Paul Sel­wood is one of Aus­tralia’s fore­most sculp­tors, cre­at­ing beau­ti­fully fluid, com­plex works, of­ten from a sin­gle sheet of steel, through his cut and fold tech­nique. The Wol­lombi-based artist spoke to ARTIST PRO­FILE about his myth­i­cal in­tro­duc­tion to steel on the Greek is­land of Paros, what con­tin­ues to draw him to this ma­te­rial, and some of the unique op­por­tu­ni­ties and com­plex­i­ties that it presents.

YOU STUD­IED AT EAST SYD­NEY TECH UN­DER LYN­DON Dadswell and God­frey Miller but left af­ter just 18 months – why was that?

Af­ter see­ing Ian Fair­weather’s Drunken Bud­dha show at Mac­quarie Gal­leries I was so moved that I hitch-hiked up to Bribie Is­land to visit him. Af­ter spend­ing a day with Fair­weather I made it all the way to Cook­town, North Queens­land. On re­turn­ing to Syd­ney I got a job as a labourer, saved some pounds and was soon on my way to Europe. Hitch-hik­ing was the mode of trans­port for art stu­dents those days and one of our im­por­tant des­ti­na­tions was the Greek is­land of Paros. Parean mar­ble was the whitest, most translu­cent and most de­sired by the Greco-Ro­man sculp­tors. My girl­friend Rhonda Smailes and I found our­selves liv­ing in an an­cient quarry, where I carved an egg with a Syd­ney Opera House com­ing out of it.

You first worked with steel at the quarry, where you learnt from a black­smith how to shape and tem­per the carv­ing tools. Did this ini­tial ex­pe­ri­ence with the ma­te­rial have an ef­fect on how you con­tin­ued to use it?

It was the first stage of an ini­ti­a­tion where I felt the hot metal be­come mal­leable in the forge. I think of steel as a soft, shape­able ma­te­rial. The Parean black­smith has be­come a myth­i­cal char­ac­ter for me – Hephaes­tus, god of the forge. This was be­fore tourism. In Paros things were as they had been for mil­len­nia. The bag of steel points was car­ried on a don­key. It was as if one was liv­ing the Odyssey.

You lived in Lon­don be­tween 1965 and 1971 and worked with many lead­ing sculp­tors, such as An­thony Caro. What did you learn dur­ing this time and has it had a con­tin­ued im­pact on your work?

I ar­rived in Lon­don with only 10 pounds left and needed a job. I showed my slides to Pro­fes­sor Bernard Mead­ows, head of sculp­ture at the Royal Col­lege of Art (RCA). He must have been im­pressed, as he gave me a job as a tech­ni­cal as­sis­tant and later of­fered to take me on as a stu­dent.

I learnt from Mead­ows the pro­fes­sion­al­ism and ap­pli­ca­tion to the rou­tine work of sculp­ture. I had my own stu­dio space there and got to know many of the lead­ing sculp­tors who came in as vis­it­ing lec­tur­ers. Bill (Wil­liam) Tucker took a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in my steel and fi­bre­glass con­struc­tions and he in­tro­duced me to Saint Martin’s School of Art, where An­thony Caro had es­tab­lished an avant-garde sculp­ture de­part­ment. Com­pared with the RCA, Saint Martin’s was the new gen­er­a­tion and I was in­ter­ested to en­gage with the crit­i­cal fo­rums Caro con­ducted with the stu­dents and staff. I de­cided not to take up Mead­ows’ of­fer to study as I was well po­si­tioned to learn and work on my own, hav­ing as much crit­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion as I needed with painters and sculp­tors.

You con­tinue to work in steel. What at­tracts you to the ma­te­rial?

The idea of per­ma­nence, its ver­sa­til­ity and struc­tural pos­si­bil­i­ties. You can cut it, shape it, bend it, curve and join parts, add and sub­tract quickly, and it holds your thought in real time. With steel, you are think­ing cre­atively and mak­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

You man­age to get an in­cred­i­ble flu­id­ity from a seem­ingly un­wieldy ma­te­rial. Tell me about your phys­i­cal prac­tice and the tools you use to cre­ate this ef­fect.

Over the years I have done a lot of draw­ing di­rectly into steel plate with the oxy torch. Draw­ing is a con­duit from the brain, a body­ing forth and em­body­ing of thought. I think this has char­ac­terised my sculp­ture since I evolved the cut and fold tech­nique and moved away from the Caro-in­flu­enced assem­bly and con­struc­tion of found el­e­ments. I have a well-equipped stu­dio for met­al­work­ing but on some larger works I ac­cess in­dus­trial work­shops to make cer­tain parts for the sculp­ture.

Some of your com­plex works are cre­ated from a sin­gle piece of steel. Why put what seems like a lim­i­ta­tion onto your­self?

It was a nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion of the process of draw­ing in steel. Lead­ing on from my in­ter­est in the phys­i­cal­ity of the ma­te­rial, I found the cut and fold tech­nique pro­duced more from less. It was a new idea that in­stantly pro­duced what seemed to me to be unique works. Rather than a lim­i­ta­tion, a sin­gle plane of steel when cut and folded in var­i­ous ways de­vel­ops new mean­ing while main­tain­ing the unity of the whole.

Be­fore you work in steel you will sketch out your ideas and of­ten cre­ate a ma­que­tte in paper. Why is this level of plan­ning im­por­tant?

