N I K E   S A V V A S

Colour Magic

Rachel Kent

Black Dog Publishing

Nike Savvas is a leading contemporary artist who employs a dazzling palette and repeated geometric forms in her practice. Trained as a painter, Savvas also works fluidly across sculpture, installation, kinetic and light-based media. From singular objects to vast, cascading installations, her art is as visually compelling as it is conceptually grounded. Savvas is comfortable working across the gallery and public domain; the recipient of major commissions in England and Australia, she transforms space dynamically through light, movement and optical effect.

Australian-born with Greek-Cypriot heritage, Savvas lives and works between Sydney and London. Canberra (where she grew up) and Nicosia (her mother’s birthplace) are also bases and Savvas travels regularly between the four cities. This sense of being ‘in between’ places and cultures is central to Savvas’ art practice. Her extensive travels and exposure to a wide variety of cultures—from Brazil to Mexico—further imbue the work with an eclectic worldliness while remaining conceptually linked; thus each body of work forms a step forwards in a remarkably consistent evolution of ideas. For some artists, once an identifiable set of characteristics is established, experimentation and change can be very difficult. For others, like Savvas, there is instead a refusal to stand still too long as fresh ideas arise and are tested. On encountering new work by Savvas, one experiences visual recognition followed by surprise and wonder at the unexpected twists and turns it takes.

Savvas employs everyday materials in the realisation of her sculptural and installation works including glass, plastic, timber and wool. Eschewing more traditional materials such as bronze or plaster, she nonetheless acknowledges the significance of art history as well as popular culture for her art. She observes, “I take what is around me and bring it into my work, not as derivative but as influential”.1 Modernism, and the legacy of Minimalism, are often cited by critics in relation to Savvas’ art with its emphasis upon abstraction, repetition and seriality of form. In early 2011, Savvas visited the research archive of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, gaining intimate access to the work of Bridget Riley and other leading Op artists—a critically significant moment for her practice. There is perhaps something distinctly Australian in these encounters. Accessing the modernist canon is not always easy if you live a long distance away so books and journals are essential. Reproductions can never replace the real experience of encountering something face to face though: appreciating its physical scale, examining its surface texture and delicate pencil underdrawings, moving backwards and forwards to experience its optical effect in the real, and just breathing it in.

Ordered in rows upon the gallery wall, or aligned and suspended as three-dimensional grids, Savvas’ object-based works use the language of Minimalism and infuse it with a funky, pop aesthetic. Repetitive patterns take the form of circles or discs, thin stripes and wide bands of colour, open forms and closed geometric structures. Reflective surfaces and moiré patterning give the works an optical quality that is enhanced through programmed movement in her kinetic works, or simply the flow of air as viewers pass by them. Objects ripple, shimmer and vibrate with a quiet intensity.

Savvas describes a solitary period of research and introspection at the outset of each new series. She says, “In the process of making new art I isolate myself, watching a lot of movies. I make lateral links—colour surface bombs in Apocalyse Now, or my travel to Mexico in 2011 and the colourful street decorations I saw there.” The resulting pieces are labour-intensive, requiring weeks or even months for her to construct by hand; sometimes she works alone and at other times alongside assistants, revelling in the camaraderie of shared labour. Reflecting on her varied influences, Savvas concludes: “My art is a mixture of art history and contemporary references, travel, watching films, looking at vitrines on the high street—I need to have that kind of continual, changing visual stimulus to fill the pot.” In a recent interview she expanded on the outcomes of this process, noting that “Always, on or about the fourth day, I’ll wake up… with images of completed work in my head. My subconscious effectively goes into overdrive and comes up with the visual solutions to conceptual or theoretical propositions. I like to view this as a kind of think-tank hothouse that accelerates my working processes.”2

Savvas first showed her work in the late 1980s as a graduate student of the Sydney College of Fine Arts. Drawing on her mixed cultural heritage, an early work shown at First Draft in 1989 used police finger printing dust to inscribe Greek words with no English language equivalent. Positive, negative and Braille versions of the words were presented upon rectangular panels in a large grid formation, their shadowy presence suggesting a mysterious internal logic. A subsequent work comprised finger printing dust with body imprints upon embossed wallpaper: the kind that many Australian children growing up in 1960s and 1970s Australian suburbia (Savvas was born in 1964) might remember from their parents’ living rooms. Shag pile, flocked wall surfaces, lava lamps or sprouting fibre-optic light sculptures decorated many family homes, yet today are embarrassingly outmoded (or alternately ‘retro cool’).

