Artist Olivia Steele Has a Way with Words

Olivia Steele's I Like Where This Is Going. Photo by George Evan.
Olivia Steele's I Like Where This Is Going. Photo by George Evan.

At what point does a phrase translate into a feeling? Artist Olivia Steele has spent her career refining, simplifying and then expanding upon the ones that have stuck with her. Her work, which spans from neon sculptures and other wall-bound methods to full blown installations, derives its power from the written word’s inherent multiplicity. Steele admires the way a single line can unlock many doors of consciousness and discussion. She applies the same principles to her work, searching for the most concise distillation of an emotional truth.

Light the way, 2018. Photo by Manuel Anaya.

Her practice’s roots are twofold. The first is her hands-on curiosity, which attracts her to process-based techniques. She is a trained neon bender, and while she can’t necessarily keep up with the demands for her lighted works across the world, she has alliances with other professional benders who are trained in her unique style to blow her glass words into being. While she is not always the one bending , she is always doing the installation, with precision. Her love of language comes from her father, who deployed a seemingly inexhaustible bank of one liners in any and every moment of doubt and self-reflection. “Having eloquence—being able to say something strong and powerful without a paragraph—was something I wanted to emulate.”

While Steele chooses her words more carefully than most, it is her attention to who she does business with that led to her work with Art Angels on an inaugural solo exhibition in LA. “I’ve been working with Art Angels for three years, but I've never done a show with them,” Steele says. “I really respect and admire them because they do what they say and say what they do. Doing business with someone is like going to bed with them—it’s important to me that there is respect and trust and performance.” This past May, Art Angels proposed that they take the relationship to the next level. Steele concurred, citing an uptick in sales over the past year: “The work has been gaining traction and I think they wanted to take advantage of how relevant my work is to the moment.”

Love and Fear Scale, 2020. Photo by Manuel Anaya.

The show, titled “This Is Where It Gets Interesting…” will open in October (“rain or shine”). The exhibition is composed almost exclusively of new works, many of which Steele created while quarantining in Mexico City (she lives between there and Berlin). Some of the phrases she will present are lifted directly from the current moment, such as, “We are waves from the same sea”—the phrase emblazoned on Japan’s aid packages deployed to China during the first thrust of the pandemic. “It’s something from these times that we can reflect on,” Steele says. “It’s a nice reminder that two adversaries can share commonality.” In Steele’s version, the phrase becomes a wave itself.