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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Taste, beauty and Australia

Westminster © Samantha Groenestyn

I have been heartily enjoying an Australian literary classic penned in 1960: Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness*. Though I have no architectural ambitions, buildings hold some lingering fascination for me, and Boyd’s speculations on and criticisms of Australian architecture half a century ago are razor-sharp when applied to the Australian aesthetic (or lack thereof) in whichever field it raises its beastly head. Our ‘youth’ as a nation is not responsible for our dire aesthetic sensibilities—rather, we have willfully cultivated a population proud of its poor taste, and seized on this revulsion to beauty as a defining national characteristic. Boyd calls it, rather cleverly, Featurism.

Featurism, according to Boyd, is a sort of decorative approach to design, and in turn a sort of enshrining approach to decoration. It is about appearances rather than function or utility, and as such it allows no room for subtlety, or the beauty to be found in elegant simplicity. It is one hundred percent veneer: false surfaces applied to questionable (and most likely poorly imitated) structures. The Australian rarely designs, argues Boyd. He defines design as fundamentally a problem-solving exercise involving ‘find[ing] order in a confusion of functional requirements and conflicting economic demands,’ requiring the designer ‘to blend separate parts into a whole, single, unified concept’ (p. 22). The Featurist fails to step up to such a challenge: ‘The Featurist, on the contrary, deliberately and proudly destroys any unified entity which comes into his hands by isolating parts, breaking up simple planes, interrupting straight lines, and applying gratuitous extra items wherever he fears the eye may be tempted to rest’ (p. 23). The architect, artist or designer faces an uphill battle trying to get through to a public that can only appreciate the surface. Glazed eyes slide over the visual landscape until they lock momentarily onto a flashy surface trick, and this is the extent of the audience’s engagement.

Featurism is exactly what it sounds like: One builds a house that stands out on one’s street, with a nice peaked gable with little wooden scrolls on it, and a lattice gate with a bell next to it. The veranda is covered in all manner of wind chimes, exotic plants and antique chairs. The living room has a feature wall, perhaps plum purple, painted in the granulated paint that must be swished on in multiple directions so that its rough surface picks up the light in different ways, mimicking some ancient Italian stucco. The feature wall has an antique telephone table in front of it, accompanied by a statue and a large, colourful painting in a flashy gilt frame. Fake flowers (these are Boyd’s pet hate) are a downright necessity. The car is of American make, but painted in suitably Australian primary colours, with leather seats, or sheepskin seat covers, with a smaller wooden steering wheel, billiard ball gear stick knob, checkerplate floor mats, custom pedals, neon-lit dash, chrome trimmings and stickers of your family on the rear window.

‘This is the nature of the prosperity,’ argues Boyd. ‘There is no attraction to the idea of upsetting the comfortable status quo by fundamental re-thinking on appearances, while loose coins in every pocket jingle eagerly to be spent on novel, exciting surface effects’ (p. 116). Australia has reached a level of prosperity on par with Scandinavia—our standard of living is incredibly high, we work hard, we’re well-educated. None of this is enough. The respect that Sweden or Denmark affords its creatives is entrenched in a culture that values design as ingenious solutions. Australia offers its creatives no such respect; Autralians only want to be wowed. ‘In this busy age ordinary taste has become so dulled and calloused that anything which can startle a response on jaded retinas is deemed successful: it draws attention to the fact that paint has been used and progress is afoot’ (p. 109).

As an artist, then, I face a choice. Australia may be receptive to my art, but at what cost? If perhaps the most shallow of my paintings are the most appealing to people, will I give up on trying to give meaning to my work? If producing decorative pieces is enough, I won’t be able to explore and grow as an artist. If my intellect is removed from my work, forcefully or out of sheer apathy, my growth as a human being is stunted. This is no way to live one’s life when the world is rich with experiences and knowledge and ideas to work through. Such a choice has dogged Australians with a spark of life in them for generations: ‘Most Australians … do not wish to be reminded of the facts that their country is still known abroad as an artistic and intellectual desert, and that they themselves would never be taken seriously without their denying to some extent their Australian upbringing and background, and that highly talented Australians in any of the non-useful fields of art or science have to face a dramatic decision early in their careers. They can stay here in easy-going comfort with their talent and their frustrations both working at half-pressure, or they may wrench themselves from their own country in order to develop themselves’ (p. 76).

I, of course, am a true blue Featurist. Raised on a gluttonous diet of ornament, colour and pattern, my house is a veritable goldmine of Persian rugs, tapestry-upholstered couches, tacky French prints, Dutch crockery, fake flowers, moustache cushions and ugly lamps. (Boyd considers lamps to have always ‘brought out the worst in designers’ (p. 117) ). ‘Voluntarily or involuntarily,’ he laments, ‘Featurism dogs Australia even when she sets out with good intentions of avoiding it’ (p. 22). My lavish poor taste infects everything I touch, because I can’t communicate through subtlety, and my eyes delight in being assaulted. I’m determined to grow out of this and to learn to appreciate quality beneath the surface. As for my country—our lack of respect for beauty and real engagement with design is most likely far too entrenched.

 

* Boyd, Robin. 2010 [1960]. The Australian Ugliness. Text: Melbourne.

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