Fiona Connor in her LA studio. Photo: Jim and Mary Barr, OTN, June 2019.

10 Best Things: Sculptor Fiona Connor’s most inspiring discoveries of the year

Los Angeles based, New Zealand born sculptor Fiona Connor, currently showing at the Mossman Gallery in Wellington, shares her top 10 – from book of the year to favourite memory of summer.

I met Fiona Connor at a busy coffee shop on a hot, bright September morning in a bustling district in East Los Angeles. It’s late summer, the heat rising well into the mid-30s; we’re in a hot, low desert bowl, bordered by a mountain range fading mauve in the haze. We slump at a table on the crowded street where neighbourhood picketers sell cookies; fundraising for Bernie Sanders’ forthcoming electoral campaign and puffing dogs rest on the sidewalk while their owners talk loudly among themselves, arms gesticulating in wide movements.

Connor moved to Los Angeles in 2009 to complete her MFA at the California Institute of the Arts and stayed on. “It’s a real production town,” she says. Her Burbank studio is near Reynold’s Advanced Silicone, the top commercial silicone manufacturer and Rose Brand a supplier of theatrical backdrops and resins. Disney’s right next door; at the canteen people with pink hair, wear lanyards and pitch weird cartoons. “It all feeds into the studio.”

Fiona Connor, ‘Closed for installation,’ 2019, detail, ‘#8, Closed for Installation, Sequence of Events,’ Secession, Vienna, 2019. Bronze. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist, 1301PE, Los Angeles, and Hopkinson Mossman, Wellington. Photo: Oliver Ottenschläger

Connor is renowned for producing inconspicuous, incognito replicas of everything from architectural facades to the bronze broom that leans against the wall in Paramoudra, her current show with Lucy Skaer at Mossman Gallery in Wellington. This year, she’s also produced exhibitions for Secession, Vienna and the SculptureCenter, New York. “These recent works are about the visibility of maintenance and care in some way,” she says. Connor has created 21 bronze sculptures based on the tools used to install an exhibition: a measuring tape, ruler, pencil, dolly, etc. “There’s a universality to tools – no matter where you go the same ones are used.”

Book that’s left a strong impression on you?

Walker Evans: Kitchen Corner, by Olivier Richon

Walker Evans, Kitchen Corner, Tenant Farmhouse, Hale County, Alabama, 1936.

Walker Evans: Kitchen Corner is part of a series of Afterall Books that invites writers to go deep into one work of art. Kitchen Corner is a photograph taken by Evans in Alabama when he was hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to document the effects of the Great Depression in 1936. There’s an efficiency to Evans’ photo. Usually, you use tools, they’re always on the go. But Kitchen Corner renders tools as stationary, monumental suggesting labour and maintenance are important. I realised the bronze tools in my recent exhibition Closed for Installation are shiny like the silver gelatin quality of Evans photographs. It’s terrifying to think that tools outlast human beings. In Kitchen Corner, the viewer is impermanent compared to the permanence of the tools, which also suggests that life is arduous and absurd. I’ll never forget when my dad, a builder, said to me, “You know, life is just a very long grind, that’s what it is, get used to it.”

Tony Cokes, Della’s House, Hannah Hoffman Gallery, The House, Los Angeles, 2019.

Best show you’ve seen this year?

Tony Cokes: Della’s House, at Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles.

Recently in LA, rents have climbed and lots of galleries have closed. Hannah Hoffman shut her mid-city gallery because of this or other reasons and started doing off-site shows. One took place in Lafayette Square, where Hoffman had bought a house and before she moved in, she held this Tony Coke’s show. It was serendipitous because Cokes had made a work about the architect of the house, Paul Revere Williams, who was the first black member of the American Institute of Architects. Cokes’ video-text works look like spiralling screensavers. He has a very vernacular, meme aesthetic but the house was so specific and singular. The chemistry between Cokes’ work and the site was amazing.

Distributed, David Blamey and Brad Haylock (eds). Open Editions.

Favourite printed matter of the moment?

Distributed, edited by David Blamey & Brad Haylock

Distributed is an amazing collection of essays and stories on the dissemination of ideas. One essay covers the history of the Royal Mail in England, from how the mail service developed, to the arrival of the Internet and how email changed the financial model. The Australian academic Justin Clemens also wrote this really beautiful essay ‘The Paradox of Dissemination’ that’s about how the medium is the message e.g. what goes on to Instagram will always serve Instagram.

Artists often make great content but leave its distribution up to galleries, so lately I’ve been seeking out good writing and ideas about distribution. Distributed relates to my project the Laurel Doody Library Supply which places small-print run artist books in libraries, connecting networks of people in the process. We’re all more self-determined and inspired if we’re connected. It’s a strengthening thing.

Women’s Center for Creative Work, Los Angeles.

Place that’s inspiring you in its ethos?

Women’s Center for Creative Work, Los Angeles

In recent years, art education in high schools has been completely depleted. There is no art taught in a lot of high schools in America. So The Women’s Center for Creative Work started with a vision to help female high school students but now has become this insane octopi-like thing that enables all these different people to do cool things that don’t have a home elsewhere. The centre has an open model and is totally badass, rad and inspiring. Every time I go there, I’m like, this is heaven.