Savvas’ fascination with the everyday and kitsch has become central to her art, tempered by cultural and art historical references. Subsequent works of the early 1990s employed natural forms including Ulysses butterflies (in playful reference to Greek legend) arranged serially on the gallery wall. Savvas’ first illuminated lightbox sculpture Hannibal was shown in the influential “Shirthead” exhibition, curated by artist peer Hany Armanious at the Mori Annexe, Sydney in 1993. Capturing a nascent ‘grunge’ style of art, the exhibition tapped into a generational rejection of tidy pedagogical work in favour of a looser, funkier, dirtier aesthetic. Savvas used monochromatic coloured gels inside her lightboxes to create minimalist glowing objects. On the surface of Savvas’ objects, however, were the illuminated outlines of X-rayed chicken bones, introducing a degree of playful irreverence that would not sit well with the grand old men of Euro-American Modernism.

By 1993–94 Savvas also began to experiment with shiny reflective surfaces such as anodised and polished aluminium (as used by Donald Judd amongst others), as well as Styrofoam. Inexpensive, mass-produced and devoid of the human touch, these materials connected with a minimalist sensibility but to different ends. Her dioramas shown in Sydney at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and CBD artist-run space comprised upright figures in artificial environments: Little Bo Peep, bunny rabbits, flowers, a unicorn. Their saccharine kitsch was offset by something slightly cool and detached—perhaps the absolute precision of their construction?—and Savvas describes her work of this period as “playing with, or having fun with Minimalism”. Returning to earlier precedents, her Fuzzy Logic exhibition of 1996 at Artspace, Sydney, in collaboration with Stephen Little, comprised a vast grid of steel cans arranged with identical orange labels and Greek lettering. Blue Corn, an installation of blue lightboxes shown at Adelaide’s Experimental Art Foundation in 1994, anticipated this work, revealing the artist’s focus on object series, abstraction, monochromatic colour coding, photography/X-ray, gels and light.

Light itself has been an ongoing preoccupation in Savvas’ objects and installations from the early 1990s to the present. It is revealed in the transparent blown glass bubbles that she began to make in 1993 (Nice Bubbles, 1993 and 1994, Nice Bubbles II, 1995). She expanded the concept into a major two-part commission for Deutsche Bank Sydney in 2005. For Transcendental an identical eight metre wall on every floor of the bank was animated with drifts of glass bubbles. In Cascade thousands of metallic discs tumbled down a 20 metre wall in the centre of the building, like a glittering waterfall. Bubbles were not the only glass objects made by Savvas: she also created an expansive field of blown glass storks that stood delicately on the floor of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery as if waiting for an imaginary tide to come in (Zero to Infinity, 2003); they were subsequently shown in the 11th Indian Triennial exhibition in Delhi, in 2005 and have since travelled to Athens, London and Glasgow. This preoccupation finds its ultimate expression however in Anthem (The Carny), 2003, a work that did away with objects altogether, replacing them with pure colour and sensation in an otherwise empty gallery space.

Commissioned for the East International at Norwich, UK, Anthem comprised a dramatic, silent light show inducing the dizzying effect of strobes and revolving disco lights in multiple colours and patterns. It derived its title from Nick Cave’s song “The Carny”, which Savvas painstakingly translated from musical instrumentation into colour-coded light, an enormously complex feat requiring over 450 cues on a recording studio console. Suggesting a kind of synaesthesia, she says “you look at the song rather than hear it”. She further explains, “Anthem recreates a contemporary clubbing experience where chosen lights are nominated to represent the role of musical instruments. The colour and light, programmed without sound, simulate the notes from a musical score and as such become instrumental in creating a state of elation and euphoria.”3

Light and colour have long been associated with transformative states of mind and Savvas’ work sought to achieve a sensorial affect well beyond what is usually experienced in the gallery context. She concludes, “The viewer, at once engulfed and overwhelmed by the space around them, is mesmerised within a real time, multi-dimensional, sensory experience of the transcription of music within light and colour.”.

