Svea Ferguson’s show The Felt Works, on view at the Capital City Arts Initiative’s Courthouse Gallery, traffics in a form of sleight-of-hand—or perhaps sleight-of-eye. A line of spare sculptures along one wall, spaced like a span of introverts waiting quietly in a queue, makes you wonder what they’re made of. Are they fabric? Cloth? Metal? The sheen of one piece, “Golden Boy,” suggests a thin sheet of brass, bent and looped like a bow wound around a pleat of hair—though where the bow ends and the pleat begins, it’s impossible to say.
On closer inspection, the “brass” admits it’s actually rubber—a strip of faux-gilt baseboard trim. Other pieces are made of industrial, synthetic materials: linoleum, vinyl, latex, Mactac. In terms of their surfaces, they fit comfortably within—if at a conceptual right angle to—the courthouse space, where square-patterned carpets lead out to folding tables, plastic chairs, water fountains, and glass-paneled offices. Particularly with the addition of a couple of larger-scale pieces—two big cubes assembled from interlocking floor mats, a grey “water feature” pieced together from marble-patterned linoleum, a slice of metal tubing, and sheets of clear shelf liner—the installation almost invokes an exceedingly adventurous flooring trade show expo. One where the exhibits, restless in their usual places, dreamily reimagined themselves as a minimalist sculpture garden.
Ferguson is based in Calgary, Alberta, where she earned her BFA from the Alberta College of Art + Design. She exhibited in the 2017 Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art, and has been awarded two residencies at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, which has included her work in its permanent collection.
I had a chance to talk to her about her current show—and it quickly became apparent that, while she’s alive to the connotative qualities of her materials, it’s the physical qualities that draw her in. Her materials occupy a middle space between the hardness of metal and concrete on one hand, and the softness of textiles on the other. She uses clean lines, points of density and tension, points of release—examining the way gravity puts everything upright on the edge of a swoon. The works that nod toward classical drapery nod to the figure as well—suggesting bodies caught and traced in their adornments.
The following is a conversation that took place over email, woven together with some transcriptions from a follow-up talk over Skype. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Could you talk a bit about your process? To what degree are you trying to bend your materials to an image you hold in your mind? To what degree is your work more a reaction to your material?
Because most of the materials I use start as a flat sheet, I always have an initial image in my mind of what I would like it to become. That gives me a place to start in terms of where to cut or fold and where the hanging points will be. Once I start building the work, which often happens directly on the wall, is usually when my initial mind-image begins to shift and I need to respond to the materials. There are times when everything goes as planned (so to speak) and the materials respond just as I thought they would. More often though, the piece changes significantly in response to the material qualities and how it wants to drape or be held.
There almost seems to be something dancelike, or choreographic, about your process.
Yes, definitely. I have an extensive dance background, and although I haven’t spent much dedicated time thinking about how that influences me, I’m certain that it does.
How do you move your work from your studio to an exhibition space? I know it’s not a simple process of transferring a piece intact—that there is a degree of disassembly and re-assembly.
It really depends on the piece. Sometimes it can be transferred to an exhibition space or collector intact, particularly if I’m not able to be there to install the work. … Otherwise I make very detailed notes for myself or the preparator for installing and striking the work so it can be reconstructed to spec.
How do you think about your relationship to gravity? Are you fighting it? Illustrating it? Collaborating with it?
This goes back to your first question. During the initial planning stage I have this idea in my mind of what the material is going to do, how it will hold itself in place, and then—aha!—gravity. I would say sometimes I feel like I am fighting it, but in the end I must always give in to its pull. The more that I can accept the powers that be, the better.
Beauty is a fairly deprecated currency in some corners of the contemporary art word. It can be considered a fatal lapse, if not an outright sin, for art to be “merely” beautiful. I wonder if you’ve ever felt the need to defend the value of beauty.
Honestly I try to not get bogged down thinking about it. While the objects I make might be considered beautiful, I’m not making work about beauty or addressing beauty directly as the work’s content. Every person will have their own reaction to and interpretation of any artwork, and I’m happy to contribute beautiful objects into the world, but the work is really about finding a connection between my body and an … everyday material.
I’m a child of the ’70s, which means my feet have traversed a lot of linoleum. Partly because, as a kid, you’re closer to the ground—and partly because, as a kid, you possess a certain intensity of vision—I can vividly recall some of the linoleum patterns of my childhood. They take on the stature of ersatz mandalas. I’m curious whether you had linoleum in your childhood home, or in any institutions you occupied—and whether any of the patterns exerted a similar hypnotic influence on you.
I’ve worked in healthcare for the better part of my adult life and move between many different hospitals in Calgary during my work week. Recently I actually got a huge amount of offcuts from work when they re-did the floor in the health records department at one of the sites. So I’m definitely around linoleum a lot in my day to day, but I wouldn’t say that has had any direct influence on what I make or the fact that I use lino so often as an art material. I started using linoleum after finding an old, brittle piece of the material when I was helping clean out studios at the end of an undergrad semester in 2013. … I decided to work with it for a particular project and never looked back.
One of the qualities of linoleum and vinyl is the quality of impersonation—a manufactured material often taking on the look or texture of another, more “distinguished” material, such as marble or wood. There’s a lineage of sculptural practice connected to this sort of “fake out”—particularly in a Pop or postmodern context—where the sculptor translates one material to another. I’m thinking of Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures, or Koons’s stainless steel balloon rabbit. How do you position your work in this context of material impersonation?
In some past series of work, I have very directly referenced classical sculpture; the swaths of fabric carved in marble, concealing and revealing the human form beneath. Lino is really just an industrial textile and has a lot of potential in draping and creating some of these undulating forms. The faux-stone prints are a cheeky nod to sculpture’s overtly masculine history—I’m working in stone in my own way as a woman who is not interested in playing into those historical norms. Also, it’s always very important for me to leave the surface of the material untouched and to show both the top and bottom of the material, to expose it as an imposter.
In using linoleum as a sculptural material, are you trying to be funny? Does its cheapness—and its reputation for tackiness—give you a hedge against beauty, in a way?
I’m not trying to be overtly funny in my work, but do appreciate the material’s playfulness and I know it has a bad rap of being tacky. But honestly linoleum is really quite expensive, and I think it’s beautiful! So the stereotypes of the material don’t hold much weight for me.