In the Studio with Rachael Campbell-Palmer

Rachael Campbell-Palmer Sculpture

TERRA FIRMA, Ps2 Gallery, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

In Rachael Campbell-Palmer’s latest show, Methods for Egress, the stuff of architectural interior space becomes delicately extroverted: angular and abstract forms muscle in to the gallery, forming a part of space and mirroring work within. These sculptures and installations’ industrial materiality is both exploited and somewhat muted, creating a relationship to the viewing bodies around them, altering their movement throughout the space, and expanding on their memories and impressions of built form.

The exhibition is grounded in Campbell-Palmer’s response to the built-in exit routes that must exist in every building. A smooth and finished angled wall bursts through the back of the space, coming to a peak in the taller gallery space next door, and is lined with echoing, intimately sized forms and strip lights along the floor. In the second space, stacked, hollow units of varying heights in unpigmented shades quietly recall the tiled gallery ceiling, a leftover from the space’s old office days.

Your work seems to have a complicated relationship with rules and uniformity – using or playing with pre-dictated sizes or distances in architecture, for example.

I’m not sure I think about the work in terms of its association with rules. There are certain rules that I follow in terms of the processes involved, like mould design, but not so much in terms of a set of architectural rules or guidelines; although there’s definitely an architectural influence in my work, and I use a lot of industrial materials such as wood, concrete and plaster. There is some uniformity in terms of reproducing multiples of a specific shape or form, but it’s more about the relationship or tension between uniformity and non-uniformity.

The moulds are designed, built and cast by hand, and so there will always be uniqueness to the individual pieces. Often it’s about striving for an exact replica but intentionally using a process that makes it impossible.

Specifically, I am interested in the connections we have with the physicality of the built environment, and how that informs associations with location and memory: connecting memories and transient associations with these physical reference points. I often think about movement around the work, and how the work moves around the space. I’m creating a landscape within the gallery by referencing, but not replicating structures, and creating environments that don’t exist yet nod to many that have.


Installation photo of Methods for Egress, QSS Gallery, 2016. Photo by Tony Corey

What initially drew you to the casting process?

I’ve always worked three dimensionally, and having physical involvement in my practice is very important to the way I work. I got into casting when I shifted from working with soft sculpture to using hard materials. In a way, before casting, I didn’t really have the language or means to make work that communicated the ideas I wanted to. After completing an MFA I did a casting and mould design course in order to pick up some new practical skills, and that really propelled things forward for me.

There’s something very satisfying about it. I love the different steps that are involved in creating the completed piece. Often you have to work backwards, from the positive to negative to positive forms – it’s like figuring out a puzzle. Although there are a lot of drawing and technical diagrams in its development, I also have to make the physical maquettes to find a way to make it work.

The different materials that are available in casting are also a massive part of its appeal. Once you’ve decided on a material, it dictates the mould time and release agent involved, and then the cast itself goes through many stages in turning from liquid into solid, which all combine to create a different result. Its process allows you to create a repeated product and seriality, but at the same time repetitiveness can bring change. I’m always testing the boundaries of what’s possible with materials and experimenting with combinations and timings. There are endless possibilities and I’m really excited by that potential.

There’s a lot of material play within your work, such as following the parameters of architectural units but using them irreverently in TERRA FIRMA. How process-led is your practice in itself?

I would say it’s very process-led, in terms of both the actual making process and the conceptual development of the outcome. I have ideas and concepts I want to achieve in a certain space for an exhibition, but I like to leave a lot of room for them to develop as well – whilst a lot of the creation can take place in the studio, the final outcome is very much realised in that final space, so there’s a lot of stuff that resolves itself once it’s within the gallery. TERRA FIRMA was a project that changed as it developed: originally the proposal for PS Squared had other elements, but then the floor became the focus, and everything else seemed to become irrelevant or additional clutter. I find it’s about whatever works best when bringing it all together – regardless of how much time I invest in making pieces, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I’m not overly precious about the work, or worried about changing or eliminating things at the last minute.


TERRA FIRMA, PXIV Platform Arts Belfast, Dec 2014 Photo by Simon Mills

Did working with both installational elements and studio-created forms, and the different timeframes and flexibilities inherent within that, result in instances in which the work fitting around one another in unexpected ways? 

In my research I was looking at building processes and the idea of ‘formworks’, the support structures used in the construction of buildings, and came across this idea of the egress. Every building must have exit plans factored in from the beginning, and I thought this idea of planning the way of out of a space before it is even built was interesting. I was also thinking again about the connection between the physical space and cognitive experience: the notion of having an escape route or a way out, either of a situation, or as escapism, or just trying to get out of your own head.

In the first space with the entrance is a series of three concrete blocks that sit within a series of six 30cm florescent lights. The concrete blocks are hollow cast and at different stages of dryness and therefore different colours, and the fluorescent lights have been stripped to expose their aluminium casings. These elements sit along the base of a floor to ceiling diagonal wall tilted forward at a 75-degree angle, which is mirrored on the facing angle of the concrete blocks.


Methods for Egress QSS Gallery Feb 2016, photo Tony Corey

Moving through to the second space the diagonal wall is exposed as a purpose built structure imposed into the gallery, and draws attention to the height difference of the two spaces. This is also explored by a series of column-like freestanding sculptures that are constructed from combinations of concrete, resin, fibreglass and Crystacal plaster. Beneath these forms the floor has been stripped to expose the concrete that exists beneath the paint.

One thing I was concerned about in “Methods for Egress” was how it was going to come together in the space. I didn’t know exactly how the large, angled wall was going to work with the cast forms I’d made in the studio. That was something I had to access at each stage and make decisions about – I had to choose whether to leave the false wall as a raw, plasterboard intrusion in the space, or have it more seamlessly finished. I ultimately decided to paint it and sand it to have it push back into the interior architecture of the gallery. I suppose it could have been more of a dominant statement, but I wanted to play with it more subtly, and in the end that worked better with the sculptural cast forms, allowing those two elements to blend together a bit better and echo one another.

Wanting to intervene into the fabric of the gallery space also motivated the construction of the wall and the stripping of the floor. I didn’t just want to place works in isolation, I also wanted to play with the notion of what was interior or exterior. For people who knew the QSS gallery space, it was presented to them in a new way, and for those who didn’t there was an ambiguity about what was part of the gallery and what the artist had created.


Installation photo of Methods for Egress, QSS Gallery, 2016. Photo by Tony Corey

Where do you feel your work may go next?

My work is always research – there’s always somewhere further to experiment and take materials, so I feel there’s a lot still to be done with combinations in casting. Recently I’ve been trying concrete and resin together – they don’t marry together very well, which I think is an interesting challenge. It can be difficult getting some materials to bind so they are strong enough to come out of the mould, so I am determined to make that work. Working with resin and fibreglass is really problematic though; I don’t really have suitable facilities to work with it here in my studio. “Methods for Egress” was also the first time I worked with hollow casting concrete, which is a very different process to solid casting, so I think there are more possibilities for development there too.

I’ve been having conversations about the possibility of showing my work in TULCA Festival of Visual Art in November, but this year my main goal is to apply for residency opportunities. I’d like the opportunity to go away, perhaps on some programmes in the Netherlands or Germany, and see where a new context leads for my practice.

By Dorothy Hunter

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