At home with Steven Black

 

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2014.05 (c) Steven Black (oil on canvas) – Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs

Long before I met Steven Black, I came to know him indirectly, but in a strangely intimate way. I stayed in his Leipzig flat every time I visited that moody, gritty city, and encountered him through his freshly vacated rooms, his formidable multilingual library, his jungle of plants, his pantry, his coal ovens, his music, even his friends, but most of all his paintings. The paintings unobtrusively watched over my parallel life in Leipzig, the silent, contemplative faces observing intently, sunken in their own thoughts, impenetrable as the coarse paint in which they consist. I lived with them, communed with them over breakfast, worked among them. The walls absorbed them, reflecting the same dreamy blues and faded browns, the same peeling and crumbling textures.

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2014.04 (c) Steven Black (oil on canvas) – Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs

The flat feels like a transplanted old Queenslander house, uprooted from a subtropical clime and deposited—as precarious as it would have been on its original wooden stilts—atop an East German apartment building. It seems ill-equipped for bleak German seasons, as though it were built to stay cool in warmer weather, its charmingly disintegrating and sprawling wooden interior always chilled despite the coal ovens we have to stoke and feed around the clock. Eventually I learn that it was Black himself who was the transplant, and that he, like me, called Brisbane home, once.

Quiet days dawn in that flat, the sunlight trickling weakly through the mist. Black’s books pepper every corner of the house—German and French philosophers, yellowed poetry books and art books heavy with pictures. The stacks of CDs reveal a penchant for classical music. We are captivated by Pablo Casals, the throbbing cello filling the flat and becoming our work anthem. Ezra Pound and Max Klinger accompany us to breakfast under a crumbling sky-blue wall whose cracks look like clouds; Wittgenstein hovers by my computer; Deleuze taunts us and Velázquez lulls us to sleep.

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2007.03 (c) Steven Black (oil on canvas) – Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs

When I finally meet Black, I’ve already had quite an introduction. He suddenly returns from Australia, simultaneously languid and bustling. He has much to do, and his restless energy permeates the flat with a new urgency; his radio and podcasts and lectures fill the cool air with busy chatter. But he is easily diverted, and has a special knack for turning any conversation into a deep, lingering discussion. He is always brimming with insights and eager to share them, insights that have been subjected to long and careful consideration.

His friends come over unexpectedly, drifting in and out as they seem to in his paintings. I began to meet these characters that I had lived among, and to realise that these paintings are every bit real life. Many of the silent thinkers prove to be other Leipzig artists: Stefan Guggisberg, Johannes Rochhausen, Sebastian Stumpf, Timm Rautert. They share homely meals, or sit and talk, seeming every bit at home in this flat as Black does. I realise we, too, have been welcomed into this comfortable domesticity when Black assures an impromptu guest, ‘Sie wohnen hier, ungefähr, du kannst sie ignorieren.’ (‘They live here, more or less, you can ignore them.’) I glance up at the paintings and they mirror the life of this flat: still, quiet people, casually dressed, slouching and reflecting, or standing and gazing distractedly, a gentle stream of conversation or an audio book or Pablo Casals washing over them. The pictures fix that lingering mood, that tone of probing the deeper things in life. A meditative guest might find themselves the balancing element in a heretofore unresolved painting, as what starts as a discussion ends as the visual solution Black has been looking for.

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2012.07 (c) Steven Black (oil on canvas) – Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs

The paintings are drawn up with runny Indian yellow lines that trickle down the canvas. It’s a warm and sunny and earthy beginning. The drawing starts out somewhat rigid, but leaky, as Black positions his protagonists, establishes perspective, digs into the corners of the room. The angles dominate: the intersections of walls and doorframes and pipes of coal ovens and tubular chairs. The organic beings that emerge from the underpainting begin to come alive as the layers of eggshell blues and pale browns and ochres and transparent yellows pile on, concentrated at these visually inviting junctures, the angular grid of the room comparatively receding. Sometimes the paint converges to a frenzied climax at the face, which can be smushed beyond recognition: naturalism gives way to paint itself—to thick, abusive paint, growing like some leprous disease, pocking the face with actual shadows in its unexpected three-dimensionality. Such faces seem to suck inwards like black holes, bubbling with the mental fury of the otherwise obedient stillness of the sitter.

