ABSINTHE §1 Interview – Nancy Allen
Originally published in the ABSINTHE §1 Catalogue, published by Kronos x Elam Publishing, produced to accompany ABSINTHE §1, curated by Billy Fraser, Charlie Mills and James Capper, 23/02/2019-11/05/2019, Spit and Sawdust Pub, Elephant and Castle.
February 2019

Hector Campbell : The use of reactive materials, regularly pushed to the limits of their existing characteristics, is a frequent feature of your work. How do you select materials when creating a new sculpture?

Nancy Allen : I select materials whose physical properties naturally lend themselves to the kinds of forms I am trying to create. Materials which have a softness or resistance to manipulation engage in a reciprocal relationship with my impact on them, partially dictating the form of the work. Materials such as those used to create my ‘beanbag’ works are relatively unpredictable, dictating that I keep filling and emptying the sewn fabric shapes to edit their tailoring until I am satisfied with the overall form.

Sometimes the process of making work can also be initiated by an exciting material. I often hang onto materials that I buy or find for some time before realising what they are suggesting I do, sometimes they sit in a bag waiting, or I hang or lean a piece up in the studio for a while to see how it acts. 

H.C : Your sculptures often incorporate recontextualised and reappropriated everyday materials, however with their more common functions evident to the audience. What draws you to the use of these quotidian materials?

N.A : Many of my works resemble existing things and I use materials which are largely applicable to them. I explore the makeup of the kinds of things we use daily that directly relate to our bodies, such as clothes, furniture and luggage, and how they aid or direct our behaviour.

I want the sculptures to be similar enough to what might be described as their real-world counterparts that the differences are specific and the shift in context is key. I find it compelling how much expectation is communicated through the style and combination of materials when they are removed from their usual uses and often rendered useless.

Although the viewer is not allowed to touch my sculptures, the familiarity of the texture and weight of materials like denim, faux fur, upholstery fabrics, PVC, plywood and rope, helps the viewer better ascertain the character of the works based on past physical experiences. There is a desire to reach out and touch the sculptures because of the tactility of their surfaces, causing frustration that may lead one to consider how we take the character and function of regular objects for granted.

H.C : You repeatedly question the traditional qualities of sculpture within your artistic practice by imbuing stationary objects with implied kinetic energy, or allowing them to be influenced by external forces such as gravity. Could you explain more about this examination of traditional sculptural attributes, and how it has influenced your work?

N.A : I have always been fascinated by the way sculpture demands a physical dialogue with its viewer, who must move around it, without touching, to try to understand it. The distance between the sculpture and the viewer for me is almost mystical, forcing you to draw on any experience you might have wof the kinds of materials it is composed of, or imagine the gestures that could potentially have brought it into being.

Richard Serra’s approach to material in both his lead pieces and prop series records the moments that made them, which are largely instantaneous and heroically macho. I am investigating similar concerns about how objects implicitly describe the time and labour that went into creating them, but reinterpreting the traditional masculinity of sculpture through ‘feminine’ processes.

Fabrics and pourable substances such as beanbag beans and sawdust are affected by gravity, hanging or pressing against the confines of their enclosing container. The hang of a material reaching as close to vertical as possible, or the flesh-like droop of a formless but contained mass has an innate tension that is ‘performed’ even though the objects are stationary. I think the continuing activity of the materials to hang, press or fold roots the works in the moment and highlights the performance of the viewer’s posture, or perhaps reflects the fall of their clothes.

Some of my recent works suggest human interaction, featuring clasps, straps and armrests, transferring kinetic energy from the purity of material hanging in space towards the potential of human interaction. 

H.C : Sculpture, as opposed to two-dimensional artworks, invites a more physical viewing experience or interaction from the audience. To what extent do you consider the artworks final display during their creation?

N.A : The relationship between the physicality of sculpture and its viewer has always been a driving force for me, and I certainly think about the way a body will relate to the final work.

However, the way I make work is fairly intuitive, the combination of materials and the posture of the works’ display often change during their development. I make drawings before working with materials, so I have a loose plan for how the work will look when it’s finished, but sometimes the work changes fairly drastically, for example going from existing on the floor to hanging somehow. I am often unclear about when a sculpture is finished until I get there, so in that sense although I am always thinking about how the works might be when they are finished, I do not have a certain idea of what that will be.

I have always been fascinated by the idea of sculpture as a manifestation of the acts of labour that have brought it into being. Objects can reveal the ways in which they were made, or perhaps signs of use and age, and my sculptures wear the signs of their making as content. 

H.C : Finally, could you give us an insight into how you are approaching the Absinthe project, and what you are working on for the exhibition?

N.A : The pub environment of The Spit and Sawdust presents a unique challenge for me as an artist whose works often evoke furniture-like structures. I feared sculptures similar to my recent ‘beanbag’ or ‘cushion’ works would be lost amongst the mass of people and furniture already there, so I have chosen to make work that suspends close to the ceiling. ‘Absinthe’ celebrates strange and subversive works and I am making something very flamboyant that draws on suspended tent structures and carnivalesque clothing!