Anthem was also presented in the major international exhibition Visual Music at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2005, which drew an experimental trajectory from Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky through to contemporary artists including Jennifer Steinkamp and Jim Hodges.

Complementing her light works in their optical intensity are Savvas’ installations of the mid to late 1990s using small painted balls threaded onto wire in long horizontal rows, to create a three-dimensional grid. Made with ordinary Styrofoam balls, they are painstaking in their realisation, requiring each ball to be spray painted and dried, drilled and then threaded, row by row, in order to occupy the volume of the gallery space. Adjacent fans blow gently onto the balls, causing them to vibrate like chains of atoms or a Pointillist painting in motion. Simple Division, 1996, shown at Auckland Art Gallery, comprised a vast field of vibrating coloured balls, its title and form suggestive of a giant three-dimensional abacus or counting device. Mathematics has long figured in the artist’s work, with its focus on colour theory and visual/numerical combinations. 

A second iteration entitled Blue Division was presented in 1997 at Goldsmith’s College, London as part of the artist’s graduate year there, and featured in the “New Contemporaries” exhibition of 1998 at Camden Arts Centre, London. A third work Atomic: full of love, full of wonder, 2005, was created by Savvas for the largest gallery at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Melbourne—an extraordinary feat of craftsmanship and persistence at a scale of 30 metres depth, by six metres height. Describing viewers’ approaches to the colourful, vibrating landscape before them, curator Juliana Engberg observed: “Invariably each visitor encounters the work in a number of progressive manoeuvres. First they pause at the entry-way to appreciate the totality and mass of the project. Then they move closer to test their optical limit. They then go right up to the edge of the first screen of balls and peer through into the constellation of endlessness. They repeat these operations a number of times over.”5

Atomic was re-created by Savvas for the Balnaves Foundation Sculpture Project at the Art Gallery of New South Wales a year later and acquired for the institution’s permanent collection. Comprising around 50,000 balls, it represents one of Savvas’ most ambitious works to date. In hues of blue, green, orange and yellow, it recalls the subtle tonality of the Australian landscape—something she says she missed while living in London to complete her graduate studies at Goldsmiths College in 1996–1997. Anyone who has endured a particularly long hot summer in regional Australia will recall the optical quality of heat as it shimmers and hovers just above the road, in a thick haze. This phenomenon is neatly captured by the work, requiring viewers to stand back in order to see its full effect. Moving in close again, they might see a vast network of tiny molecules or a giant cosmos in motion.

Savvas’ mirror and screen works, commenced in 1996, extend her interest in light, reflection, and the nature of visual perception. In the installation Cinema Screen, 1998, at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, gold and orange reflective discs were suspended in long vertical lines to create a screen-like effect, the strands gently swaying with the movement of visitors around them. Likened by the artist to seeing a sunset through a car window-screen, it also suggests the shimmering, hazy dots used by the Pointillist painters of the 1880s including Georges Seurat—and like them, it comes into focus visually the further back one steps. The Pointillists promoted principles of harmony and contrast in relation to their use of colour, achieving a maximum luminosity through the interplay of tiny coloured dots upon the canvas surface. Savvas’ work achieved a similar goal in three dimensions, and as with all of her objects and installations, it might be considered a kind of painting in the wider—‘expanded’—sense.

Commencing her career with painting, Savvas has returned to painting throughout her practice, applying its principles across diverse physical forms. She comments, “All of my studies majored in painting… but even at that time, I always sought to work outside of the canvas. I have an aversion to categorisations and prefer to see art as more fluid, open and malleable—where everything is up for grabs. I like the possibility of creating a brand new animal.”6 In 1999 Savvas completed a public commission for Selfridges in London in two parts: a towering 28 metre screen in the shop’s atrium, made from contrasting blue and gold discs (Glam Genie); and vibrating Styrofoam balls in five shopfront vitrines alongside mannequins dressed by fashion designers (Divisional Sampling). In the same year, she held an exhibition of paintings at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and Andrew Jensen Gallery, Auckland, inspired by the coloured balls from her Blue Division and Simple Division installations. Arranged in a grid across the canvas surface, the flat circular forms created an uncanny optical effect, almost popping outwards in three-dimensions before viewers’ eyes.

