James Angus

Since leaving his native Perth in 1996 to pursue postgraduate studies at Yale School of Art, sculptor James Angus has lived in both London and Sydney, then returned to New York in 2006. He remains committed to a trans-Pacific practice, keeping a property and studio on the South Coast of New South Wales where his family spends as much time as their schedules allow.

In 2017, Angus and his wife, artist Liz Linden, decided to leave New York and move to California. “It was a period of consolidation, and I didn’t make a lot of work. I started a fairly intense renovation of a beautiful but terrifying Victorian house in Berkeley and set up some studio spaces, so everything is now under the same roof,” he relates. “My wife and I wanted to create a situation where we would have the best chance of focusing on our work, and so far I think we’ve achieved that.”

The famously mild weather in California allows Angus to work outside for long stretches of the year: between benches in the garden, an adjacent studio building, and storage. “I generally like to keep my studio situation nimble and my options open. I prefer the freedom of not being tethered to a big studio. I don’t make a lot of work and I work slowly, mostly in my head. I’m not the sort of artist who needs to have a room full of half-finished sculptures to chip away at,” he admits. 

Scale is usually the determining factor in how Angus adjusts his preparatory process and coordinates workflow: “I do the computer work on a laptop at the end of the dining table, which is where you’ll find me most days. I’m not an expert, but I have enough fluency to trade files back and forth with an industrial designer who does all of the more complicated CAD work for me. Sometimes the smaller sculptures effectively become maquettes for larger versions.” For commissions, Angus engages with trusted fabricators. “My work,” he says, “doesn’t really change after it’s been conceptualised, and it simply becomes a matter of finding a situation that meets the fabrication needs of the sculpture itself. I usually do the welding off-site, and I have a long relationship with a foundry in Pennsylvania that does most of the casting for me.”

Having already moved his practice towards a more streamlined home-compound model, Angus was able to better navigate some of the vicissitudes of the Covid shut-downs that have reverberated throughout the art industry. “In the early stages of the pandemic, it was unclear what kind of art world would emerge, and I felt very unmotivated to start any large projects. The studio at home is more like a laboratory for accumulating ideas and making smaller sculptures. I spent a lot of time messing around with materials, experiments, technique and mostly failing, which is a luxury I might not have normally had, and I think it allowed me to flick the switch back on with more confidence when it came time to finally make some new work for an exhibition.”

Angus’s work considers our relationship to both natural and man-made forms, while drawing on interrelated disciplines such as mathematical models, architecture, structural design, and civil engineering to create new responses to the evolving built environment. “My sculptures have become increasingly formal as I’ve grown older. At the moment I’m really interested in squeezing every last drop from the vernacular of modernist sculpture, in order to see how that way of working can contain meaning,” he observes. Angus is also inherently concerned with perpetuating an artistic ethos that has the physical process of making at its centre. In the publication that accompanied his previous Australian exhibition, Papier Mâché for Beginners at Fremantle Arts Centre, 2019, Angus wrote, “What’s interesting to me is the idea of duration, of how digital life is changing how we spend time, and what can still be learnt from using one’s own body to make something. That’s the thing about making objects by hand: by definition, you have to be present.”

For his latest exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Angus returns to the premise that sculpture requires pause: the physical and aesthetic space for contemplation. “The new sculptures I’ve been making are all appropriated from a particular branch of geometry that academics would describe as ‘triply periodic minimal surfaces.’ They are forms that could be conjoined infinitely without any obvious seams. I’ve selected chunks of these forms and cast them in steel, and they look as if they were severed from a larger structure with an oxy-acetylene torch,” he explains. “I first made some of these in papier mâché a few years ago, and I realised that the modularity and architectural qualities would be really interesting to fabricate in steel. They have dual surfaces, painted and unpainted, and are incredibly sculptural, and therefore, very difficult to photograph. I like the way that something that is so material can also be so hard to describe.”

Colour is another aspect informed by Angus’s engagement with his environs, so that it never seems jarring or out of context. “I do a lot of walking, which helps me think, and I’m always on the lookout for examples of how colour appears in urban environments: on vehicles, building components, infrastructure, or trash. The colour of In Through the Out Door, 2022, for example, is based on some large iron water valves I’ve noticed around lately. In the past, I ordered standard colours from the paint manufacturers, but now I’m starting to make custom mixes in the studio.” Similarly, the isolation and confinement of the past two years has brought other elements to the fore: “I’m also listening to more music these days, which cannot be a coincidence. I decided to borrow from popular music for the titles of these new sculptures and put language into play, in a way that I haven’t really done before.”

The pandemic has raised wider philosophical questions about how people interact with their surroundings. The urban fabric that was a part of everyday life for millions has been drastically altered; forced insularity has altered perceptions of “open” and “enclosed” space. Inevitably, there will be a period of reassessment in how individuals approach public spaces and respond to architecture now that city centres have been rendered temporarily redundant by hybrid workplaces and a reliance on technology to mediate interaction. Angus had already been considering the way in which the digital realm has contributed to this destabilisation. “I would say that there’s been a gradual withdrawal from a lived, or material, relationship with urban spaces for a while. One of the conditions of sculpture, and architecture, is that it is genuinely three-dimensional, and that on one level, these disciplines challenge the way in which we navigate the material world.”

Angus contends, “The pleasure of experiencing urban sculpture is not simply the forms themselves, but also the way in which they emerge and recede from the all the noise of everyday life: public transport, traffic, strangers, graffiti, weather. So, I’m hopeful that the stakes have been raised, even if the audience may be dwindling, for now. Sculpture helps us rejoin the world.”   

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 60, 2022.
Images courtesy the artist, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

James Angus: New Sculpture
21 October – 12 November 2022
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

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