38. BRONWYN OLIVER Shell 2003
When the ideas, the formal elements and the medium all work together a sculpture will ‘sing’ with a kind of rightness.
It takes on a life, a presence, which is removed from this world. It belongs to a mythical other life without a place in time.1
Bronwyn Oliver’s impressive sculptural object Shell exerts a powerful structural resonance, a quality that can be seen consistently throughout the body of work produced during the artist’s remarkable oeuvre. Oliver is renowned for her distinctive mastery of form, space and material, for which Shell is a consummate example. Arguably one of Australia’s most important contemporary sculptors, Oliver’s exhibiting career spanned more than two decades, producing 290 works by hand and several large-scale fabricated commissions.2 At the time of her death in 2006, her practice had reached a pinnacle of creative invention, a rising crescendo – and the potency and vital energy of her work was showing no signs of diminishing.
By a fortuitous twist of fate, Oliver had initially intended to study painting and was erroneously placed in sculpture when she enrolled in the late 1970s at Sydney’s Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education, now UNSW Art and Design, previously the College of Fine Arts (COFA).3 Sculpture became her raison d’être, a formal language that required the disciplined yet experimental manipulation of materials, structure and spatial awareness.
Oliver distinguished herself during her studies, obtaining a Bachelor of Education (Art), UNSW Art and Design, and later a Master of Art (Sculpture) from the Chelsea School of Art in London where her contemporaries included such luminaries as Antony Gormley, Richard Deacon, Alison Wilding, Anish Kapoor and Tony Cragg. She participated in several residencies in France including at the Cité Internationale des Arts, and culminating in the prestigious Moët et Chandon Australian Art Fellowship (1994). Represented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, and Christine Abrahams Gallery, Melbourne, Oliver participated in many solo exhibitions and received numerous awards and accolades. She was a finalist in the 2001 Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award, the 2001 National Gallery of Australia/Macquarie Bank National Sculpture Prize, and the 2006 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, National Gallery of Victoria.
Her participation in the 2006 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award and her final solo exhibition with Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery (August 2006) were both posthumously presented. The exhibition invite to her final exhibition commented that Bronwyn Oliver had that rarest of all skills: she knew how to create beauty… Her most successful works were like a flourish, a single expressive gesture. The idea of the work was always perfectly worked out which gave the finished object a wholeness, an authority and a sense of inevitability, as though it had always existed.4
Indeed, each sculptural object constructed by Oliver is perfectly resolved. Her vision was resolute, with an unwavering confidence in the structural and conceptual integrity of materials and forms that she was working with.
Referring to her works as fabrications, Oliver constructed her objects in copper wire, bronze and later aluminium, noting that in particular ‘copper is a soft metal that warms quickly to the touch’.5 The warmth that copper conducts to the touch imparts a certain sensuousness, like skin, a beguiling quality of this otherwise cold and unrelenting metal. The malleability and ductility of this medium enabled Oliver to create sinuous and curvaceous forms that appear to have the patina of great age. They often resemble archaeological vessels or fossilised natural forms – timeless and otherworldly – and yet their construction and meaning is decidedly contemporary and embedded in their materiality rather than their representation, a ‘doubling of nature’ rather than emulating nature.6
Oliver keenly observed that despite the fact that her fabrications resemble structures found in nature ‘I am not and never have been, remotely concerned with the observation of nature... My ideas do not begin with natural forms. My ideas develop from the materials which I use… I am interested in structure and what material will do.’7 The conceptual and physical development of a form and its final material and structural realisation was at the heart of Oliver’s practice, a process-based initiative that was specific to the practice of sculpture itself – with its heritage firmly entrenched in the disciplines of archaeology, geometry, philosophy and physics.8 Her technical virtuosity allowed Oliver to construct works that demonstrate a certain lightness and ethereal quality that belies their gravity and industrial characteristics, and to deftly play with symmetries and asymmetries. Despite eschewing the reference to natural forms in her earlier work, Oliver’s later practice did include distinct representational botanical references in three major commissions Palm and Magnolia for the Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney, and Vine for the Hilton Hotel, Sydney.
Explorations of spatial awareness occupied much of Oliver’s sculptural enquiry throughout her career. Defined and encased by the physical boundaries of the sculptural form, space could also transcend the confines of the object, evidenced by Oliver’s use of lattice-work, grid-systems, open-forms, and positive and negative space.
I was intrigued by the idea of enclosing space. If it can be enclosed and held, why not let it flow out and get away at the same time? Having both the inside and the outside simultaneously visible in a way denies the physicality of an object. The openness is a kind of humble truth – nothing is hidden.9
Shell is an exceptional example of Oliver’s large-scale fabricated works, and perfectly exemplifies the artist’s exploration of enclosed and open space. The hard-edge, angular segments that make up the perfect sphere are reminiscent of precise geodesic dome constructions or aperiodic tiling patterns. When viewed closely the work has a structural intensity and solidity that gives the work weight, and yet there is also lightness inherent in the voluminous expanse at the sculpture’s core. When viewed from afar, the work displays a pulsating physical tension that is tightly bound, with a latent sense of impending implosion or explosion. Its mass is reminiscent of an atom or a diminutive star, expanding and retracting, radiating energy. The visual dynamism that vibrates across the armour or exoskeleton of the work is evident in other similar sculptural objects by Oliver including Globe, Calyx and Tracery, but is particularly manifest in Shell.
Scale, material presence and the way in which the object occupies space are vital to understanding the sculpture’s relationship with the landscape and its physical environment. Shell appears weighted firmly to the ground, and yet its lightness gives the impression that it could dart off into the atmosphere at any moment. Furthermore, the energy of the sculpture changes throughout the day as the light changes, creating intricate shadows that gradually creep across the ground, forming an inverse impression of the work. Indeed, light and shadow are essential elements in Oliver’s sculptural practice, adding alternative dimensions to the works.
Oliver once commented that ‘I think about sculpture as a kind of physical poetry’.10 With a keen sense of metre and cadence, Bronwyn Oliver constructed sculptural objects that have their own distinct rhythm and perfect modulation, ensuring
her place as one of Australia’s most accomplished and beloved sculptors.
1. Sturgeon, G., “Bronwyn Oliver”, Contemporary Australian Sculpture, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1991 p.74
2. Fink, H., “Bronwyn Oliver: 1959-2006”, Art Monthly Australia, No. 193, September, 2006, p.18
3. Sturgeon, G., op.cit., p.71
4. Fink, H., Bronwyn Oliver 1959-2006, Exhibition Invite, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, July 2006
5. Oliver, B., National Sculpture Prize and Exhibition, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001, p.68
6. Smith, J., 2006 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, National Gallery of Victoria, 2006, p.17
7. Sturgeon, G., op.cit., p.72
8. Fink, H., op.cit., 2006 p.18
9. Fink, H., ibid., 2006, p.19
10. Fenner, F., Bronwyn Oliver: Mnemonic Chords, Moët et Chandon Australian Art Fellowship, France, 1995, p.4
Emma Mayall BA; MA (Art Curatorship)