Light has always been central to Jyll Bradley’s practice, for its ability as she puts it ‘to bring things into the present’. Bradley has described how she came from rural Kent to London in the 1980s and wandered around the city like a flâneur, her eye often being drawn to the lit-up spaces created by advertisements. Her lightbox works, as well as her large scale installations rely on light, pairing unlikely materials to reflect on the dualities and ambiguities of contemporary life. For the Folkestone Triennale in 2014, Bradley created Green/Light (For M.R.), a large-scale installation standing on the site of the old gasworks in the Kent coastal town. The work, containing two distinctive contrasting elements – 80-year-old hop poles paired with contemporary fluorescent Plexiglass – drew both on Kent’s agricultural past and on the artist’s memories of the hop gardens of her childhood. After admiring the work at the Triennale (still standing today on the site), Nicky Hodge went to meet Jyll in her studio …

Jyll Bradley's work 'Green/Light (For M.R.)' at the Folkestone Triennale in 2014

Jyll Bradley’s work ‘Green/Light (For M.R.)’ at the Folkestone Triennale in 2014

© Jyll Bradley

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I arranged to meet Jyll Bradley at her light and airy Acme studio in Deptford. She has not been in the space for very long but has already made several revealing adaptations to it, including an ingenious, beautifully designed false gridded ceiling that not only lets the light in but also traps the warmth. This attempt to remodel her own working space becomes especially relevant in our later conversations about creating glasshouses – or what she refers to as a ‘permeable enclosure’ – where there is no ceiling as such and light can be seen from the outside as well as from within.

We begin our conversation by reflecting on the work created for the Folkestone Triennale which I explained I found very emotional and perhaps surprisingly so given its formalist and minimalist structure. Bradley has often talked about her debt to Minimalism and in particular to American sculptor Donald Judd and the ‘zip’ paintings of Barnett Newman. Bradley was emphatic about the importance of the Folkestone piece, revealing:

it clarified everything for me – it really brought home what my work was about and brought into focus my values. It created a space for encountering ‘the other’ – whether this is one other or many others. In this piece, identity and place became intertwined.

This metaphor of twine (and twinning) is especially apt when considering Bradley’s work. There’s the duality she refers to here at the heart of the work around identity and place (she was born in Folkestone and grew up around hop gardens) but also the literal weaving together of disparate materials with string (the wooden hop poles and the green fluorescent acrylic).

Bradley’s work does not come alive for her until there is space for people to enter it and this is part of what she means when she refers to the piece as a permeable enclosure. She wants to create a space that people can enter, but sees this as a social space with no beginning or end.

The work I made recently for a hospital in Lille (Le Jardin hospitalier, 2014) was in a windowless corridor – it was a perpetually present space, with no destination. I created back-lit photographic images of plants and gardens along the passageway that although human beings are absent, created another space or entry point for the viewer. The work for Folkestone also had no people in it but my work always starts with a human conversation. It was important to me that 500 people on social media took pictures of themselves reflected in the work and that number of people engaged with each other in the space.

Bradley’s interest in gardens and plants goes back to her childhood. Aside from the light and space offered by these permeable enclosures, she is drawn to the structures that humans create for capturing and channelling light and how these ways of caring and nurturing plants might be extended to humans.  In her careful and all encompassing approach to her work she draws inspiration from science, philosophy (the existential philosopher Martin Buber) literature (modernist texts by Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein) and music (Mica Levi) as well as what she describes as her own ‘philosophy/values based on a kind of post-war optimism’

Bradley’s spacious studio is crammed full of work. The combination of yellow fluorescent material with balsa wood is everywhere – all of it reflecting fractals of the hop garden stringing pattern. As Bradley admits, these diagrams, drawings and models are about deconstructing the work, presenting endless subtle variations of the grid. There’s a delicacy about the paintings on watercolour paper and the small models, which appear to have been fashioned from toothpicks and tiny slivers of neon.

Despite the general absence of figuration and the minimalist sensibility around repetition, pattern and colour, what struck me most about visiting Bradley’s studio was her overwhelming interest in the structures and patterns underpinning all our lives.  A few of the drawings on the wall have tiny little figures that Bradley sees as part of her ongoing investigation into identity. Her work, whether it includes specific people or not, is about what makes us all tick – with other lightbox works such as Naming Spaces (1989, remade 2011) and Estherandamanda (2013) highlighting choice and friendship in relationships. In this sense, her works are an implicit self portrait, reflecting the self as fluid, to be seen and heard but not categorised. A sense of becoming resting on American theorist Judith Butler’s groundbreaking theories around gender and performance that Bradleys’ work generously articulates and champions.