went back to New York and people were like, “I do it because I like it!” and that seemed to me to be like a reason to do something. That sort of makes sense, doesn’t it? But I am choosing things just because I like them, or probably more so because I like the process of working with that thing? So I’ve started carving wood because it’s a nice, meditative thing to do. I’m a little bit free-er with how I pick things, I definitely gravitate towards things that other people may see as being low, and it’s not because I think that they’re shitty, but it’s more like, “that shitty thing is actually nice,” or “it’s everywhere.” So maybe we think we don’t like it, but apparently we do because we’ve put it everywhere. So we end up looking at plastic…we like plastic.

Colleen Brown. Untitled Pocket Sculpture, 2015. Plastic, rubber, wood, resin, found objects. Photo: Lauren Lavery

Colleen Brown. Untitled Pocket Sculpture, 2015. Plastic, rubber, wood, resin, found objects.
Photo: Lauren Lavery

LL: What about just the pocket-sculptures specifically?

CB: The pocket things were a couple of things: though first of all, I was reading a Doris Lessing novel – she’s awesome you should read her – and I was reading her on the bus, I love being on the bus. It’s a strange, public/private place, and all [my] art ideas come from riding the bus. Her work is psychologically very explicit, but it’s not sensual, and this is no criticism on Doris Lessing, but I was missing that sensual part. When I got home I thought, “Well, maybe you could have something like a novel that you took on the bus, but it wasn’t words, it was some kind of tactile experience”. And so I started making pocket sculptures, just to see if you could have an experience that was rich enough that you could actually want. You know you take a novel on the bus for maybe two weeks, could you make something that was interesting for two weeks? So something that size is good, and I also have collected over all of these years – it’s very subjective so you must have had this experience – where people will give you this thing that is the most exciting thing that they have. I have one of my friends’ teeth that she gave me, and I mean how can you say no? But I have a million of that category of thing and I’m trying to stick them into something meaningful for the people over the years that have given me these things. So with the pocket sculptures, it’s something small, doable in a few days, I have a sense of completion, [it] costs me little money and now I’m starting to think of the idea of the exhibition space being in the person’s’ pocket. You know getting into the right pocket.

LL: That’s a really interesting public/private space as well. I was really interested in that as well and on your website they don’t really have any descriptions of what the material is so you have to figure it out yourself. Which is nice as well because you’re not getting that prerequisite [notion]; there are just no reactions to it other than your own, they’re not pre-viewed for you. There’s definitely a lot of artists’ websites who do both, but there’s a big conversation about it in art criticism and art in general, I know it’s also a big conversation in music right now, of [whether or not one should] know a lot more of the technical aspects of it to be able to be a critic, rather than it just being about the emotive qualities. The readers understand those reactions more, but is it necessary for the critic to be able to critique properly to know the full value of the work?

CB: I guess there’s a value that we evoke that I understand as, it’s quite helpful to a reader if a critic can give you a view that you wouldn’t normally have, and people have the capacity to have a sensual response and intellectual response, but they don’t have access to these other things, so when I read a critic I’m looking for stuff that I don’t have access to.

LL: Across mediums there are questions that are very important to understanding and realizing the full potential of works. For example in painting, an artist might question the weight and repetition of elements of the composition across the canvas, wanting to make sure the eye is forced to move around the entire piece. What, in your opinion, are some questions you ask yourself in sculpture? Do you use these questions when composing your own work?

CB: Well I definitely think about how I move a person around a work. Since I can’t get this feeling of beside, I’m looking for moving them around, positioning them. If they’re moving towards one part, or their attention is moving there, then there would be another work with them in that attention moment. I’ve been thinking about how people stand in space, that’s a basic thing: where you are in space. I think a lot about, and I get a lot of solace from the thought that what is special about sculpture is that whatever else you might think about it, it is also just about what it is. You can always jettison all of the meaning from a work and say, “It’s a pile of fabric”, or “Look, it’s a hunk of wood!” And I find that just very satisfying, there’s actual solace there. I guess I think about context, like in the pocket or I still like putting stuff out into public space every once in a while, just leave something out that I’ve made. What do you think about as a [sculpture] major?

