39. BRONWYN OLIVER
Bronwyn Oliver’s sculptural works have long captivated an audience of avid collectors, drawn to their lyrical and enigmatic abstract forms. Achieving career success during the 1990s, Oliver was the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships and attracted private and institutional patronage, with an ever-expanding waiting list for her painstakingly crafted pieces. Yet Oliver didn’t receive the widespread public notoriety that this art-world recognition would suggest, perhaps due to her untimely death in 2006 at the age of just forty seven. A major retrospective exhibition at TarraWarra Museum of Art earlier this year, The Sculpture of Bronwyn Oliver (19 November 2016 - 5 February 2017) attempted to redress this imbalance. In it, around fifty sculptures were brought together in the largest museum retrospective of her work. Thus it is within the context of a renewed evaluation of this skilled artist’s oeuvre that the present work Snake may be considered.
Born in northern New South Wales, Oliver studied sculpture at the Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education (now known as UNSW Art and Design) from 1977 to 1980. In 1981 she was awarded the New South Wales Travelling Art Scholarship, and studied at Chelsea School of Art, London in 1982-83, gaining her Masters degree in 1984. She spent extended periods of time in France, completing an artist residency at the city of Brest where she learnt the techniques of Celtic metalwork.
It is interesting to consider the development of Oliver’s creative practice within the broader artistic milieu through which she studied in the early 1980s. During this time Postmodernism was the dominant theoretical force in contemporary visual art. As noted by Julie Ewington, who curated the artist’s retrospective at TarraWarra, while Oliver was learning the technical skills required to master her medium, many others were pursuing ephemeral forms of installation and video art with vigour.1 If Postmodernism sought to destabilise existing modes of expression through strategies of fragmentation and a self-conscious sense of irony, Oliver’s work embodied the opposite. Her wonderfully cohesive and elegant forms evolved outside of the pervasive artistic movement through which she worked. In many ways this is a testament to the single-minded creative vision and determination that Oliver possessed, the same qualities that led her to reportedly work fourteen hour days creating the sculptures that have now become her legacy.
Oliver’s sculptures straddle a liminal zone between abstraction and representation. While they contain cues to nature through their organic forms and artwork titles that often reference the natural world, such as Snake, they balk at representing objects or creatures in any certain terms. Indeed, Oliver is on the record as staunchly denying direct inspiration from nature, which during the 1990s was often linked to female artistic practice in a tiresome and pejorative trope.2 She instead attributed an investigation into structure and the metaphysics of energy, and above all the reaction of her materials through the process of making as of primary importance to her work.
However while Oliver may have refused to acknowledge the natural realm as a source of inspiration, her work contains visual references to it, whether in the overall forms themselves or in the repetitive patterns they contain which seem reminiscent of natural geometry. Much of her work contains a rhythmic repetition of multiple parts arranged into a whole. This regulated patterning echoes the natural order that occurs in seashells and pine cones, with their ever-expanding spirals that correspond to the Fibonacci sequence – nature’s famed numeric formula. Yet while Oliver’s works may appear visually reflective of natural structures, the artist imbued her pieces with an uncanny otherworldliness that was the product of pure imagination, and deep understanding of her materials. She said of her work:
I really like the way that most of my work looks as if it doesn’t belong here, but looks like it’s from somewhere else… a landscape in your mind… The world has some really strange things in it. Why should these [sculptures] be strange in the face of other strange things? 3
Oliver was not shy in working to a large scale, and some of her most renowned and monumental pieces were commissioned for vast public spaces, where she worked closely with clients to achieve remarkable results. Impressive for its grandeur and the strange beauty that has come to define her work, her 16.5 metre sculpture Vine 2005, in the foyer of the Hilton hotel in Sydney, is one such piece. Here a massive, sinuous form fabricated from aluminium stretches from its coiled base in one vast length up to the ceiling. Like Snake and other works within Oliver’s oeuvre, its structure is essentially cylindrical and constructed through intricate metal tracery.
This piece contains parallels to the present work Snake, which like other less massively scaled sculptures in Oliver’s oeuvre, takes the shape of a hollow, permeable tube-like length that is coiled upon itself at one end, and unfurls gracefully from that coil in a fluid extension. Fashioned in copper, the mesh-like surface of Snake and its empty interior allows light to flow through it and cast delicate shadows upon its surrounding surfaces. The shadow play created through the innumerable metal threads that comprise this work, lends it an ephemeral and changeable aspect that is uniquely responsive to its environment.
Like all of this artist’s work, Snake is largely ambiguous. Oliver was interested in exploring the potential of sculpture to reflect the metaphysical aspects of existence, such as energy, and she invented a sinuous abstract language to do so in three dimensions. Her work embodies a concern for life’s organic and metaphysical processes, of ‘spiralling, wrapping, binding, swelling, expanding and stretching.’4 To come across an organism in the natural world that is half coiled and half extended as seen in the present work, may indicate a number of states of being - of release, growth, or perhaps attack. This slippery quality that hints at known realities, but never confirms them, is responsible for the disquieting and enigmatic presence that her sculptures bear, and for which they are acclaimed.
In Snake we find many of the classic stylistic traits that Oliver developed over a corpus of work that numbers only 305 individual pieces, which rarely appear for resale.5 Such traits include her construction of essentially simple forms through the rhythmic and repetitious amalgamation of numerous disparate elements, in the case of the present work, lines of copper. The resulting sculptures though made from hard and durable metal, appear delicate and almost ephemeral, vessels for light and atmosphere. She says of her work:
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.6
The mythical import of such a potent and ancient archetypal symbol as a snake would not have been lost on this well-studied contemporary artist in her creation of the present work. Such cues to myth often operate on a subconscious level, evoking the sense of timelessness that Oliver refers to in the comment above. This capacity of her work to transcend the specifics of time and place will ensure its lasting contribution to the visual arts in Australia, a testament to Oliver’s unique and singular vision.
1. Ewington, J., The Sculpture of Bronwyn Oliver, exh. cat. TarraWarra Museum of Art, 2016, p.3
2. ibid p.4
3. Hawley, J., ‘TarraWarra honours Bronwyn Oliver, brilliant sculptor who died before her time’ Financial Review, November 4, 2016
4. Sturgeon, G., Contemporary Australian Sculpture, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1991, p.73
5. Hawley, J., ‘TarraWarra honours Bronwyn Oliver, brilliant sculptor who died before her time’ Financial Review, November 4, 2016
6. Sturgeon, G., Contemporary Australian Sculpture, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1991, p.74
Marguerite Brown MAArtCur