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2009.03 (c) Steven Black (oil on canvas) – Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs

Seeing the portraits among the balcony landscapes and stairway paintings, a sudden aptness, a smooth continuity, emerges. The cool views outside carry the same contemplative mood of the stark interiors. There is yet something introspective about these outward-turned gazes. Black works intuitively, but also very visually. He is not a slave to what he sees, but he feeds on what he sees. Each painting is a fresh encounter with his environment—inside or outside—a meditation upon it. The view is usually comfortably intimate and familiar, but observed afresh every time.

And yet I feel it is not quite correct to say that Black simply paints his house. For he only ever seems to hint at it, to mark in the ghost of its skeleton. He strips it of the little treasures that move about the house and presents it as bare and indeterminate. Sometimes the setting is not so much the room as the ill-defined transition between rooms—as in the portrait where a woman stands in the doorway, catching the sun, with the wide, shadowy hallway gaping behind her and prying open the space, and beyond that another doorway cuts into the inviting blueness. The transitory setting could be somehow destabilising. But here is the thing: when you know the house—as she does, as the other sitters do, as the comers-and-goers do—you recognise the distant kitchen immediately, you situate her in the old familiar flat instantly. More than the appearance of the flat, the intricacies of it, Black captures the sense of moving about in the flat, of occupying different corners, of coming and going; the lived-in-ness of every pocket of it.

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2012.06 (c) Steven Black (oil on canvas) – Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs

Black, characteristically irreverent, remarks, ‘The gallery is the last place my paintings should be seen.’ I think I know what he means. They trade on intimacy and familiarity, on the home he has woven with the movements of his friends. His paintings should be lived among, in their native setting.

Nevertheless, you can see Steven Black’s paintings in Stuttgart early next year:

Galerie Thomas Fuchs
Reinsburgstrasse 68A
70178 Stuttgart
Deutschland

20.01. – 11.03.2017
Vernissage: Freitag, 20.01.2017, 18 bis 23 Uhr

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Borrowed spaces

hauskonzertausstellung

 

An exhibition! I have a collection of still lives and interiors from the collection of homes I’ve had in the past year or two. I’ve shared my veranda with Australian pythons, my kitchen with coffee-loving Bulgarians, and my living room with a trinket-loving Russian. I’ve worked in borrowed studios, unfurnished bedrooms, overflowing living rooms. I’ve contemplated the death of my Oma through borrowed possessions. I’ve followed a restless painter through German cities, large and small. The view from my window is always fresh. It only seems fitting to show these little pictures in an opulent borrowed Viennese home, adorning the Hauskonzert of the gracious Dr. Brigitte Papis!

A donation for the musicians would be much appreciated.

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The creek

Nest © Samantha Groenestyn

I was fortunate enough to attend an artist floor talk in Noosa the other week, given by one David Paulson at his retrospective exhibition. The guys at the atelier spoke of him—their former teacher—with starry eyes, and I had to tag along to see their idol in the flesh. His fleshy self is every bit as sparkling, witty and intimidating as his self-portrait, and the man had a lot of irreverent and insightful things to say.

David talked about hiring a model every day for an hour. Thirty dollars a day, five days a week, amounts to a significant sum for a financially precarious artist, but David filled sketchbook after sketchbook this way, refining his understanding of the human form. ‘Some people put a deposit on a house,’ he explained, ‘I invested in my skill.’

Now, I have no grand aspirations to own any sort of property or dwelling, and not only because my financial situation is also on the precarious end of the continuum, but mostly because such things don’t interest me. You are going to work all of your life, and you are possibly going to achieve something. I’ve known people who have proudly announced to me that since the age of twenty-six they’ve been locked into a thirty-year mortgage which they, a sole parent, must spend the majority of their part-time income on, but that it’s the best thing ever and in their fifties they’re finally going to own their somewhat average house in some backwater of Australia. While that’s no mean feat, it’s not exactly a very clever sacrifice in my estimation. No, what I’m interested in is my own skills and abilities, and working at them to achieve the most productive life possible. I’ll always find somewhere to live, and while I cherish the idea of ‘home,’ I won’t make it the driving motivation of my life.

David’s work over his lifetime is varied, but always strong and bold. His angrier stuff from his youth is confronting and bitter, and his student work—realistic portraits and such—is tight and confident. David took awkward questions from the floor and responded with an intensity and honesty that was as unsettling as much of his work. This is a man who says it like it is, and doesn’t accept people applying concepts like ‘metaphysical’ to his painting method. ‘I like the creek, so I paint the creek. There’s so much to discover in the creek. I wish I’d found the creek when I was thirty.’

