The online editorial and curatorial project for reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Robert Currie, interviewed by Ben Gooding | October 2016

October 2016

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

BG   Robert, I'd like to begin by asking you about the initial formation of points that you generate, which ultimately determines where the Perspex is drilled. I understand that this composition will be printed out and tacked directly onto the Perspex as a guide, similar to a cartoon, but how do you arrive at the initial composition?

RC  The initial composition of a new piece of work is usually informed by the last piece. My sketchbook is
a very important tool. I sketch out an idea and try to visualise what the final composition might look like. The very nature of having a template that marks out where the holes are to be drilled is the only constant. Thousands of holes are then drilled, and the piece is meticulously threaded over a long period of time. With such a precise process, the only unknown is - arguably - the most important part, for most people: what the final piece will look like, and the way it lives in the space. Each completed piece allows me to develop my work carefully and retrospectively. I like the contrast between knowing precisely and logically how the work will be made, and the final unknown result in the completed piece. This unknown is underpinned by a strong process that really interests me and gives an extra dynamic to the work.

BG Would you ever re-use a composition from a previous work, with a pre-emptive sense of an intended outcome, whereby you attempt to control the aesthetic of these spatial interactions? I was wondering if, over time, you begin to develop an idea of what form a particular composition ‘throws up’, or whether working from this point of the unknown is sacrosanct to your approach?

RC  I do re-use compositions to a certain degree. If I see an opportunity in an artwork to develop a template, I will try to incorporate it into a future work. The result may be very similar but the elements that form the piece are very different.

It is from this constant development that I gain an understanding, a sense of what might be finally achieved, but even when tightening the works I often get an element of learning and surprise. I would never say it was sacrosanct to work to a ‘point of the unknown’ but I do like the sense of wonderment that finishing a piece creates for me. It is probably a way for me to know that a particular artwork is working.

BG   Do you make intuitive decisions about these arrangements based on purely aesthetic considerations, or are they mathematically determined somehow? I was wondering if you employ a system that dictates the splay of points?

RC  Mathematics is behind all my templates, and I also use mathematics for my own ends. I find mathematics a very beautiful language, but if an idea is not mathematically achievable, I will find my own solution in order to create an artwork that works for me. I do use a lot of geometry and algebra when I work on the compositions, but this is to arrive at an outcome, not to show the calculations themselves. Mathematics is a universal language that has been at the core of some of my favourite artists, from da Vinci to Sol LeWitt to Bridget Riley. This universal language is at the core of Aesthetics and is an important part of my logical process. The three-dimensional aspect of my work
s does allow the logical process to be amplified, and also creates a kinetic harmony that I cannot control - and wouldn’t want to.

BG  It must be an intensely methodical process when you actually come to thread the work.  Is there a system you use to stay true to the mathematical order that underpins the work? All that drilling would be for nothing if you were to make a mistake. And do you find that certain works are easier to thread than others? I could imagine, for example, that certain compositions would be far more complex to work out than others.

RC  There is no point having a process unless you stick to it. I tend not to make many mistakes. The system allows me to thread the work in the easiest manner, although each piece is threaded differently so even this is a learning process. Obviously the more complex pieces require more concentration, yet are somehow more energetic. On some pieces I could be pulling over 50m of nylon in one length, so the act of pulling of the nylon and placing it on the floor is yet another system – not allowing it not to create knots or kinks, which would require the length to be started again as knots cannot be pulled out. The threading is repeated until the layer of holes is completed. The most complex pieces are when both sides are drilled and I have to put separate layers in sequence that involves turning the box as I thread. Obviously the studio is kept as dust-free as possible. At the point at which I decide that the development of the work is becoming too complex, I bring it back to a simpler template, and develop up from there. When all the nylon is threaded, the back is put on and tightened. The tightening of a piece is where the most concentration is needed, as all the nylon needs to be pulled with equal tension, otherwise this puts irregular strains on the Perspex case. The work has many logical strands that are not rigidly defined, but which allow these ‘surprise elements’ to be incorporated.

