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A reflexive history

 

At the age of five, Susan Tebby decided that she wanted to be an artist and “put things on walls”. At the age of thirteen she realized that space in a drawing was the substance, the stuff, between the uppermost reaches of the sky (the thin blue line at the top of the paper) and the ground beneath her feet (the equally thin green line at the bottom of the paper) and the space between could be filled with anything in or from her imagination: a bright orange, if she so decided, or not. She could choose. There was no physical limit except the edge of the paper; no limit except her imagination.

 

A year later seeing the Venus de Milo in the Louvre, as a slanting beam of sunlight sped across its form she understood that she could make anything she wanted to, even a human form in marble, twice the size of life. And if twice the size of a person, then twice the size of a house, or the world. She had never thought of such things before. When confronted with the Venus of Willendorf, she felt the magic of that potent little figure, so perfectly, succinctly carved, that could sit in the hand, and knew she would make things for the rest of her life, striving to achieve simplicity yet evoke as powerful a message as was possible for her to achieve.

 

But things have a way of not turning out quite how one imagines they will. Yes, she has spent much of her life making things for walls: relief constructions, drawings, paint directly on to walls in buildings, hanging sculptures and so on, for herself and for others. But these did not take on human or naturalistic form. Instead, in order to crystallize her ideas the most effective way to achieve this, she found, was through abstract geometric art.

 

She had seen the sun-cast images of magnificent stained glass windows, projected obliquely on to the stone flags of a cathedral nave, slanted beyond image recognition so that colour, light and shape were removed from their intended associations and she realized then that abstract form was to be her preferred means of expression. It somehow reached further into the essence of what was actually concrete without distraction. She was also entranced by the way the uneven floor rocked, tilted and fragmented the images. Her first wall pieces, at the age of five, though, were abstract paintings, in purple powder paint and other colours, executed on the ends of rolls of newsprint paper (all that was available in the late 1940s) and then on the manila wrappers of her father's engineering journals, presaging the discarded and recycled materials that were used for her first reliefs less than fifteen years later.

 

At the same time, the content of this work was a different concern. Becoming dissatisfied with abstracting from nature or using the human form very early on, she became preoccupied with using number, sequence and geometry as idea, concept and process. The shapes they took on were partly determined by the logic of their own inner structures and partly by the limits of the material from which they were made.

 

The many possibilities that this opened up has become an unending series of works in two, three and four dimensions. The first ideas were discussed in her BA thesis in: Rhythmic Proportion, a Comparative Study of the Relationship between Art & Mathematics, followed by her PhD thesis: Patterns of Organization in Constructive Art, a programme of work over seven years which was also in (studio) practice. Some of the ideas and works have expanded into the public arena, having used, for example, the interconnected walls of a hospital as the material of a three and four dimensional environment, that revealed itself as one walked around.

 

Works of the 1990s brought the concept of disaster, or stratified remains and discarded relics back into play. Natural systems were used with industrial materials so that the message was more pronounced. And all the while, the notion of works on walls comes and goes, sometimes ending up on the floor, or leaning against a corner. The space which we occupy is the space in which we can imagine that anything is possible...

 

ST 2012

 

 

Notes to photographs

 

 

1. Ovoid Divided, 1962

 

The idea that sculpture was something to be held in the hand and explored by touch, rather than placed on a pedestaland looked at froma distance, was revelatory to me. I had not seen Brancusi’s sculptures or Barbara Hepworth’s series of carvings in 1962; but Ovoid Divided is not about modelling or carving but about deconstruction and re-construction. I made a three-dimensional geometric form - an ovoid as perfect as possble (scrunched up newspaper, covered in plaster, pared back with a cheese grater), then cut right through the mass on a diagonal plane that was ‘calculated’ to be, as far as possible, a perfect ellipse. The two parts were then rotated and re-connected one with the other; again made as perfect as possible by filling, smoothing and painting. The elliptical ‘line’ around the form, where the two ‘edges’, as it were, came together, made a sharp convex form on one side and a concave groove on the diametrically opposite side. The subtlety of its form is revealed by natural light falling across the surface from one direction. The appearance is as if one half is emerging from darkness into light. The asymmetry, or eccentricity, of the form is suggestive of growth.

