drawing the line

Sue Webster’s body of work until this point has played with light and dark, but her latest show, with art partner Tim Noble moves away from that entirely: It plays with scale. 

You’ll know Sue Webster's work. Mounds of dead animals fill the space, casting the shadow of her and Tim Noble's torsos, leaning back in agony (or ecstasy, we’ll never know), piles of rubbish that at first glance look like a bin-man has dumped his day’s sweepings project them again, puffing on a fag and a having a glass of champagne. Their last show, 2012’s Nihilistic Optimistic took us through a journey of scraps of wood, abandoned splinters from the streets of Shoreditch that projected their full, or sometimes full minus a bit, bodies – only this time rather than connected they stand apart. On the flip side they also make huge light sculptures, giant flashing dollar bill signs, the word ‘Forever’, dripping light bulbs of blood. But Sticks with Dicks and Slits is different. Three meter high bronze sculptures hang in the air, cutting through the space with a wonky precision. They cast no shadow: standing below them you are their shadow.  

What was it like doing the lost wax castings? It’s a process that’s like, 6000 years old, am I right?

Yeah! It’s been an absolutely fantastic experience to work in a completely new medium. I suppose we’re known for making the shadow works, which we became very successful at and then parallel to that was a whole other body of works which is the light sculptures. So to come up with something completely different is what you long for I think [as an artist]. I remember the last big show we did at Blain|Southern, Tim said, ‘I really don’t want to make another shadow work.’ 

It was a point in our relationship where suddenly instead of two connecting heads and bodies, we’d separated them and they were standing up and they were walking off. So it told a story up to that point and I don’t know whether or not we consciously knew if there was going to be another show in us to do together and we didn’t really talk about it, and that’s the best way to work. Because quite naturally we realised that we still found it very easy and comfortable to work together. 

So that is how this show happened? 

It wasn’t because we wanted to stand up and announce that we wanted to show the art world that we’re a united front. It happened completely by accident through a new way of working which absolutely categorically fits in to the history of our work quite naturally if you look at them.

"I think that spontaneity in my work completely liberated me and enabled me to go back and start making these sculptures"

That must feel really exciting. 

It does, I’m totally excited. Absolutely. I think it’s the greatest thing in the world to keep making work and keep coming up with new ideas and being able to realise them is such a liberating feeling. I don’t think this work would have happened if Tim and I hadn’t gone our separate ways really because it enabled us to go off, breathe, and experiment with our own work. I experimented a lot with drawings without thinking – it was non conceptual, it was being free and spontaneous. I think that spontaneity in my work completely liberated me and enabled me to go back and start making these sculptures. It was so free and liberating. Because it’s so refreshing it opens a door way where we can probably work with bronze for a while I think. There’s certainly more work to be made, this is just the beginning of it.

Your shadow work is the opposite of spontaneity isn’t it?

Exactly. It’s painstaking, it’s like torture. We’d be locked in a dark studio with a spot light and going mad – you have to really think about what you are doing. They were very labour intensive. When I started working on the spontaneous drawings it almost felt like, ‘Am I allowed to do this? Am I allowed to make something so quick?’ Because up to that point, for 20 years, I’d only been making conceptual art with Tim. It was almost like punishment. You had to really push yourself to make them, there was nothing easy about it. So actually, when I started doing these drawings and working downstairs on my own, it just felt like it wasn’t allowed to be so instantaneous.

Did it take a long time or did you sort of come around to embracing being spontaneous quite quickly?

You know how they say you have to suffer for your art?  I just thought that was the only way - that one had to suffer for one’s art. To come up with an immediate response just felt, ‘Now what am I going to do for the rest of the day?’ (laughs) Because it was all just about the suffering. 

Sue in her studio, with her drawings
Sue in her studio, with her drawings
"Keeping the mistakes in there keep it real, they keep it looking hand made"

You can only make that art because you’ve made all of the other art that you’ve made.

You can only possibly think about letting yourself off the hook because of the journey of the last 20 years, the slog and the commitment. 

But now you’re emancipated from that?