LL: I think it’s more about the tactile elements of it, and I usually find that people, and definitely in our class we’ve had issues in the past of people wanting to touch everything. And it’s true when you go and see a work that’s either fabric or something else, and even though you know what it is going to feel like…you still have that urge to want to feel it. A lot of my things are wood sculpture based with other materials incorporated; I put it there to give it that feeling as well, it’s this foam combined with these hard elements. I like giving it that all-round tactility.

Elspeth Pratt was also my professor, and she would ask, “How does it touch the ground?” And it’s true! I always found it’s a very interesting question no matter what kind of sculpture you’re making, whether it’s very formal or very different, it’s always a super relevant question. How it is balancing, and how you can also change peoples’ expectations from that and the weight of it too?

CB: That’s true, and it’s frustrating in a way too how things touch, how things come together. Also I find on some days I don’t want to think carefully on how these things go together, I just want them to get together! [laughs]

Colleen Brown’s Studio at Unit/Pitt Gallery in Vancouver, B.C. Photo: Lauren Lavery

Colleen Brown’s Studio at Unit/Pitt Gallery in Vancouver, B.C. Photo: Lauren Lavery

LL:    “…objects recombined into abstract sculptures ask us to reconsider our relationship to the materials the sculptures are made of. When they are most successful, they alter our perception of our surroundings.” (Aaron Peck for Akimbo Blog on the Black Hole is Also Supernova exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery)

I found this quote about your work at the exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery in 2009, in a brief description of the show. What do you think is the most interesting aspect of material choice in sculpture and its intimate relationship to the surrounding space? Does sculpture perhaps have a greater effect on viewers today due to this ability to interact with real space?

CB: I think there’s lots of ways, there’s not one way. What I’m looking for is a very specific emotional-physical hit. And I don’t get it from my own work, because you kind of have to be a bit surprised, so it’s a bit about surprise, and your expectations not being met in an object. And for me to get that hit it is very important for that to be reflected upon my own body and where I am in space, how I think about myself. It could be something as super simple as scale. And it’s very seldom that simple. And there is something about an aesthetic, something that I don’t understand, but I believe you’re learning something that is not very linguistic. So I get that hit, and the most recent of those kinds of hits I get from Rachel Harrison’s work. So it’s not just the colour and paint but, it’s not just sculpture [either], it’s pure colour moments and that kind of thing that I associate more with painting.

[Also] material is weird, I’ve seen material that scared me. And it’s not like razor blades, it’s that the artist has combined so many things that I would never think of combining. And I love that, because I am literally scared for a second by their brain. And then you get used to it and then it’s exciting!

LL: In terms of space, your practice is very heavily based upon the concepts of negotiating the built landscape through sculpture, as well as creating a dynamic viewer – sculpture relationship, most often times, in a more conventional gallery setting. In the work Rezoning (2014), what would you say were the most successful aspects of the work in relation to collaboration with others, the renegotiation of space and materials, as well as the way in which the piece as a whole dynamically changed each time?

CB: That exhibition was hard in terms of the stuff, because as you just rearrange stuff, the meaning drops out, it doesn’t just get added in. And I like to think about that quite a bit. I think that my companions in that search, were very gracious, but I suspect that they were very skeptical that there was going to be anything in this rearrangement task, and that there may not have been. In that respect it may have been a failure. Although I have to admit, what Martin [Ordonez, the engineer] came up with, was just like “Wow that is not what I expected!” And I thought his display was the most interesting, and he was the person that was the most distant from an art practice.

LL: I found that really interesting that that type of open collaboration doesn’t happen more often, where you hand over your work to someone else completely to arrange. I know Eli [Bornowsky] had that exhibition, After Finitude at the Or [Gallery] where he rearranged people’s paintings into one giant composition. But I feel that it’s harder for the artists, since he’s actually not changing the work really, he’s not actually cutting out pieces of their paintings and moving it around. Whereas with yours it’s more like that.

CB: And I did learn that at Bard, and that’s [what is] super exciting about sculpture. Rachel Harrison came into my studio and started moving things around and she would look at something and ask, “Why did you make that?” And I would answer, “Well I was super angry when I did that”, and she would just be like, “Well I have way more interest in your anger, and what you’ve done over here is shit.” And then she just started moving things around, and saying, “Well how about here?” And I was like, “No it couldn’t possibly go there like what are you talking about?!” and then I would explain why it couldn’t possibly go there. And then she would say, “Now we’ve learned something. We know how you were thinking about this element”.

And that’s something that you can do in sculpture that you can’t do in anything else.

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