A Q&A with Susan Collis

Known for her detailed sculptural works that combine everyday objects and materials with meticulously applied precious stones, metals or fine embroidery, Susan Collis is interested in making us consider the real value of what we might at first think is mundane and ordinary. Anneka French talks to the artist about her major new solo show at Touchstones Gallery, Rochdale.


London-based artist Susan Collis is known for her intensely detailed and labour-intensive sculptural works that deal with methods of production, the gallery context and the everyday.

The results are often works that might be missed, mistakenly thought to be part of the collection of ordinary functional objects that surround us, while a closer look reveals something else – valuable metals, precious stones or fine embroidery meticulously applied to the surface of something relatively non-descript such as a boiler suit or broom.

Represented by London gallery Seventeen, Collis has this year been developing new large-scale drawings that explore architectural palimpsests – different layers of labour, use, time and (dis)repair that can be found within buildings.

These new works are presented for the first time at Touchstones, Rochdale, as part of her solo exhibition ‘When we loved you best of all’, alongside some of her best-known sculptural pieces.

Can I start by asking you about the exhibition’s display across its three spaces?
Two spaces are arranged like previous shows such as the V&A’s [group show] ‘Out of the Ordinary’ (2007) in that it’s rather like looking at an empty space when you go in: it looks as though it’s discarded gallery equipment. One of these spaces has a lot of the screw and Rawlplug pieces, an inlaid step ladder and broom, and an embroidered boiler suit. My solo show at Ikon, ‘Since I fell for you’ (2010) had each work quite politely spaced and I wished I had put everything in one corner and let the rest be empty. I have gone more with that feeling for the show in Rochdale.

And the third space?
This has been a good opportunity to showcase my drawings all together which I’ve never really done before. I have always made an awful lot of monochromatic drawings in graphite or black biro alongside my sculptures. Most of the drawings, including a laundry bag drawing, are in the largest gallery which is quite a daunting space.

Can you tell me more about the new drawings you have made?
A recurring motif is the splash or drip. It’s gestural but not a considered mark and stands in for something that would normally be cleaned away. A lot of the drawings use an inverted drip. The drip forms the white part of the paper and the rest is filled in so it looks like a white splash on a black background. My new work formed of two hanging sheets of paper is titled Remainder (2017).

This is my biggest work to date, measuring 3m x 3m, and is made from rubbings of ruined interior spaces. The paper hangs over a suspended partition so there is a tiny bit of movement to it. I’m interested in architectural palimpsests – where you see ghosts of previous buildings. The drawings are a collage of different palimpsests and the paper is densely graphited with 5B pencils. I wanted a weightiness that would make it appear almost like a memorial.

Does the title of the show reference this sense of loss? It’s full of possibilities.
I think things that once had a lot of importance end up being left behind in the grand scheme of things. It’s not that I don’t agree with progress but there is a sadness to things that don’t make it through.

Do you mean in regard to buildings and objects or is there something more at stake politically?
The objects are stand ins and the work is a sort of analogy for a general state of planned obsolescence; maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to cherish the things that are well made. I started out thinking about it because my studio in London, like many others, is being redeveloped. There’s a constant need to knock everything down, build anew with poor materials and make everything generic. It’s about stopping and thinking about what’s already there –  there is often real quality right under your nose. In terms of the workwear and objects that are connected to work – this is also about labour that isn’t given credence. Part of this is the behind the scenes work in the gallery. I like to draw attention to the work that goes on before the show goes up.

I understand you had planned to show some new film works?
I’ve been working for about four years on a piece where I’m collecting images every year from a square in France but I decided it didn’t go with the other works in Rochdale. The exhibition made me think about whether the work was finished or not. It started from a Georges Perec book titled An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1974). It’s very mundane – buses going past and a woman in a blue coat carrying a shopping bag – a poem of ordinariness that’s very repetitive and rhythmic. I wanted to do a piece of work about it and made lots of photographs. I have hundreds and thousands of photographs but I don’t know when to finish. I’ve decided that this can be an ongoing piece. Instead of it being linear, it will have a series of images flashing up. I realised what I wanted that piece to be while thinking about this show. I think this is something to show at Seventeen next time.

What are your plans for interpretation?
Part of the work is the materials list. I select these so that the list is quite poetic. I hope that a map and a list are enough. I hope that a viewer will spot a twinkle or something in order to look more closely. I hope it won’t stop there though – that this will encourage a reassessment of the value of things and of people.

Do you think your work has shifted in terms of recent fashions in interior or product design? Older objects are increasingly highly desirable, even if they are very ordinary.
I feel like that’s always been the case. When I was getting clothes in the 1980s I was interested in 1950s clothes. On my foundation I was interested in cracks and distressed objects and this was part of the aesthetic of the time. I saw a room in World of Interiors or somewhere with distressed plaster, and I left this in the house I moved into. Our bedroom is still the same now – I used the walls for some of the rubbings. There is a romanticised view of things with history. I’m not suggesting this is an entirely great thing either – there is a place for the new.

And in relation to the artworld?
When you look at what’s coming out of art colleges now, it feels very free. I’m always aware of the ridiculous amount of hours that go into my work and it frustrates me. Every single bloody piece of work that I make ends up being something with a lot of man hours. I’m drawn to gestural or casual work but – it’s funny – I can’t seem to allow myself to do something like that.

When we loved you best of all continues until 30 September 2017, Touchstones, Rochdale. www.contemporaryforwardrochdaleartgallery.org

1. Susan Collis. Courtesy: the artist
2. Susan Collis, ‘When we loved you best of all’ (Gallery One), installation view. Courtesy: Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery
3. Susan Collis, ‘When we loved you best of all’ (Gallery Three), installation view. Courtesy: Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery
4. Susan Collis, Remainder, 2017, Graphite on paper. Courtesy: Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery
5. Susan Collis, ‘When we loved you best of all’ (Gallery Four), installation view. Courtesy: Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery
6. Susan Collis, By the way, detail, 2016. Vinyl & chair. Private Collection. Courtesy: Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery
7. Susan Collis, 100% Cotton, 2004. Overalls & embroidery threads. Private Collection. Courtesy: Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery
8-10. Susan Collis, ‘When we loved you best of all’ (Gallery Three), composite installation of various works. Courtesy of Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery

Commissioned and published by a-n news, 3 August 2017