Geoff Bartlett makes sculpture that connects with the space in which it is made, he tells Chris Beck.
In an old brick building in Collingwood, full of twisted metal and lumps of wood, half-finished sculptures, chains and saws, Geoff Bartlett puts the coffee on the stove and feeds wood into the fire. With 30 squares of space, it is an idyllic workplace for a sculptor.
When he began in the early 1970s, Bartlett shared studios. He made the break to artistic solitude in 1990 when he bought the vacant factory, built in 1888 for the clothing trade.
"It would have been a sweatshop in the late 19th century," he says, "Collingwood was a big rag trade area. I rented shared space for nearly 20 years and we were constantly fearful of being thrown out because you spend a long time getting established. "It's taken me 10 years to feel comfortable in this space, build the things you need, get the equipment, furniture."
Bartlett flips through one of his catalogues and stops at the image of The Rose The Bullet The Window, which was bought by the National Gallery of Australia from the National Sculpture Prize 2003. His work, he says, pointing to the conjoined piece, is connected to the space in which he makes it.
"Unconsciously, it has a very big bearing on the appearance of the sculpture," he says, "The height, the width, the length of the building, the type of ceiling, affects the sculptures. Unlike painting, the sculptures naturally occupy the space that they sit within. The (studio) space has a big indirect impact on the way the sculpture appears. I don't make my work to fit gallery space. I have no control over that."
Bartlett built a little room in the warehouse to make smaller pieces. "I made an intimate space because out here they would be lost."
The studio has no bearing on the outcome of his large-scale work created for locations around the country. He surveys the proposed site and builds a sculpture to suit the area. Bartlett has made many large pieces for outside display, including Messenger, his first important commission, which stands prominently in the moat of the National Gallery Of Victoria. Messenger and his later work, Beacon, commissioned by the Newcastle City Council in 1998, are more than eight metres high, so he builds a maquette or a scaled model and the work is built by a fabricator.
"Once you build the maquette, all the aesthetic processes are finished with," Bartlett says. "The exploration of form and volumes, the relationships within that space, the relationships of one material to another, one shape to another. So the making of the big version is a job for a fabricator. If I can afford for someone else to do it, I'll do that every time."
Bartlett, who works seven days a week, has been short-listed for the McClelland Survey and Award this year. He has been assisted by the McClelland regional gallery with $1000 to make his work, but he estimates the cost of building it at $20,000. The time, money and effort spent are worth it, he says, because the work will be on display for six months, it will be part of a catalogue, and at the end of the show the sculpture comes back to him if it does not sell.
The piece for the McClelland, Dancer 3, is in sequence from a sculpture that he built in Sydney for an office complex, Dancer 2. It has an open cage structure and an organic, humanistic form. His work often involves interconnecting dissimilar elements. One element might be mechanical and articulated in the way it is structured and another element might be figurative.
"I marry them together in a way that they create a unified sculpture of these different forms," he says. "There is a lot of tension, hopefully, between them. I like building works that go close to failing. And sometimes they do. Often it could be as simple as using materials that aren't usually combined, such as timber and stainless steel or glass and tin-plated lead.
"There are a lot of unwritten rules about the way you should build something and they are often based on very little. As you break them down you can find that your work can be much more challenging and interesting."
The equipment arranged around the studio is fairly industrial: a German bandsaw made in 1965, enormous dust extractor, welder and a couple of hydraulic cranes. "I do the smelly, dirty stuff out the back - grinding, using resins. I've always found industry quite inspirational. I find the way materials are worked by blacksmiths, carpenters and stonemasons exciting. I might get them to forge something for me and I'd spend half a day just watching them. One of the great advantages of sculpture over painting is that you get out of the studio and make a connection with people in day-to-day industries that feeds into your work."
As he gets older, Bartlett, 50, says he is returning to basic tools. "Something I can put in my hand, like a hammer, and have a direct connection with the material, rather than have this separation by some large machine. You can feel it changing its shape or changing its colour."
Once described as a baroque personality, Bartlett has been inclined to add elements if something is not working. "I'm trying to counter my natural tendencies by simplifying."
Bartlett has taught at various universities, including Monash, Deakin and RMIT.
"In a way, teaching is a support structure for your habit of making sculpture. You just walk around the studio and have a chat to the students. It's lovely."
Six years ago, when he heard himself repeating the same things, he quit to concentrate on his own sculpture. As a teacher, he did not have time to reflect and ponder, make mistakes and try different things in his work.
"You tend to make sculptures unconsciously that you know are going to work, but they are not often very challenging," he says. "When you realise that, it's time to get out. I also had this notion that it was time to give someone else a go. That sort of teaching is a really good support for young artists. Too many artists hang on to it."
Geoff Bartlett is a finalist in the McClelland Survey and Award 2003 showing from October 5 at the McClelland Gallery, 390 McClelland Drive, Langwarrin.