International award-winning visual artist Liz West – renowned for creating vivid environments that mix luminous color and radiant light – has two major exhibitions running in England through November.*
Lighting designer Mike Brannon sits down with the cutting edge artist to discuss her influences.
U.K. native and resident Liz West works across a variety of mediums to provoke a heightened sensory awareness in the viewer through her works. She is interested in exploring how sensory phenomena can invoke psychological and physical responses that tap into one’s own relationship to color. Typically West explores the relationship between color and light by using architectural spaces with light radiating outside of its expected boundaries. She playfully refracts light by using translucent, transparent, or reflective materials to direct the flow of artificial and natural light. West lives and works in Manchester, England and earned a BA in Fine Art: Sculpture and Environmental Art from Glasgow School of Art.
Mike Brannon: When did you first realize that lighting was going to be important in your life?
Liz West: Light has always been a pivotal element within my life. Most of my earliest memories as a child were of discovering the world in a sensory capacity. I was attracted to objects, land and cityscapes, and spaces and fashion that were made of vibrant colors — the brightest tones and hues of strong saturation.
I recall enjoying driving down roads canopied with rich green summer leaves creating dappled sunlight on the asphalt. I loved the early morning glimmers of the rising sun reflecting onto the North Sea whilst having a pre-breakfast swim. I often admired the stained glass front door, especially when the sun aligned and created colored reflections on the white-washed hallway. As a child, I was taken to a lot of exhibitions because both my parents are artists. From a very early age I knew that the type of work that I enjoyed was installations where you were immersed within a colorful or light-based environment.
All these memories had one thing in common: the use of color and light together. Light is an entity that my whole life has centered around; not just my work. I notice even the slightest light changes during the daytime, which affect my emotions and psychology drastically. Given that light quality is central to my understanding of the world and well-being, when I chose to become an artist there was little doubt that the use of light and color would eventually creep into the process, presentation, and concept.
I vividly remember, the Days Like These exhibition at Tate Britain in 2003. I stepped onto one of Jim Lambie’s brightly colored vinyl floor pieces and it had a David Batchelor light tower in the middle. I was nearly physically sick because of how overwhelming it was; it made me happy. That experience [of feeling sick] didn’t put me off interacting with the artwork; instead, it excited me. I thought that if ever I become an artist, this was the kind of effect I wanted to have on my audience, this overwhelming, immersive environment.
In my final year as an art student, I really started playing with lights and lighting effects. It took me a long time to pin down exactly what I was interested in within the realm of color and the material of light. My work and ideas feed into my lifestyle on a daily basis; this allows me to never become bored and always [in the process of] be finding out about my own perception and sensibilities and tuning into others.
“I don’t see myself as a light artist. I see myself as a visual artist — a label which suggests a bigger toolbox and wider palette of materials.”
MB: Who are your influences?
LW: The work of artists who use the mediums of color and light in combination have interested and influenced me the most: Robert Irwin, Dan Flavin, James Turrell, Daniel Buren, Carlos Cruz-Diez, David Batchelor, Ann Veronica Janssens, Anthony McCall, and Olafur Eliasson. These works have had a direct effect on the scale, ambition, and form of my work. For me, J.M.W. Turner remains the father of light art.
MB: You tend to work with fluorescents, repetition, and scale. How do you experiment to get the effects that you want?
LW: Both light and color are wide in their outreach and ability to transform, perceive, deceive, illuminate, and optically challenge myself and my viewers. There are so many possibilities to create using light as a medium. I never feel restricted, maybe because I don’t see myself as a light artist. I see myself as a visual artist — a label which suggests a bigger toolbox and wider palette of materials. I have never been afraid of testing all kinds of materials. [Instead] I enjoy discovering their potential, this just happens to include variants of lighting methods and technologies. Maintaining an open mindset is possibly why I have managed to reinvent my work regularly, purely because I think less about the light source and more about the space we inhabit.
I believe that understanding of color can only be realized through the presence of light. I use light as a tool, controlling the amount, shape, form, size, color, strength, and quality of it to fill architectural spaces or fabricated structures to immerse the viewer in a rich, saturated environment. My color palette is the neon luminous hues created using industrial manufacture.
For me, color and light are inextricably connected. I am not attracted to surface color like I am to luminous color, hence not being a traditional painter. Subjective mixtures of colors are core to my understanding of color and have helped shape the backbone of my practice, but it is my ongoing investigations into additive mixtures that inspire my work.
In the past, my ideas always outstretched my budget, resources, skills, and available space. I found this hugely frustrating as I knew that if I ever did get the chance to realize any or all of my ideas, they could be overwhelming, sensory, immersive, and emotive encounters, which is what I wanted.
MB: Tell me more about your process.
LW: My investigations into the relationship between color and light are often realized through the engagement between materiality and a given site. I playfully refract light using translucent, transparent, or reflective materials, directing the flow of artificial light. Our understanding of color can only be realized through the presence of light. By playing and adjusting color, I bring out the intensity and composition of these spatial arrangements.
I revel in experimentation, and I utilize the sites where I exhibit as test beds for this process. Colors are ordered and classified, and series is created and reproduced in different “mixes.”
I am constantly on the lookout for new materials and discovering new processes. I have a research-based practice, where I don’t believe that any idea is ever finished. Instead I am constantly creating and developing. I love researching. I really enjoy finding out about new techniques, materials, and inspiration.
I get lots of product catalogs, browse the Internet, and contact suppliers with lots of questions about the strengths and weaknesses of their products and how I might be able to adapt them to my own use. I am forever curious and inquisitive — never settling for a simple answer. I have very clear ideas and vision about how I want my finished work to look.
I look beyond the art, lighting, and architecture world for inspiration. I ingrain myself in fashion, music, art history, and many other sources of inspiration. Color is all around us — I am like a magpie: I borrow ideas and materials from all around me (i.e. psychical, digital, and imaginary).
MB: What are among your favorite and most challenging projects?
LW: I am very proud of what I have been able to achieve and make, especially within the past 18 months. My favorite works are when the project is in situ, when it connects and responds to the architecture, space, and atmosphere of a place.
Each project that I have ever worked on has been totally different and independently challenging. For each, I am working with different people, personalities, budgets, spaces, materials, limitations, and advantages. Your Colour Perception, An Additive Mix, and Through No.3 are amongst my favorite works. Your Colour Perception [which is being exhibited through November] was extremely challenging, as there was no budget at all and installed on my own. This was time-consuming and draining but on the positive side, I was in total control of the outcome, which makes it totally worth it due to the effect it had on the space and the people experiencing it.