Savvas' latest works bring together the concerns that have shaped her career for two decades. Two solo projects at Sydney’s Breenspace in 2010 and 2012, and a major exhibition at the Leeds Art Gallery, UK in 2012–2-13 take her practice in another unexpected yet entirely apt direction. Again, the principles of recognition and wonder apply: her closed forms and open structures, based on mandalas and geometric volumes, tap right into Savvass spatial and colour concerns. They turn painting inside out, bending and re-shaping it into three-dimensional objects that weave coloured wool across timber supports like lines of paint upon canvas and stretcher. They also return to Savvass earlier engagement with kitsch, recalling macramé and wool art from the 1970s, within a contemporary light.

For her 2010 solo exhibition at Breenspace, Savvas presented an installation of open architectural forms large, wall-to-wall wooden frames with woven mandalas that viewers stepped through, one by one, to traverse the length of the gallery. The effect was a little like stepping through a giant camera shutter, as one mandala folded visually onto the next, creating a multi-coloured spiral of criss-cross lines. Mathematical principles were similarly invoked in the Sliding Ladder series of 2012, which recalled the era before computers were introduced to school classrooms. Comprising closed geometric forms that sat directly upon the gallery floor, the works were readable from some angles as a combination of colour, line and light. From others, they virtually disappeared into space. Savvas says, ‘My introduction to algebra in primary school involved making the Sliding Ladder curve with string wound around an L shaped row of nails hammered into a velvet covered wooden board. You can probably picture what I mean. I think we’ve all made one at some point.’7 

Unimaginable for many of today’s children, the idea of explaining numerical concepts with wood, string and nails offers a playful visual solution to a theoretical proposition, not unlike Savvas’ art. A grouping of small stripe paintings accompanied the closed structures at Breenspace, representing in the artist’s words ‘the process of weaving, but also the shifting ground of our times. I’m very well aware this was a cliché associated with Op art, as an expression of dystopia.’

The new work for Leeds Art Gallery builds on Savvas’ latest structures, comprising transparent architectural screens with coloured stripes made from ribbon that are stretched between their edges. Like the earlier ‘atomic’ ball works, the screens flatten out when viewed frontally but appear to shimmer when seen obliquely. Featuring a different colour for each screen, the work is a kind of gigantic, optical ‘weaving’ with colours intersecting at certain vantage points, then shifting apart again, as people step (and weave) their way through it.

Reflecting on her career to date, Savvas concludes that her art has been ‘all about conflating things, blurring the boundaries’. From her early works about language and identity, to the later works with their embrace of popular and art historical references, Savvas has created a distinctive vocabulary that is both playful and serious. It is playful in its disruption of conventions surrounding taste, for example, and in its sheer vibrancy of form. It is equally serious however in its pursuit of ideas and outcomes mining art’s ability to transform how we perceive the world around us, with its myriad colours and sensations. In this juggling act between play and earnestness, beauty and introspection, Savvas achieves her greatest coup. Embracing colour, light and maximum optical effect, Savvas’ art works might be best described as space transformers: things that shift our perception and move our minds to rethink what we see.

Rachel Kent is the Senior Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia


1 All quotes by the artist, unless otherwise cited,  are drawn directly from two interviews conducted between the author and Nike Savvas on 29 February and 2 March 2012. 
2  Flynn, Paul, “Nike Savvas. The Sliding Ladder Equation”, Artist Profile, issue 10, February 2010, p.49. 
3 Savvas, Nike, Anthem (The Carny) 2003, artist’s statement, unpublished, np. 
4 Savvas, Anthem (The Carny) 2003.

5 Engberg, Juliana, “Atomic: Full of love, full of wonder”, exhibition brochure, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2005, np. 
6 Flynn, Paul, “Nike Savvas. The Sliding Ladder Equation”, Artist Profile, issue 10, February 2010, p.44. 
7 Flynn, Artist Profile, p.49.