Artist Interview – Sarah Contos

We had the pleasure to interview Sydney-based multidisciplinary artist Sarah Contos about her works in the fabulous exhibition ‘Pliable Planes’ comprised of works that take artistic exploration and outcomes beyond the perceived limitations of fibre and textiles as medium.

The major exhibition curated by Karen Hall and Catherine Woolley is on view now at UNSW Galleries in Sydney with painting, assemblage, sculpture, video, sound, and installation to enjoy.

“The exhibition unites the work of practitioners who disrupt our understanding of how textiles and fibre are defined and used in contemporary practice. ‘Pliable Planes’ highlights dynamic approaches to making from artists who weave with porcelain, unravel paintings on canvas, and create sonic representations of needlepoint,” says co-curator Karen Hall.

Thanks to Contos for the wonderful conversation below. Click through this link to follow the artist on social media!

Sarah Contos, Two Minutes and Six Seconds of Bubblegum, 2022, hand cast aluminium, stainless hardware, wool. Courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Station Gallery, Melbourne and UNSW Galleries

‘Voltron II’ is made of pre-loved leather jackets. What fascinates you about traces of humanness in the materials that you use?
I’m always interested in the trace of someone. I had a residency in Paris in 2019 and it was quite an intense period of time, there was a lot of inner reflection. I was going to thrift shops and all these leather jackets were in the 1Euro bin. I started collecting them and through the process of saving them I’d go through the pockets and find old theatre stubs, boarding passes, and candy wrappers from Hungary and around the world.

As soon as I started making the work and putting it together there was this smell that permeated the studio like tobacco, sweat and perfume. It was almost like the ghosts of those people were present in the work through their scent trace. It was oddly comforting.

Residencies can be lonely at times, and it was oddly nurturing. The end product of these Voltron’s I’ve made have a definite presence. They’re very strong, they take up a lot of volume in the space not only their size and colour, but their weight. I really love Robert Morris’ minimalist works, this was kind of nod to them, but in their minimalist nature this is almost like the opposite. It’s quite maximalist.

There is a greater focus on the interplay between soft and hard materials in ‘Two Minutes and Six Seconds of Bubblegum’. Can you tell us about the development of this work?
In the past a lot of my work has been quite figurative. In the last two shows I’ve been trying to move away from it so literally, and emphasise the human presence more. Either in a rhythmic way like sound or through material presence.

I’ve always had that hard and soft inherent in my work like fabrics that are in high contrast against more of a softer palette, but I think I’m trying to get to a point where hard and soft are happening simultaneously.

These new aluminium works have been made through a process of weaving foam, which is a soft squishy material and then casting them in aluminium, which in itself is a soft metal. In this kind of way, I’m trying to make something that appears soft, hard. It’s still new to me. I’m trying to figure out what it can do and where it fits in my broader language.

What is the inspiration behind the playful aesthetic of this work and the pom poms?
I studied costume and theatre design, so I’m interested in how things are presented and the different aspects of fashion, culture and music and how they intersect. I was getting interested in the music genre of the New Romantics, the frivolity, the dressing up, the club scene of that particular time. The early 80s and how that followed this idea of punk.

I was inspired by one of the Ramones songs. Most of their songs are only two minutes and a few seconds. I love that it has this burst of energy that’s played out.

These cast pieces look like studded belts, or they can read like the music ballads or the thumping of the base, but within it there’s this sort of melodic rhythm of the woven pieces. The Ramones and that kind of punk music has this very rebellious, archaic, DIY aesthetic to it, but it’s also super playful and very fun. The pom poms were a really nice way to punctuate the rhythm that the metal is giving. And at the same time, it takes your eye on the journey that the rhythm of music does. It adds a playful nature to the work.

What excites you about this new direction in your practice?
The best thing about starting to make work that’s not necessarily so literal in using the figure is that there are multiple interpretations. Sometimes that work [Two Minutes and Six Seconds of Bubblegum] looks like a cityscape, old billboards falling apart, fireworks are going off. That vibe is the same as what my intent was.

Read more about the exhibition here. ‘Pliable Planes’ is on until 17 July at UNSW Galleries, which is located on the corner of Greens Road and Oxford Street, Paddington. Open times: Wednesday to Friday, 10am to 5pm and Saturday and Sunday, 12 to 5pm.