BG  Let's move on to discuss your use of colour. These strikingly beautiful gradations presumably also follow some mathematical order? How do you determine when and where the chromatic shifts occur? The works also seem to be primarily concerned with structure, so is colour something you have bought into the work subsequently, or has it always been a consideration?

RC  Colour is a relatively new development in my work. The template defines the way the colour is laid out. It usually is divisible by two and is not fully realised until the box is drilled. Once the box is drilled I have a greater understanding about how the piece might look, so the colour is finalised at that point. The combination of colours is all about defining and accentuating the forms that exist in the piece. My natural instinct is to make monochrome works, so the process defines the forms first and then colour is added. I have a greater knowledge around these decisions now, so colour will make more of an impact in forthcoming pieces.

BG  This makes me think of how Frank Sandback and Anne Lindberg use colour in such different ways. On the one hand, Sandback uses highly intense, saturated colours but in an extremely refined, minimal way, and in contrast, Lindberg has a much more diffuse, nebulous approach, opting for muted tones that appear to dissipate. One defines space by constructing stark and optically dazzling structures, the other seems more delicate, transient and achieves a visual subtlety. Your work seems to touch on both.

RC  I would say that my work lies somewhere in between, but not out of any particular influence or choice.

RC  The video tape works actually started when I was interested in kinetic art. I was very drawn to the material, but also what was contained on the material, so I did use motors and devices to reveal the material’s contents, whether this was image or sound. The material seemed to me to really express what was contained on it, but as I started to become more interested in the spatial structures, the material gained a different context. For me, the cultural context is all about the material and its historical use; the slow death of a beautiful medium.

Now I use unspooled videotape that transforms a space into an optical experience; although I quite like to use Seitz’s term ‘perceptual abstraction’. The material is a very dense black and very reflective, like all the media I use. The strong process allows me to control all the materials I use without damaging them, and it also enables me to precisely lay them out into solid, open forms that have the appearance of an intricate drawing in space. The effect for the viewer is of an abstract form which, as you watch, distorts optically, the minute variations between the strands causing the individual ‘drawn’ lines to move in and out of focus, becoming more, then less, prominent. Alternating rhythms emerge, and the strict geometry is replaced by passages of tension and relaxation that provide an aesthetic and harmonic experience.

BG   Let’s discuss this kinetic aspect in more depth - it seems integral to the experience of your work. As with the Perspex sculptures, your installations are highly kinetic, and one feels compelled to continuously move around them. The underpinning geometry of the structure seems to be expressed most vividly when seen in motion. One might say they are almost ‘activated’ by this temporal dimension. Was this experiential quality something you were particularly concerned with exploring from the outset, or is this kineticism an unintended consequence of working with purely mathematical structures?

RC  The kineticism contained in all the works, sculptures and installations is absolutely
a considered factor. My work previously focused on kinetic art which involved plugging something in: action and reaction. But now I create work that has the same principle but in a purely static state. The viewer has to move and explore around the work instead. I like the way that people are sensing completely different visual states depending on where they are in a space, or looking at a piece.

The mathematical structures that I work out, particularly in the installations, are laid out to activate space, first and foremost, depending on what I want to explore. The sketching and planning for this is very meticulous, and yet, despite all the detail involved in physically creating an installation, once I start to construct it the installation will usually react to the space in quite an organic way, even down to the plastering on a wall that adds an extra, unknown element. As more layers are suspended, this unknown element allows for the installation, both static and fluid, to take on its own form.

The purity of the medium remains unchanged. By reflecting, diffracting and absorbing light, there is a sense of weightlessness that both disorientates and remains elusive.

BG  Your installations often seem to be defined by the context of the architectural spaces they inhabit, and the parameters that these spaces impose. The relationship between specific internal features such as arches, columns and walls seem to dictate the way the work sits in the space. With the Perspex boxes you have complete control over these dimensional aspects, but with these installations your decisions seem largely bound by a structure that is already there.

