A Studio Conversation with Liz West

Anyone familiar with the colourful and light-filled work of Liz West would enjoy the coincidence that the route to her Manchester studio takes the visitor along Sparkle Street. The small studio is on the top floor of a large old industrial building. Even under Manchester’s cloudy sky, daylight streams through multiple coloured filters on the windows. Drawings mapping the layout of coloured fluorescent tubes for An Additive Mix, West’s commission at the National Media Museum in Bradford, lie on the studio floor and a roughly made maquette for the same commission makes brightly kaleidoscopic patterns beside us as we talk.

An airy bright space, the studio is too small for West to build the immersive projects for which she has become known. ‘It is a clean space’ she says,‘where I make preparatory studies and drawings – a place to think and visualise but one that isn’t big enough even to make maquettes of the scale and ambition I would want. That works for me though because I like to respond directly to the light and space and architecture of whatever site I’m in, so when those kind of large-scale projects are underway, the studio is just a place for conceiving and planning things out rather than actually making. I have a different kind of energy when I work in the space where I know I’m going to have an audience. In that sense I’m a performer and the world out there is the ‘stage’ where I’m happiest, whereas the studio is a much more personal environment, more private and quieter – a place in which to rehearse ideas or to which I can retreat.’

We talk more about West’s creative process, the balance between careful planning and intuitive inspiration. She explains: ‘I visualise my projects very clearly. I know what I want to achieve and I’m a perfectionist, so if the making process doesn’t result in the idea in my mind’s eye, it has to be refined or even changed completely until I can realise what I imagined. So the plan for what the work will look like doesn’t change, but the plan for how I can get it to look as I want it sometimes has to!’

All sculpture, especially when made and sited outdoors in relation to architecture or the landscape, changes according to the time of day and prevailing weather and everything else that affects the light conditions, but that is not necessarily something that most sculptors have in the forefront of their mind. Certainly not as much as West, precisely because her sculpture is often made by utilizing light or is dependent upon light – sometimes even its absence. For an artist making a 3-dimensional object, the stronger the light, the stronger the image, but sometimes for West, who often uses artificial light as her material, the opposite is true, and it comes truly into its own only in the dark. The presence of too much extraneous light can render her sculpture invisible, so I suggest to her that she has to think of light in both positive and negative terms. West agrees: ‘Yes, I’m always waiting till it gets dark to see how it changes. Sunlight and weather conditions affect me emotionally and mentally and the effect of light is always central to my approach, and always would be, even if the sculpture itself is not directly light based, because it’s so important in how it affects the nature of the space and the viewer’s perceptions. I always want to make things that are effective in both night and day, but obviously that means the works changes constantly, as well as the ways people react to them. In daylight they are always more sculptural, and then somehow they take on a different kind of presence and become more immersive in the dark.’ 

Thinking of the sculptural nature of West’s projects, their scale, the physical engagement with materials, the building process, all of this work that lies behind the image isn’t always visible. The physicality of her making process is often hidden. With Through at &Model in Leeds earlier this year, for example, what the audience saw were flat coloured surfaces in windows, but inside those windows, behind the scenes, was a whole other, much more 3-dimensional physical structure consisting of the suspended fluorescent tubes and their complex pattern of wiring. The visual spectacle is thoroughly dependent on a sculptural process, but one that often remains ‘behind the scenes’. Illusion therefore plays a big role, particularly in the current mirrored pieces.

‘I’m always trying to make the viewer question what it is that they’re looking at, ‘West says. ‘To some degree my projects have to be presented in a very slick way to maintain an illusion. At other times though I have explored and revealed more of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ aspects, the entrails, which have a different kind of theatricality of their own. The piece, Vanishing Boundaries, for example, is derived from a drawing and so the cables became part of a kind of drawing in space. In other pieces they would be hidden because they aren’t part of the piece and would disrupt its effect.

West relates how she made a kind of mirrored chamber several years ago for her degree show: ‘My new commission for the National Media Museum borrows from that chamber series. Here, I simplified the installation, removing all unnecessary elements, and exaggerated the use of mirrors on a much larger scale.’ I suggest to West that in many ways what she does is to test to the limit the idea of ‘a trick of the light’, exploiting the possibilities of such optical illusions in relation to the changing reflections and refractions of light. She replies ‘When I researched the archives at the National Media Museum the thing I was most interested in was the kaleidoscopes, another illusion, a trick of the eye. The four mirrored walls and floor in the final piece create complex and ever-changing reflections in ways that resemble kaleidoscopic patterns.’ 