Said creek is at the back of David’s property in Maleny (it’s also reassuring to know that one can preference skills over house deposits and still wind up with property, creek and all), and his explorations of it are crisp, brash and full of depth. Light shimmers knowledgeably over rocks, sticks and leaves, but those debris hold their own. These are no impressionist paintings playing with ethereal light: these paintings drag you to the bottom of the creek with their heaviness. And you want to be there: this creek is a veritable Barrier Reef of thoroughly delightful underwater plumage.

David spoke of limiting his palette in more recent times to eight colours. Each painting draws on this palette in different ratios: while the creek bed paintings burst with vivid reds, yellows and blues, saving the darks for striking tonal effects, a series of smaller paintings of girls on the creek bank are predominantly dark, saving tiny flecks of pure colour for eerie glances of light off skin and water. J has often spoken of style being a matter of limiting yourself in a particular way—of making a choice about what to leave out—and in David’s case, his palette has forced him to explore other things about the works, though I suspect it has also given him a virtuoso grasp on the limits that his colours can be pushed to.

We spent some time admiring David’s life drawings, and he took great delight in telling us that a drawing must capture the person. Being correct and accurate is not the same as understanding a person through their physical presence and describing that in lines on paper. I’m reminded of Bammes* (p. 10), who says of this ‘sensitivity’ toward the model: ‘we are building up the body’s physiognomy—expressing character through a physical description.’

Meeting David Paulson was a real honour, and hearing his straight-up thoughts on art and life has given me plenty of hope for the unconventional career that is being an artist.

* Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.
Nest is a picture of my house, nestled in her leafy jungle of a garden. It’s pretty much the best house ever. We’ve made it a cosy little haven, productive workspace, and buzzing party hive. We call her The Duchess because she’s so regally dilapidated with her sprawling verandas and high ornate ceilings, and this blog is named after her, a tribute to the importance of place in my life.

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For the Winn

Snowflakes, Paris © Samantha Groenestyn

My friend and fellow illustrator, Nadia Raineri, and I recently banded together to put on a joint exhibition in Winn Lane, Fortitude Valley. I’d been approached to be part of a larger amalgamated big-top affair of fashion, music, design and art, a recent American import to Brisbane that goes by the name of RAW and purports to promote independent artists in an independent manner—but, not having the fortitude to stomach having myself filmed saying, ‘I’m a RAW artist!’ nor to bother my friends and relatives with the prepurchasing of $15 tickets, I passed this up and got on with the actual independent method of organising a show with a small band of friends and acquaintances. Winn Lane puts on a monthly event to showcase local creatives and to attract people to their cute-as-pie neck of the woods, and graciously agreed to host our pop-up show. It doesn’t get much more grassroots than that.

© Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick

Nadia was very secretive about her works, but had nothing to fear: her intricate black and white pen drawings—stippled, lined and washed—were striking and inviting, with slightly offbeat subject matter—authors, messy rooms and vintage cameras and bikes—that exuded a quiet intimacy and a certain solemnness. All framed in black, they were pitched well against my own bright paintings all framed in white, such that we presented a complementary wall of illustration.

© Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick

I held onto many newer, unseen paintings for the show, half of Brisbane and half of Europe, mostly exploring the crevices of cities. Since moving back to Brisbane just over a year ago, I’ve been thoroughly in love with the place, and indulging my passion for it in paintings and drawings. It’s important to me to embrace the place where I am, and to wholly own it—to call it and no other place ‘home.’ When I left Brisbane last year, for a brief and unsuccessful sojourn to Canberra, I was determined to claim Canberra as home, but my efforts were thwarted. Brisbane, Round Two, thus cemented itself in my heart as a true home, neither my birthplace (Sydney) nor the place I grew up (Far North Queensland), but my true stomping ground. I don’t think I’ll ever get it out from under my skin.

© Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick

Painting Europe has been difficult—it is both an escape and a torment, because I cannot be there right now. I slip into my ever-vivid European memories and elaborate on old photographs, injecting my paintings with colours and patterns that recreate the happy dizziness of travel.

© Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick

The Valley—a creative hub of Brisbane—turned out to be a fortuitous place in which to stake one’s artistic claim. I’ve even been noticed by The Weekend Edition: Thank you, Emily Nelson, fellow illustrator and also photographer, for sharing the glittering evening in a local online sheet.