Best memory of this year’s summer?

Swimming in the Alte Donau, Vienna

When I was in Vienna to install my show at the Secession it was a ravenous heatwave. There’s no air conditioning in Vienna. You’re kind of in this sauna state all day. It was so hot and uncomfortable. In the evenings we would go out and swim in the Old Danube and just spend hours floating.

Favorite place to escape from the world?

Olympic Spa, Los Angeles

Spas have a particular social code that you learn pretty quickly. You can’t speak loudly, if at all. You can’t use your mobile. Everybody walks around naked or with a light robe but you try not to stare at people. The Olympic Spa is in the very central basin of LA and has rooms of salts and charcoal and different baths and saunas and steam rooms. LA can be quite dysfunctional in terms of traffic and it lacks spontaneous social spaces. When things get a bit crunchy, I go to the spa. It’s become an important part of my landscape here. I’ve definitely taken a lot of visitors, friends and family members to Olympic Spa over the years. But the person that originally recommended the spa to me was Brian Butler, who I first met when he was the director of Artspace in Auckland.

Kate Newby, I screamed “i was there!!” (detail), Lumber Room, Portland, 2019.

An art project that’s excited you this year?

Kate Newby: A puzzling light and moving, Lumber Room, Portland

[New Zealand-born] Kate Newby is an artist who always thinks outside of what’s expected. So when the Lumber Room invited her to do a show, she proposed a year-long exhibition, which became a residency. An exhibition typically feels like it’s the grand reveal of a singular thing, but at the Lumber Room, Kate had three openings and produced several bodies of work that were so sensitive to the space. I went to the closing event and it felt like I was seeing conversations between those different works coming in and out of season. For one really beautiful work Kate removed panes of glass from the façade of the gallery and replaced it with glass that she’d produced with a local glass company. She’d pierced the glass with her fingers and different tools. It was just so remarkable because the air from outside was able to enter the gallery. Another amazing print was produced by putting plates on the roof and letting birds live on it.

Phillip Smith, “Dolomite, marble and chalk”, Varese Group, 2019.

Best discovery in Aotearoa on your travels?

O2 Landscapes, Auckland 

My parents recently built a house on this old quarry in Mt Eden, Auckland. They wanted to work with a landscape architect who embraced the existing site and garden so Philip Smith from O2 Landscapes came to the quarry and spent a lot of time there and collected a bunch of grasses and weeds and little natives. While the build was in progress, the original plants were propagated elsewhere and later they were re-introduced. I just thought this was a fabulous way of working – helping the ecology do its thing.

Juliette Blightman, Relations, O-Town House, Los Angeles, 2019.

Favourite new space in LA?

O-Town House

The Granada Buildings were originally built in the 1920s for starlets and photographers and people involved with Hollywood. O-Town House opened up in the building about a year ago and is run by gallerist Scott Cameron Weaver. The gallery is tiny, but has really powerful shows. It’s been a great year with exhibitions from Gerry Bibby, Juliette Blightman and Adam Stamp, artists whose work has not been seen much in LA. Scott also shows artists’ estates and archive shows. O-Town House is a real testament to the fact that you don’t have to go big. You don’t have to keep on scaling up; part of an American paradigm is the idea that everything must get bigger to get better. Not true.

Favourite place to grab cupboard staples and quick snacks?

Haykashen Market, Glendale, Los Angeles

I live in an apartment in Glendale, an Armenian neighbourhood and shop at the grocer on the corner. The shop owners are really nice and if I’m lucky make me really strong coffee. The store has all the basics but also these really lovely specialty things like Mashti Malone’s Ice Cream, which is this small ice-creamery in Hollywood that makes rosewater ice cream and poppy-seed ice cream and saffron ice cream.

Rewi Thompson designed house, Kohimarama.

And one last question, seeing as we couldn’t quite limit it to ten: something from Aotearoa you encountered unexpectedly?

Rewi Thompson House, Kohimarama

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Rewi Thompson was a Māori architect (Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Raukawa) based in Auckland who did everything from subsidised government housing through to private commissions. His house in Kohimarama is just incredible. It was built in 1985 and has a ziggurat form that references Māori potama tukutuku pattern. The front of it looks like a big plywood cross. The verticality is super cool. At the back, it opens into this ravine of bush. You move through the house and there are voids that connect all the rooms. There’s very little privacy. So you’ll be in the living room and can see up to the top room, or you’re in the bedroom and can see through the stairs into the kitchen.

For ages, I’d been thinking about houses as places to install work in. I want art to be something that people live with and consider intimately. I’m hoping one day to spend time in this house and develop a project.

Paramoudra, Fiona Connor and Lucy Skaer, is at Mossman Gallery, Wellington until November 9, 2019.

Fiona Connor, Closed for Installation (plastic bags, coffee lid) (detail), Paramoudra, Mossman Gallery, 2019.



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