As you turn into the car park for Cross Lane Projects, tucked-away behind the main street through Kendal, the large glass gallery doors provide an early vista into the exhibition, giving a glimpse of colour and scale. This unassuming former mint cake factory has retained much of its original exterior facade but on a dull winter’s day – the day before England’s second lockdown starts – the light and mysterious shapes visible from the outside pull you in.
Cross Lane Projects is currently housing Olivia Bax’s exhibition, OFF GRID. Bax was awarded the 2019/20 Mark Tanner Sculpture Award back in May 2019 – in quite a different world – and received funds to create new work which would premiere at Standpoint Gallery, London, before touring on to Cross Lane Projects and, coronavirus dependent, Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, Penzance.
Walking into the space you are hit by layers of colour, texture, form and scale as your eye catches sight of all of the works, yet none quite fully. The first work you come to is in an alcove space of its own, perfectly proportionate to the work itself. This is ‘Grille (Portrait)’ (2020), which has a twin work in the main space; ‘Grille (Landscape)’ (2020). Both throw clean, bold shadows across the nearby walls and floor, giving the works additional depth and extending their linearity out like arms into the space. Their dusty terracotta colour, vessel-like receptacles and parallel metal bars – some uncoated and some built up with rough paper pulp – are immediately reminiscent of both my farm upbringing and, contrastingly, the sea of balconies and window bars common to densely populated urban areas. Surprisingly these are influences Bax does in fact reference – architecture and the extension of personal space via balconies, as well as the utilitarian nature of agricultural forms that are visible throughout this exhibition.
Turning the corner into the main space instils a ‘kid in a sweet shop’ feeling of not knowing quite where to go or what to look at first. Should I go to the centrepiece? Clockwise? Anti-clock-wise? Wait, what is that? I settle on the central behemoth first, ‘Kingpin’ (2020). A rich pink and purple landscape form consisting of a main ‘body’ below, above which protrude growth-like appendages, funnels and tubes. Extending in both directions like stalagmites and stalactites, the latter form part of the work’s supports. The entirety of the surface is formed of undulating paper pulp made from free newspapers Bax has collected, reminiscent, she says, of the rich colours and rough terrain of the Scottish highlands that she spent much of her childhood amongst. Again there are notes of utilitarianism in the allusions to handles and pockets peppered throughout the work, as well as the two contrasting yellow stands. These powder-coated props not only tie ‘Kingpin’ to the nearby vivid yellow ‘Roller I’ (2020) and ‘Roller II’ (2020) but also bring a provenance of their own. Bax was an assistant to Anthony Caro who frequently used these supports when making work so, after the artist died, they were gifted to Bax by Caro’s Studio Manager. These, along with the modular formation of the work, means it can be modified slightly during installation to better fit each space. As with many of the other works here, the ability to view ‘Kingpin’ from various angles and heights, even through holes in its own body, encourages closer inspection, intent investigation and physical movement to truly experience the whole work. This promotion of exploration and even reframing of other works as you see them through ‘Kingpin’ is more than just a creative strategy but also a valuable lesson for life – look more, be curious, consider other perspectives.
Beside ‘Kingpin’ is the contrasting ‘Hopper’ (2020), which is neither figurative nor abstract, yet somehow both. Whilst its bulbous form and asymmetric curves refer to the human form and its wheels, though stationary, assign it a sense of movement, the vibrant greens and formal properties of the uncoated metal give it an abstruse nature. As with ‘Kingpin’ the colours here are not flat but layered, mixed in with the paper pulp and used to highlight its textures. ‘Hopper’ started out white before Bax began building up washes of different colours, thinking about the stippled application of bronze patinas which are then sealed with a finishing wax or, in this case, a varnish which gives a different finish to the other matt works. This spontaneity with materials and consideration of process is typical of Bax’s practice. Relinquishing an element of control through her use of paper pulp that can contract and dry differently depending on its water content and environment, requiring the artist to react to the materials and work in dialogue with them.
The works continue to choreograph your movement around them as you approach the celestial ‘Portal’ (2020), which hangs, protruding from a wall fixing constructed from the same material as the main body. Aside from the wall frame – which was modified from the Standpoint Gallery installation to accommodate Cross Lane’s smaller environment – the work is in three modular sections, each suspended from, and supported by the one above it to give a layered construction. Not only does this formation offer a practical solution in terms of transport, storage and adaptability, but its open structure allows what feels like a view inside the artist’s thinking and a way to question and understand the making process. ‘Portal’ appears as though it could even be the bare armature of an as yet unrealised sculpture. The tiers of geometry cast more shadows across the room and, as you walk below it, onto you. Roaming underneath also produces an effect reminiscent of a kaleidoscope as the lines continually move, overlap and produce new negative spaces. Though Bax does work on a small scale, she finds this larger size a more natural way of working as it allows the pieces to be dictated by her body size. This is most noticeable in ‘Portal’, whose lines demark the parameters of the artist’s reach, like personal boundaries materialised.
Enclosing all of the above are ‘Roller I’ and ‘Roller II’ which, due to their scale, colour and form, are omnipresent in the space, perennially visible in your peripheries or through the apertures in other works. In sharp contrast to the other works in OFF GRID which mainly consist of steel, chicken wire, newspaper, glue, paint, plaster and foam, these striking geometric, powder-coated aluminium forms are made of smooth lines, clean edges and a flat yellow colour. They are, in fact, not only artworks but also benches. Designing gallery furniture to be in keeping with the whole exhibition rather than interrupting the space with generic seating can be a brilliantly aesthetic and holistic approach to curating. However, here they form such a cohesive part of the space, and we as visitors are so ingrained with gallery etiquette, that they are unlikely to be used without encouragement. Instead they form spatial bookends that focus the eye within them, erasing the empty white walls and foyer space beyond: forming a bubble around the works, alluding to the exhibition’s title. ‘It is a treat to go off grid’, Bax says, ‘There is no phone signal. Incoming calls are diverted to an auto-response. When signal returns and auto-response is switched off, expectations rise. Off grid is uncompromising and unfamiliar but carries a sense of optimism’.
There is one final treat in this exhibition, awash with greens and oranges, which hangs unassumingly in the foyer area. It is a limited edition lithograph print titled ‘Flute’ (2020), the proceeds from which go towards funding the Mark Tanner Sculpture Award itself. A textured green wash in varying intensities sits as a background to bold, confident black lines. Active, orange lines are drawn suspended from the dark grid to form precarious and uneven repeated shapes. Bax explains that this is a translation of a drawing of scaffolding and rubbish chutes that inspired ‘Portal’ – chiming perfectly with the latter work’s height and allusion to construction.
‘Flute’ is a more fully formed example of the linear drawings, or what Bax refers to as ‘doodles’, that are the seeds of her sculptural practice. Rather than documenting and developing the aesthetic details or form of a work, these germinal sketches act to capture a sense, aura or impression that Bax uses as a catalyst. She focuses more on feelings that she can then explore in her sculptural experiments, taking each step as it comes, accepting and adapting to changes, and using them to move forwards whilst embracing the unknown. What a relevant message to transition into 2021 on.
OFF GRID was due to be on display at Cross Lane Projects 31 October – 12 December 2020 but is currently closed due to the coronavirus. Dates may be extended following the end of the UK lockdown.
Laura Biddle is a curator, collection coordinator and writer based in Manchester.
This review is supported by Cross Lane Projects.