Now I’m kind of free, definitely. There’s a lot of freedom in the new work and you’ll see it, but it’s not at all light in anyway. I don’t mean it’s heavy subject matter at all either though. It’s been quite a journey in it’s own way, learning to work in a new material. 

Apart from with the neons, you physically made most of your work yourself. What was it like relinquishing that control?

A bit like working in neon I guess, which is how these things were originally perceived. Tim and I did these drawings with wire. They’re like drawing in mid-air, there are no thoughts beforehand apart from, ‘Ok they’re going to be figurative, or have a vague resemblance to each other.’  They’re self portraits. There was no preliminary sketches, so you were drawing quite spontaneously with the wire, and then we wanted to find a way to translate them to be big so you scale them up. We could have  scaled them up ourselves, but it’s often easier to pay someone to do that for you because once I’ve had that immediate idea you want to pass it over there [to the foundry]. I was there following the process step by step because every step of the way there had to be decisions that had to be made – when you make a small 12” inch high figure, there are no rules but when you scale that up then it becomes dangerous. It can wobble. When the little ones wobble, they’re not going to harm anyone but when something made out of solid bronze and is three metres tall wobbles in a gallery, then you have to bring on the structural engineer. So there’s all that sort of safety aspect to it, like if it goes outside, can it stand gail force wind? We wanted to leave all of the mistakes –  so you’re trying to make a piece of wire straight but it never happens when it’s done with your fingers because it’ll have all of those wobbly shapes. Keeping the mistakes in there keep it real, they keep it looking  hand made and they do – they look hand made. I’ve never seen anything like it and that’s what keeps you going really, when you’re twisting wire and knots. Then you can translate that using wax to scale them up; you can melt the wax and you can tie knots with it, then you cast that. It’s kept the spontaneity of the artists hands all the way through, it’s very true. 

How many are there?

At the moment there are six. There’s definitely room for more but someone had to draw the line and say ‘The shows going to open on February 2nd, so this is all there is.’ There’s lots of avenues for where they can possibly go, the possibilities are quite endless. It’s opened up a whole new door for making more similar things and stick figures in the future. We’d just be running out of titles because ‘Sticks with Dicks and Slits’ is such a great title. I think you could possibly rearrange that three times, I’ve probably got three shows ahead of me (laughs). 

That’s spontaneity again isn’t it, because sometimes with words the more you work at them the worse they get. 

Yeah, that’s like art, that’s like making this show. We didn’t sit down like, ‘Come on Tim, we’ve got to come up with a new idea!’ We’d been offered a residency as we do quite often in St Barts in the Caribbean, it was so ridiculous and nothing happened there – we just rendered impotent. We were just so bored with how beautiful it was, it wasn’t dark and miserable like Shoreditch. So being transplanted into a colourful environment where it was always happy, we just couldn’t work. We took a surf board out with us and Tim went surfing everyday and I listened to every single song on my iPod and then we sort of ran out of things to do. Necessity is the mother of invention - Tim found a role of electrical wiring and started doing these two little portraits which were beautiful, but I didn’t think anything of them at the time. We just brought them back and then put them in a box somewhere where they stayed hidden until I started clearing out the studio about a year ago when I found them again. I looked at them with fresh eyes, put them on a pedestal and just kept looking at them in the studio going, ‘I wonder what they’d look like, three metres tall.’ That’s how it began. About a year ago when I was in Mexico doing another residency, I started messing around with some cable and I messaged Tim and he started messing around with some wire, so we thought we had something going here and carried on. We’ve got hundreds of them.

You haven’t shown under your own name, will you?

I have in small ways with the cookbook and TV programme. The studio downstairs is full of drawings I’ve done in the past year and I’ve been offered opportunities to show them but I wanted to get this show out of the way first. I didn’t want it to conflict time wise with the show that I’m doing with Tim because I thought it’s interesting to carry on doing that until it wont happen again, because who knows when the next show that we do together will be. So yeah, there’s something’s in the pipeline with my own work but not just yet. 

Sticks with Dicks and Slits is on At Blain|Southern gallery, London 
3 February 2017 – 25 March 2017

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