We discuss inspirations and influences. West studied Sculpture and Environmental Art at Glasgow School of Art. Although she was very interested in site-specific and site-responsive sculpture, her focus was definitely not on the very particular socio-political engagement that is central to the Glasgow School’s approach to environmental art in that course. Hence West found herself much more comfortably located in the sculptural aspects of her course and sees it has having given her the confidence to explore space and scale. She always felt limited by the space of her studio, and from very early on she was drawn to sculpture that was immersive and enveloping rather than studio-bound and object-based. It naturally followed that most of her projects would not be ‘gallery-bound’ but located in a wider environmental context, working playfully with natural and artificial light sources and projection. ‘Colour and light became my voice,’ she says.

An encounter with James Turrell’s large scale sculptural installations while West was still a student and employed at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park was a significant and formative experience. Ganzfeld: Tight End (2005) and Wedgework V (1974) in particular, she says, opened her eyes to how works of this scale could be technically created and how they can affect our sensibilities. The immersive aspects of Olafur Eliasson’s light installations and the formal elements and technology utilised by Dan Flavin are important influences too. West explains that what she became most interested in was ‘the quality of light and the use of the vivid end of the spectrum, chemical colours, the colours you see in neon, the colours you see in cities and the way a neon urban environment can envelop you.’ Despite this, in some of her most recent and upcoming commissions, West has, as she puts it, ‘been thinking beyond the plug’ and she is developing pieces where sunlight rather than electric light is the source. She describes a ‘coloured sundial’ in a gallery roof in London and a Natural England commission for Ainsdale Forest saturating the forest floor with dappled sunlight filtered through multiple coloured strips strung between the trees.

Other artistic influences that West cites include the colour sensibilities of David Batchelor, and Jim Lambie, the optical effects of Carlos Cruz-Diez, and the immersive qualities of installations by Yayoi Kusama and Ann Veronica Janssens. Clearly an informed understanding of optics and Newtonian physics and Goethe’s theories of visual perception also underlie West’s playfully intuitive approach. However, it is the colour theories of Josef Albers, manifest in his paintings, and even more in his Bauhaus teaching, that remain her most frequently mentioned influence and inspiration. It is significant that Albers taught colour theory predominantly by getting his students to use coloured papers rather than paint, encouraging the idea of colour as a physical presence, a material to be manipulated. It’s also not hard to see the influence of 90s pop videos with their bright and intense colours and make-believe worlds, and indirectly 60s psychedelia too. Indeed the spaces that West infuses with light feel they could easily be animated further by sound or dance.

Those influences and that kind of ‘performativity’, the physical engagement of both artist and audience, are relevant to the cultural accessibility and spectacle of West’s projects. Their photogenic qualities make her colourful installations instant hits on social media. Although her sculpture is made and sometimes shown in a contemporary art context it is often seen outside of that context by casual passers-by or in sites such as the Media Museum by much more diverse audiences. I ask her how she feels, as an artist, about the ‘entertainment-value’ of her projects and she replies: ‘I think luminous colour and saturated light are both universally understood and enjoyed. My way of making art is appealing to people. Children are playful in it and adults bring other dimensions to it through their feelings and emotions in a very open way that rarely happens in contemporary art. I like that, in fact I’d like to do more research into colour and its emotional impact on people. I think I’m very playful and I don’t mind being seen as a crowd-pleaser. I love the idea of making an accessible spectacle with an immediate appeal. That’s an aspect of my practice that brings me real pleasure and joy.’

As West’s practice develops commissions proliferate and range from a new public realm commission in Spinningfields, Manchester, to a large neon installation on a building in Bury and to an invitation to Frankfurt to make a work to be shown for Light + Building, the major international trade fair for architectural lighting, and include planned collaborations with colour psychologists. West is full of ideas that suggest a bright future in more ways than one.

Main image: Liz West, An Additive Mix, 2015, National Media Museum, Bradford (photo: Stephen Iles © National Media Museum).

Liz West currently has exhibitions at the following locations:
Coloured Interval, Ordsall Hall, Salford until 31 January 2016
The Light Room, Willis Museum, Basingstoke until 2 January 2016
Colour Collect, Bury Art Museum, Bury until 27 February 2016

Aurora Corio