It’s mainly about sketch­ing. Draw­ing. I can cre­ate a lot of vari­a­tions on a theme in quick time in paper be­fore go­ing into the heavy work of steel. I can do it at night in the draw­ing stu­dio or any­where.

I have done a lot of draw­ing di­rectly into steel plate with the oxy torch. Draw­ing is a con­duit from the brain ... this has char­ac­terised my sculp­ture since I evolved the cut and fold tech­nique.

At a re­cent res­i­dency in Alice Springs I would drive out along the Mac­Don­nell ranges draw­ing the land­scape and rock forms and then ap­ply­ing the cut and fold tech­nique, work­ing to­wards an ar­tic­u­la­tion of form and space. I wanted to see how I would ‘feel the coun­try’ and model that feel­ing into sculp­ture us­ing cut and folded paper as an ini­tial sketch medium, then trans­lat­ing the sketches into sculp­ture back in the stu­dio. I do not limit my­self to this process but it has pro­duced some im­por­tant works.

Your works are gen­er­ally made to be viewed from all an­gles, ‘in the round’. Why do you think this is im­por­tant? Does this add a level of dif­fi­culty to your plan­ning?

It is im­por­tant be­cause it is one of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of sculp­ture. It’s unique to sculp­ture. It is more com­pli­cated to balance the re­la­tion­ships of parts and ‘shape the spa­ces’ in a com­plex work but the very crux of the mat­ter is to find con­tin­u­ous clear cor­re­spon­dence of form from all views.

What im­pact do you think the en­vi­ron­ment the sculp­ture is placed in has on the work?

I am in­ter­ested in the psy­chol­ogy of per­cep­tion. How we fo­cus on an ob­ject on a white box in a gallery com­pared to the same ob­ject on the

ground when we are stand­ing in the street. Take a screwed-up piece of paper and put it on a white plinth in an art gallery. You are invit­ing the pub­lic to ex­am­ine all the shapes, folds and nu­ances of light that there might be. You might be say­ing is this sculp­ture? But on the ground, it is only a piece of screwed-up paper.

Of­ten your works are placed di­rectly on the ground, or on a very min­i­mal plinth. Why is this?

His­tor­i­cally the plinth was a rem­nant of ar­chi­tec­ture or the built en­vi­ron­ment on which the sculp­ture served as a dec­o­ra­tive el­e­ment. Caro saw the plinth as a con­ven­tion that had a lim­it­ing ef­fect on the ex­pres­sive pos­si­bil­i­ties of sculp­ture. Put­ting his large works di­rectly on the ground al­lowed him to ex­tend hor­i­zon­tally. This was one of his im­por­tant in­no­va­tions. Syd­ney’s Sculp­ture by the Sea chal­lenges sculp­tors to com­pete with na­ture on a grand scale in the open air, like the sculp­ture park at Storm King Art Cen­ter in Amer­ica.

I’m in­ter­ested in your per­spec­tive cut-outs.

There are two main the­o­ret­i­cal strands to my prac­tice. One is in­volved with il­lu­sory space, re-pre­sent­ing per­spec­tive draw­ing in the cut-outs. The other deals with real and constructed sculp­tural space. The two have an his­toric con­ver­gence in the Cu­bist col­lage. I have been do­ing the per­spec­tive cut-outs since the early 1980s. They be­gan on paper as a spec­u­la­tive draw­ing process to­wards the pos­si­bil­ity of fu­ture three-di­men­sional sculp­ture. At one point, hav­ing ar­rived at what looked like a good propo­si­tion, I de­cided to cut away the back­ground in or­der to bet­ter vi­su­alise what the sculp­ture would be. I was im­pressed by the height­ened il­lu­sion of form re­sult­ing from this and de­cided to do a big one on rusted steel sheet. On the paper, I dif­fer­en­ti­ated the planes with washes and shad­ing of paint. On the steel, I wanted to keep the rust, so I used flat and gloss var­nish on op­po­site planes which con­sid­er­ably en­hanced the il­lu­sion of the third di­men­sion. Steel is associated with mass and weight, so the works were fur­ther en­hanced by an il­lu­sion of im­pos­si­ble grav­ity. Heavy ar­chi­tec­tural forms ap­pear to be float­ing. The il­lu­sion is con­tin­ued to the wall which be­comes space. By ex­ten­sion, the ground the viewer is stand­ing on is called into ques­tion.



04 02 Pink house, 2006, hot zinc coated, painted steel, 59 x 74 x 50cm, photographer Stephen Ox­en­bury 03 Green moun­tain, 2006, hot zinc coated, painted steel, 138 x 147 x 85cm, photographer Stephen Ox­en­bury 04 Trans­fig­ured night, 2004, hot zinc coated, painted steel, 180 x 156 x 136cm, photographer Stephen Ox­en­bury

05 05 Paul Sel­wood’s stu­dio, 2016, photographer Ka­sia Wer­stak 06 Aus­tralia, 2004, hot zinc coated, painted steel 204 x 300 x 225cm, photographer Stephen Ox­en­bury 07 Paul Sel­wood’s stu­dio, 2016, photographer Ka­sia Wer­stak 08 Paul Sel­wood in the stu­dio, 2016, photographer Ka­sia Wer­stak 09 Anaxie’s moon, 2012, painted steel, 163 x 248 x 96cm, photographer Stephen Ox­en­bury

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