RC  I'm interested in the oscillation between filling a spatial void with an intentionally defined structure, on the one hand, and allowing the work to be defined by the material structure present in an existent space, on the other. How does one approach each of them, and how do they relate to each other? It’s also interesting to note that many of the structures that emerge within the space of the box echo the sort of structures that the installation is set within.

The scale of the installations, and the parameters of the given space, have a large impact in terms of what the chosen material can do. Therefore the process needs to adapt to the space. I enjoy the challenges that come with an irregular or awkward space and putting the process to the test.

This is an example of pushing the process to its limits, within certain constraints. With the sculptures, the process is pushed, although it is not what is
in the space, it is what is not in the space, so the template (which I have talked about) is all about using the boundaries of the space without any constraints. This allows the process to be pushed, but in a different direction.

RC  I do like having different approaches to a certain material. Like the installations and sculptures, the abstract pieces and the photographic pieces are inherently linked and do inform each other. That is to say, the unexpected outcomes have an element of learning that informs and develops the next piece or pieces.
The mathematical language is very much in evidence in the photographic pieces, but it is not as apparent as it is in the abstract pieces. The photographic works’ mathematical language gives the pieces a format that can be controlled by me: the viewing distance, the form’s depth, the angle of the piece and so on.

I am very aware that by painting individual strands of nylon,
there is an element of the artist’s hand that is not evident in the abstract sculptures. In my mind they are doing different things, but it’s a good way to understand the medium. For the last ten years the photographic pieces have been monochrome, either painting with black acrylic on a white background or white acrylic on a black background. The results can be surprisingly different; the white paint has a higher contrast and is therefore unable to wash as subtly.

In the past six months I have introduced pieces that have included colour, which for me has been a leap into the unknown.
It is a natural progression that I have put off until I felt fully confident.

In 1972 Bridget Riley was very cautious about the introduction of colour; she initially felt that “form and colour seemed to be fundamentally incompatible - they destroy each other”.

101,680cm of Black, Red and Yellow Nylon Monofilament

135,520cm of Red and Yellow Nylon Monofilament

BG  In your videotape installations, one can't help but be stuck by the highly reflective nature of the material and the kinetic properties it holds for the viewer. The analogy with the original purpose of the videotape can't be missed; this is a means of capturing a moving image. But I was interested to know if the original, intended use of the material played into your concerns, or whether it was purely the nature of the material itself that appealed to you? It has a very seductive aesthetic as a sculptural medium, and an incredibly loaded cultural significance as well.

3 days, 3 hours, 22 minutes and 46 seconds

3 days, 3 hours, 22 minutes and 46 seconds

8 Days, 17 Hours, 46 Minutes and 21 Seconds

1 day, 11 hours, 9 minutes and 6 seconds

1 day, 11 hours, 9 minutes and 6 seconds (detail)

79,300cm of Nylon Monofilament and Black Acrylic

BG  Finally, I'd like to discuss your photographic body of work. It’s interesting to note that an artist who is so adept at using a strong geometric and mathematical language should also choose to work with the highly figurative subject matter that comes with the photographic medium. How do these two strands of your practice inform each other - or do you see them as distinct?

The first piece, 46,800cm of Nylon Monofilament with coloured acrylics (autopaint), did have a strong element of being like a silkscreen. I decided to colour the backboard as well as painting the nylon with four separate colours. It will take some time before I know whether the pieces work, but I feel confident, and I hope that it follows a direction where the nylon can be coloured, using multiple painted colours, and not necessarily be contained by a Perspex box where all the lines are vertical… but that could take another 20 years!

The processes for an installation and a sculpture are very similar; the outcome of not knowing what the final artwork will look like is also similar. But my approach to each is very different.

64,800cm of Nylon Monofilament and Coloured Acrylics (24 hour service)

101,376cm of Black and Red Nylon Monofilament

46,800cm of Nylon Monofilament with Coloured Acrylics (Autopaint) 2016