❤ Brisbane

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Homebodies

Paddington powerpoles © Samantha Groenestyn

Not a chance to go biking this weekend, but J and I got a lot of work done in various cafes, and caught an excellent sunset over the city from Paddington. Then we came home and gave the house a bit of a refresh. I even potted some plants, but got bitten by ants in the process.

J put together this amazing dude craft made out of rubbish old paintbrushes. You should have seen him out there with his Swiss army knife.

I upcycled the Spanish and Italian olive oil tins, but more on that some other time. Our living room–always crammed full of art–is now labelled appropriately with a souvenir from my show:

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Home and away

Un regal pour les yeux © Samantha Groenestyn

I frequently itch to travel. Leaving behind all those weights we tie around ourselves, stretching our legs, exercising our brains and our tongues, memorising new maps and trying out new words. Seeing the limitless unseen things, tasting the untasted, pouring all the raw sensations into hurried drawings and writings. Meeting new faces and learning new philosophies, talking it out by rivers or over campfires or over beers in smoky bars.

It’s hard to feel content at home when so much is waiting, like a word on the tip of a tongue. But then I remember that opposite pull that I feel when I travel—that desire, not to be at (my) home, but to be stationed, based, established. When one is established, one can work. No longer limited to dog-eared sketchbooks and simple pens, one can drag out an easel, spread out paints and turps, plug in the sewing machine and invest in detailed projects, and best of all, read fifteen books at once. Books on philosophy, books on French intellectuals, books on language and books on graphic design. Books on artists, books on colour theory and the science of light, books on history. One can study, and, better, one can apply that new knowledge and create endlessly, on any scale. One can load up one’s car with materials, go to classes on a regular basis. Travel often provides that spark, suggests new avenues to explore, prompts the acquisition of new languages or provides new material for paintings. But home is the place where you can get down and work day after day and really produce something.

As Maira Kalman, renowned illustrator and writer, concludes of life: there is love and there is work. ‘How do you spend this time without perpetually being so brokenhearted about saying the eventual goodbye? I usually say in the end, okay, it’s love and it’s work. What else could there possibly be? What do I want to do?  What is the most wonderful thing I could be doing, and who are the most wonderful people I could be with?’ It’s hard for me to shake the idea that there is also place, and I think place is fundamental to my being—to my work and to my love. Travel lets us explore new places in which to be—perhaps for the long term—and we need to find our physical place as well as what to do and who to do it with.

What overwhelms me most of all is that I consider there to be so many things crucial to living that I cannot find the time for them all. I can’t get by only speaking English! That limits me to particular places. I can’t rely on my untrained artistic ability—I need to learn to use new materials, and to understand the particulars of light and tone. I need to understand people, and ideas. Then I start to feel like Henri Perron in Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, who feels that he can’t continue to edit his newspaper L’Espoir (‘Hope’) unless he has a complete grasp on the world(p. 153-4):

‘Well, I’ll just have to start working at it,’ he said to himself. But if he really wanted to extend his knowledge, it would require years of study. Economics, history, philosophy—he would never be done with it! What a job! And all just to come to terms with Marxism! Writing would be completely out of the question, and he wanted to write. Well? … ‘What I need is time!’

When travelling, we have all the time in the world. Time to wander along the Seine, in and out of bookshops and ice creameries, time to contemplate passers by from benches. But we lack resources. When we have resources, we are battling schedules and weekly events.

I think that all there is to do is to keep on working. Keep pushing ourselves to learn, keep pushing ourselves to produce. Jack White muses that ‘inspiration and work ethic ride right next to each other. … Sometimes, you just get in there and just force yourself to work, and maybe something good will come out.’ And if you go beyond just showing up and really make things a little hard on yourself, the tension that you build can produce that spark and make something happen.

Brain Pickings pointed me in the direction of these interviews with Maira Kalman and Jack White.
‘Un regal pour les yeux’–a feast for the eyes. A Parisian sent me off to explore the labyrinthine flea markets of St Ouen in the north of Paris, and they did not disappoint. I wanted to convey the alluring decayed splendour of the markets. Europe could almost survive solely on selling its old junk to the rest of us!

 

News: I’ve cobbled together a sweet collection of drawings I did in Europe, many of which you may have seen on my website, into the Tour of Europe non-sketcher’s sketchbook. The covers are hand-stitched in three different fabrics and there’s room for your own musings. Grab one from my Etsy shop.

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