City Gallery

Isabella Loudon: Concrete Mixer

Our Chief Curator Robert Leonard was planning to pen a series of profiles on young New Zealand artists for Home magazine when Germany’s Bauer Media cancelled New Zealand magazine publishing at the start of the lockdown. His first instalment would have been on Wellington artist Isabella Loudon. Here it is.

‘I nicknamed my studio the dungeon’, jokes Wellington sculptor Isabella Loudon. For the past three years she’s worked in the basement of a Mount Victoria apartment building. It leaks in one corner and it’s freezing in winter. There’s one powerpoint, one light. Extension cords traverse the space, suspended from hooks in the ceiling. Kicked-in street-level windows, taped over with plastic, rattle in the wind. The place is grotty, but not in a contrived, romantic, Francis-Bacon-studio kind of way. It’s perfect for Loudon’s messy experimentalism.

‘I love my studio’, she says. ‘It’s my favourite place to be. It’s mine. There’s nobody else there and I can do what I want. There’s no window to look out of and nobody can look back at me. I’m away from everything. I can make as much mess as I want. It’s limiting, but, within its limitations, I feel absolutely free. The space has influenced my work, which is odd because it’s the opposite of the white-cube spaces the work is destined for.’

When I visit studios, I usually find artists’ influences and inspirations—books and magazines, pictures and CDs, source materials and talismans—strewn about as creative compost and clues. But not in Loudon’s. She says she doesn’t want to think about other artists’ works—or anything else—when she’s working. No distractions.

At twenty-five, Loudon is already making a name for herself as a sculptor. She graduated from Massey in Wellington with a fine-arts degree in 2016, but she started her studies in Palmerston North, wanting to be a vet.

I’d wanted to be a vet since I was eight. I did science and art at school—I loved both. I went to vet school, but I missed doing art and applied to art school. I started off in design. I wanted to do fine arts but initially I was scared of the interview—you had to do an interview to get in.’

‘The Massey art-school programme is oriented towards self-motivated students. It relies on you doing most of the work. Lack of structure doesn’t suit everybody. I tried everything: painting, printmaking, video, performance. It didn’t click until the end of my last year, when I found something I was really interested in. Concrete.’

Why concrete? ‘Because it’s hard to work with. With clay, you can build up forms. But a concrete slurry just sinks into itself or breaks off. It doesn’t do what you want it to. You have to find something to attach it to or to hold it. You have to find other ways.’

Loudon’s concrete sculptures featured in The Tomorrow People, Adam Art Gallery’s talent-spotting group show in 2017. But it was her first dealer-gallery show, Disintegration Loops at Robert Heald Gallery the following year, that opened eyes.

The stars of that show were Static Phase I and II, whose attenuated forms looked like they were made from steel cable—frayed, corroded, petrified. They could have been found on a demolition site, having been flattened under rubble. They sat on the floor as sculptures but also rested against the wall, looking like drawings—with the gritty, crumbly flavour of oil pastel. I couldn’t work out how they were made. It turned out they weren’t metal at all. Loudon had soaked twine in concrete, suspended it to cure, then inverted the results, so the loops formed by gravity now defied it.

Loudon took her twine-concrete idea a giant leap forward in her project show at Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Museum in 2018. Labyrinth was space hungry. It colonised a whole room. Masses of dark twine-concrete welled up vertically like stalagmites, while also extending tendrils horizontally across the floor. Loudon made it in the studio in more than fifty parts, so it could be transported to the Hutt. It was a monstrous, abject thing. Loudon says she was thinking of the extraterrestrial symbiote that fuses with Peter Parker in Spider-Man 3 (2007). I was reminded more of the sci-fi special-effects sequence at the end of Lucy (2014), when Scarlett Johansson evolves into a similar morass of sticky black tentacles. Either way, you couldn’t get into the room with it, but had to observe it from behind glass. ‘It was breathing’, Loudon says.

For Loudon, sculpture is a dirty business. Concrete is caustic, which means working in a breathing mask and heavy gloves. She soaks the twine in concrete, massaging it into the fibres, before draping the results over this and that, and leaving them to set. Her gloopy twine-concrete mix combines properties of line and mass, of drawing and sculpture, but it’s not versatile—it’s recalcitrant, obstinate. There are limits to the forms it will take. Loudon’s work emerges from accepting and channelling what her materials will do. She looks back to anti-form sculpture, which emerged in the 1960s in reaction to the clarity, geometry, and regularity of minimalism. Artists like Robert Morris, Barry Le Va, Lynda Benglis, and Eva Hesse emphasised disorder and decomposition, material and process, preferring to drape, pour, and scatter stuff. Informal formalism. ‘Eva Hesse, definitely—a great influence, mostly for her love of materials’, says Loudon.

Loudon’s studio is now packed with a diversity of twine-concrete things. It isn’t clear which came first, which are experiments and which are works, what’s in progress and what’s finished. One thing hangs from a ceiling hook like an eviscerated carcasses in some abattoir; one rises from the floor like a termite mound; another permeates metal grids like strained spaghetti.

Confronted with numerous examples, you realise that Loudon adds colour to her concrete. ‘I pick colours but there’s a limited range I can work with. I go through phases where I just work with one colour and everything is that colour. First it was green, then it was black, now it’s brown. Brown is warm and kind of yucky. It’s rusty and old, but also soft, earthy, and gritty. It feels very feminine to me.’

Loudon says, ‘I do completely different things at the same time. I’ll try everything. If something comes to mind, I’ll try to make it.’ She’s also been working with old rubber inner tubes, slitting them open, draping them, flattening them, sometimes threading wires through them—evoking corsetry as much as vivisection.

In November 2019, Loudon installed Platforms, her largest work yet, in the City Gallery Wellington show Unravelled. She wanted to combine her sloppy twine-concrete with metal grids, like they use for concrete reinforcing. She could try things out in the studio, but everything had to be made quickly in situ in the Gallery.

‘I found making this show really hard. I spent a lot of time freaked-out and panicked, trying to come up with ideas. Then, just days before the install, I rethought everything. I was in the studio, taking down the model. I started by flipping the grids down from the horizontal to the vertical. Suddenly, it had the feeling I’d been looking for. It brought the grids’ regularity and the twine’s irregularity explicitly into conversation.’

In the gallery, the ceiling gave her grief. She said, ‘I struggled with the false ceiling, which left few points to hang my hooks from and would have led to a big empty gap in the room. I thought of installing MDF over the ceiling to hang them from, but instead I took panels out and went straight through to the ceiling above. Suddenly I felt I was working with the space not just putting things into it.’

Loudon erratically wove her twine-concrete into three horizontally suspended metal-mesh grids. After it cured, the two largest grids were released from some of their hooks and gently lowered to the vertical. One met the floor and slouched, the other swung free. They suggested demented tapestries, scribble on graph paper, bad-hair days.

Loudon left up the hooks as clues to the process and added some finishing touches. Inspired by the suspended extension cords in her studio, she added lengthy drapes of twine-concrete to visually tie everything together. The walls were already splattered with concrete, but she added some big arcs by flicking lengths of wet twine-concrete onto them.

Platforms is bold and aggressive, but also brittle, fragile, ready to crumble. Three months later, Loudon remains pleased with it. ‘I look at it now and I feel like I’m inside the guts of one of my drawings.’

What’s next? Loudon’s looking for more opportunities to work big. When she gets them, her relationship with her studio may change. It will mean working in situ more, turning galleries into her studio, and making her actual studio more of a rehearsal space. As she says, ‘When you upscale, everything changes.’

—Robert Leonard

Robert Leonard is Chief Curator at City Gallery Wellington. He curated Unravelled.