The stripped-back living quarters of LA-based artist Fiona Connor allows her space to create
Fiona Connor toys with architecture in her work, planting structural dopplegangers in gallery spaces that playfully prompt viewers to reconsider their physical surroundings. The artist rebuilt the frontage of Michael Lett’s former gallery space in Auckland’s Karangahape Road 15 times over for her celebrated work, the Walters Prize-nominated ‘Something Transparent (Please Go Round the Back)’. That was 2009, the same year she moved to Los Angeles to study a master of fine arts at California Institute for the Arts, known as CalArts.
Since then, Connor has assembled original and replica art gallery visitor seating for her masters graduation show, installed marble steps leading nowhere at the Hammer Museum’s Made in LA show (which surveyed the work of leading LA-based contemporary artists) and recently recreated Los Angeles County Park’s drinking fountain for a group show in a cavernous Chinatown space. All works beckon viewers to puzzle over her institutional critique.
She does this in a fun, inquisitive, unpretentious way. When you meet the artist behind the work it’s unsurprising to find her a vibration of dark curls in sensible boots and paint-stained jeans with a ready hug. Late in 2012, Connor, 32, set up home in a vacant shop in an industrial stretch of Echo Park to the northwest of downtown Los Angeles. She greets me on the curb on a predictably sunny California morning with a Styrofoam cup of a sweet milky drink that’s not quite chocolatey, not quite malty. It’s atole, a Mexican drink made with corn, cinnamon and vanilla that she got down the street. “Until the last 10 years, this was generally a Latino area and that’s still very much the majority and heartbeat of the place,” says Connor.
Connor’s house prompts visitors to revisit their idea of home – not because of what she has brought to the space, but what she hasn’t. Her living area has barely any furniture at all, and that’s the way she likes it. We sip our atole while sitting on the floor. The only other place to sit is a replica coffee table and stools modelled on Richard Neutra’s architecture studio, which Connor made while at CalArts. Despite being perfectly functional it seems wrong to sit on the art work. She also did 1:1 replicas of furniture from Rudolph Schindler’s studio and sourced an Eames bookshelf.
“It was this idea of taking all this purpose-built furniture from seminal LA architects and collapsing them into my studio. But my studio at Cal Arts was jammed full of furniture, which actually made the studio unusable.”
Connor has taken a much more stripped-back approach to her new home and studio. Even her bed is tucked away on its end at the back of the space, only to be hauled out at night. “I’m keeping my things down to a total minimum, trying to keep it real needs-based. I want my studio to function as a space where anything can happen. The needs of the work determines the way it is furnished and is laid out.”
The space is one room wide, leading from the frosted window at street level up two steps to a raised level with the main living area, and a basic kitchen and bathroom. A conveniently oversized back door is large enough to fit hefty installations through and load into Fiona’s trusty Toyota ute that is parked in the gravel yard.
The airy colour scheme of grey floors and whitewashed walls was already in place when Connor moved in and suits her fine, although she gave it a good scrub to eliminate the dusty smell it had acquired after laying vacant for some time. Living in the bare shop is quite a change for Connor, who was previously sharing a cosy American Craftsman bungalow with two friends nearby. The address became a kind of creative flophouse, often accommodating travellers on the couch. It regularly transformed into a venue for life-drawing classes, dinner parties and book fairs and the fire pit in the back garden was an assembly point for lively discussions. Rather than entertain in her sparse space, Connor heads back up the hill to see her friends when she is in need of company. “I want a total change of gear where this is my separate space where I can work away.”
The bungalow is still HQ for The Collective, a group of six members who met at CalArts and create work together as well as collect it. Connor has a history of collaboration, as a founding member of Auckland artist-run spaces Gambia Castle and Special. “It’s important to have a crew,” she says. “It’s good to share ideas and have a safe zone.”
Connor had a solo show to prepare as soon as she settled into her new studio. Bare Use opened the 2013 exhibition schedule at 1301PE, a gallery on Wilshire Boulevard run by ex-Aucklander Isha Welsh and his business partner Brian Butler, former director of Artspace. For her exhibition, Connor visited destination spa retreats in California and Mexico and recreated physical forms – the signposts, and the vernacular of that world – for the gallery. “It’s interesting because there are a lot of crossovers between art and spas,” she says, referring to the exceptional experiences they both offer. “Isn’t it insane you have to escape your life so you can come back to it more normal? [At spas] they call it ‘pattern changing’. The vocabulary bugs me out.”
Connor continues to exhibit in New Zealand. In 2012 she showed solo at Hopkinson Mossman gallery in Auckland and was a visiting artist at Dunedin Public Art Gallery. An international schedule has kept her busy since. The Collective had a show in Mexico of mural proposals based on sites in Los Angeles and Tijuana that have either sanctioned or unsanctioned murals. “Proposals are a way of doing an exhibition in a gallery that reaches past the space itself. It talks to a more public audience without dealing with the bureaucracy,” she says.
She also developed projects for New York’s Frieze Art Fair and the Istanbul Biennial last year. And when she needs a break, she doesn’t need to go to an expensive spa to get away from it all. “There is a really amazing view from Elysian Park, so one of my favourite things to do is get pizza and a beer and then go watch the sunset over Dodger Stadium.”
Q&A with Fiona Connor
HOME Tell us about Los Angeles and why, as an artist, you live there.
Fiona Connor Because it is a city that begs you to ask yourself that question every day. And you are surrounded by others who are doing the same.
HOME What are you currently working on?
Fiona Connor I am working in my studio on some R&D and trying to integrate all my new year’s resolutions into reality.
HOME What specifically are you researching and could you define your angle on research and development?
Fiona Connor Good question. Last year I went around Los Angeles and took paint samples from all the standard-issue drinking fountains and I’m developing a colour chart with the help of Barratt and Boyes. This was a great excuse to bus around and visit parks in different parts of the city. I am also planning for installations in Guadalajara, Melbourne, and Auckland at Hopkinson Mossman in September.
HOME And about those new year’s resolutions, what are they?
Fiona Connor To get into the mountains or the wilderness for a week every four months and to read more fiction.
Photography by: Emily Andrews.