 

By December 1962 the traditional material of plaster for sculpture for me had been replaced by tin sheet, welded steel and finally, silver-brazed chromed brass: Link I and Link II, 1968 (shown at the Serpentine Gallery in 1971), see below; by now such works were called constructions, reflecting the processes of thinking and making.


2. Permutation of Five, 1971

 

The first reliefs in the early 1960s were made from found materials: cabinet doors and scraps from skips, although several experimental small reliefs were made in Perspex off-cuts. Gradually more robust materials were used: seasoned hardwood, particularly beech, industrial paints, stainless steel and Formica.

 

This particular relief has articulated pieces with stainless steel backs. Exploring the potential of actual movement had become a preoccupation. The stainless steel backs reflect light and also make visible side images and occasionally the undersides of other elements not visible by any other means. The position, location, heights and colours of all the elements are determined by overlaying four simple pendulum permutations. This process means that some pieces cannot be articulated, if there is insufficient room and they thus remain stationary; some have limited movement, while others have maximum movement, that is, a full revolution. Each characteristic reveals something different about its neighbours and thus the work as a whole. Shown at the Serpentine, 1971. Permutation on 7, 1973, a more developed version, was exhibited at Park Hill, Sheffield (2012): British Modern Remade (Coll. Arts Council)


3. Maquette for a screen, 1983

 

To be realized in anodized aluminium, this cut and folded paper relief is one of a number of similar constructs from the early 1980s to mid 90s. (Private Collection)

The purpose of these screen works is to discover and reveal changing perspectives, shifts in actual and reflected colour, a reflected world from outside, and the altered shapes of the construction as one walks past the work.

 

Designed to be about 2m in height such screens relate to the space in which they exist and to the individual. To be able to see through the work at something beyond, also relates that distant image to the work itself. The aluminium also has metal reflective sections and thus reflects the viewer and their surroundings back again at differing angles. Reflected light and sunlight become indissoluble parts of the work. The intention is that the screen exists independently of us and at the same time is dependent on us and life around it so that we become synonymous with it. Movement is both reflected in the work and actively involved as one walks past. In this sense it is kinetic. (Private Collection). Maquette for a four-sided screen (Version 1) 1983 is an extension of the same idea in the round; there are more colours in this version. (Coll. Kemi Town Council, Finland).


4. Spectrum, 1984

 

Using found objects and materials has become an acceptable means of expression. The first works made were because, as a student, I had little money for expensive materials. Such objects or materials were usually disguised with paint or faced with aluminium. Sometimes, however, found objects became part of the work itself - as in this construction.

 

The 10-strand wires of the cable are given a single rotational twist before being connected to their opposite sides (known as a Moebius band), within the cable connector. Imaginatively, if the crossed wires were connected to power, the work would explode. However, the concept is also that of ‘splitting’: hence the prism - that can split a beam of white light that falls on to one of its surfaces into many colours, represented here by the multi-coloured cable. To emphasize this double meaning/action the prism and cable is placed on a reflective stainless steel base, which doubles possibilities again.


5. Location, 1990

 

The Location, Dis-location, Re-Location Series of the early to mid 1990s utilized primary concepts of stratification of living and life in cities (and particular landscapes), constructing edifices and clustering structures. Secondary notions of dismantling, dis-locating or discarding became physical agents of change within works. Tertiary developments included re-building, re-constructing, re-newing.

Location, 1990 began the series, being a metaphor for the constructing of a new city while at the same time building upon the relic of an abandoned place. Based on a permutation of 6, stacking and intersecting. Beech & various materials; 15”x15”x2½” on board (381x381x63mm on board).


Discussed with members of the Postal Academy and Countervail during early 1990s, in Countervail, 1994 (Mappin Gallery, Sheffield and Arts Council).

 

 

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Dividing Ovoid, 1962  pleaster  c.12cm diameter