A New Culture of Colour from Artist Liz West
Colour isn't a secondary consideration or simply an aesthetic choice in artist Liz West's work. Color and light are the primary materials in her installations. She treats them as other artists might treat tangible material- molding and stretching them out, splicing them and using them as a lens or film.
From fluorescent bulbs, LEDs and theater lights, to colored glass and acrylic with natural light–West's palette of mediums is burgeoning. She uses luminous color and radiant light in many different physical forms and creates playful and evocative sensory experiences through her installations.
I find that West's installations are extraordinary for a few different reasons. For one, they appear to have grown out of their sites. Each installation is site specific and becomes a friendly intermediary between a viewer and the site, creating a sensorily enhanced experience of surroundings that already exist. The second is that unlike other experiences of light and color, there is nothing passive about an interaction with West's work: the installations appear to trigger contemplation, curiosity, excitement and a whole range of other emotions.
Last month, 'Our Colour Reflection', an ambitious solo exhibit by West, opened at 20-21 Visual Arts Centre in North Lincolnshire, UK. More than 765 colored mirrors, made of acrylic were set across the floor of this former church. The colored light and reflections from mirrored discs have now forever altered how viewers can experience the architecture and history of this space.
The atmosphere appears to be both contemplative and playful at once.
Shortly after 'Our Colour Reflection' opened to the public, MaterialDriven reached out Liz and spoke with her with her at length about her trajectory and process as an artist, and where the future of her work lies.
MD: Liz when did color and light become primary themes and materials for your work?
LW: From 2004-07 I studied at the Glasgow School of Art. It took me nearly all of this duration to discover what I was interested in. It was only in my final year, approaching the degree show that I felt that I had found my feet.
Until this point, I had ignored how much my own emotions responded to natural light and the time of day. I hadn’t paid attention to how happily I reacted to the neon lights of this city. Even as a child, born to two artists, I had been fascinated with art especially stained glass. I had missed these signs in my art making.
Once I realized what I was drawn to, I began to experiment with artificial light. I played with theater lights and fluorescent bulbs as LEDs weren’t in the mainstream market then. Everything I did was self-taught. None of this was being taught at art schools at that time. In a sense, I then began a research-based practice and my work really belonged to me because I had to find it for myself.
MD: In your work, light and color are manifested in so many different mediums—colored glass, fluorescent lights, cellulose gels, and films. What dictates your choice of these for each installation?
LW: The way I approach a material is that I interrogate one material for a very long time. I uncover its strengths and weaknesses. I play with compositions of that material, playing with multiple and single units of it, and then examine the results visually. I am always learning about new materials.
When it comes to determining what material is appropriate for an installation, that process begins with visiting the site. I start to gather cues and begin to think about what material may fit and what will not.
For example, for ‘Through No.3’ the site was in the heart of a business district—Crown Square in Spinningfields in Manchester. There was an industrial quality to the site and an abundance of concrete and reflective glass all around me. Therefore the intent became to introduce color into the site not just passively but to all immerse viewers into it. And yet, the materials for this installation borrow from the site. They are steel, polycarbonate, and optically clear vinyl.
A lot of designers use materials for what they are. I feel that I am interested in using them in an unconventional manner. I am drawn to the way that they can be reappropriated. We live in a visually noisy yet rich world, and I am tuned into this world and the materials in it.
MD: You aim to create sensory experiences that evoke psychological and physical responses. What kind of reactions do you see, in visitors to your installations?
LW: Each work is different. For example, in ‘Our Colour Reflection’ the effect is a calming one, while ‘An Additive mix’ is intense and impacts on people completely differently. Of course, the effect is different for every individual. I see children treat installations as a massive playground. They seem to be able to liberate themselves entirely.
A lot of contemporary art today makes people think. With my work, I want people to feel! I want it to effect all the sensory capacities. It is rare for people to be in a room with one single color. But when it happens it slows them down. It stops them in their tracks. Also, color has the ability like smell, to take people back to memories.
MD: Tell us about your current and future installations.
LW: A project of mine that opened to the public just recently is ‘Solstice Ritual’ at Penarth Pier Pavilion in Cardiff, Wales. Overlooking the coast in Penarth near Cardiff, my work is situated on the massive windows of a 1930s art deco pavilion which serves as a gallery. Using two shades of optically clear vinyl (yellow and hot pink) on the windows, I have dramatically altered the light entering the location and thereby the perception of the space. The aim was a subtle immersion in color and light over the summer solstice.
Another upcoming installation is part of the Colour and Vision exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London. The installation will be constituted by seven prismatic structures of colored dichroic glass. My work will be an interpretation of Newton’s experiment with disassembling and reassembling white light into the visible spectrum using prisms.
MD: What is next for you Liz?
LW: At this time I am constantly meeting with suppliers, gathering samples and looking at work of architects and designers—getting inspired. The work of artists like Robert Irwin and James Turrell, who work with ephemeral materials, inspires me. They are immensely connected to their materials.
I think my next work will be about making things as simple as possible. I want it to be minimalistic and to rein it back a bit. I want the experience of my work to become more about immersion and the space and less about the sculptural and structural qualities of my installations.
MD: Thank you, Liz for speaking with us and sharing your wonderful work and trajectory with us.