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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Eloquence and drawing

Russian plant © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Russian plant © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Language, woven of conventions, adapts and evolves, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s account of its progression takes a delightfully unexpected path. Language, he (2009: 294) declares, was born of the passions: ‘Neither hunger nor thirst, but love, hatred, pity, anger wrested the first voices from them.’ Physical needs are easily signalled; but the complexities of expressing gently nuanced emotions—of swelling love overlaid with brittle melancholy; of restless expectation shaded with pleasant hope—demand a more developed mode of intimation. The first words to escape our trembling lips must thus have been effusive outpourings of raw poetry, only to be subdued and ordered much later by reason. Language’s intellectual ripening carried it further and further from its first poetic utterances: ‘In proportion as language was perfected, melody imperceptibly lost its ancient energy by imposing new rules upon itself’ (Rousseau 2009: 329).

Kanal

 

But painting may be spared this ruthless pruning. Painting, as language, has never been reigned in to express concepts with logical precision. It rather remains an unruly address to the eyes that harmonises with the chaotic cadences of our hearts. We are moved because we discover our passions and imitations of the objects of our passions candidly reflected in paint—it is in this empathetic manner that paintings speak with us. And ‘one speaks to the eyes much more effectively than to the ears,’ Rousseau assures us (2009: 291).

Dresden galerie

Rousseau reserves particularly high praise for drawing. Good painting touches us, certainly; but we ought not overestimate the role of colour in this. Colours, argues Rousseau (2009: 319), operate at a simple sensory level. They strike us immediately, they catch our attention, they please our eyes, but colours alone cannot move us. ‘It is the design, it is the imitation, that endows these colours with life and soul, it is the passions which they express that succeed in moving our own, it is the objects which they represent that succeed in affecting us’ (Rousseau 2009: 319). Colourless drawings retain their expressive force; but colours without contours melt into pure sensory pleasantness (Rousseau 2009: 319).

yellow field

Rousseau privileges drawing with a more fundamental position than words, much nearer to the earth and to our volatile passions. Love, that consuming passion, ‘has livelier ways of expressing itself’ than with the very words it summoned into existence, however poetic those words may be (Rousseau 2009: 290). Love is fabled to be the impulse that compelled the first drawing. Rousseau (2009: 290) swoons with evident delight: ‘What things she who traced the shadow of her lover with so much pleasure told him! What sounds could she have used to convey this movement of a stick?’ And so we clutch our sticks, the ‘Griffel’ of Max Klinger’s (1985: 21) ‘Griffelkunst,’ with renewed vigour, finding ourselves closer to the poetic expressiveness we crave. ‘Writing, which seems as if it should fix language,’ systematically changes language—categorically domesticating it, demanding ever more precise adaptations, shedding its poetic origins. Drawing, by contrast, abandons the pursuit of precision in order to move us in more complex and thus deeper ways (Rousseau 2009: 300).

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It is this resolute devotion to the passions that lends drawing its eloquence. Our visual language, built of rhythmic lines and deliberately constructed compositions, possesses all the tools of charming and winning over our audience: we have not the means to persuade, but to stir. We rely not on arguments, but on poetry, and poetry and eloquence, says Rousseau (2009: 318), have the same origin. While we search out logical colour series, and look for technical solutions that make clear statements about light, about form, about perspective, our technical grammar is subservient to our elusive poetic aims. We ought not forget our advantage, for even words derive their eloquence from the visual, as Rousseau (2009: 291) reminds us; they move us most when infused with imagery and colour through metaphor.

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Drawing—design—with unlimited poetic potential, saves the visual language of painting from too strict a grammar. Because though there are means of drawing more accurately, more naturalistically, more literally, the best drawings may be judged to harness the grammatical concerns of truth and precision for more expressive purposes, to elevate something poetic in the subject. An able draughtsman pursues accuracy; a good draughtsman tells seductive lies with his eloquent stick. His impassioned retellings are more captivating than the truth; the visual grammar he works within does not ever refine itself towards rational precision. Good drawing orders a painting according to another kind of logic. It makes the painting a painting, not a mirror image, not a soup of sensations.

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Our language, as painters, is rooted in the grammar of design. We must search out the visual patterns, impose hierarchies, intentionally structure our images, and chase endlessly after the stirring undulations of our lines, for herein lies their emotive strength. Used forcefully, we may speak with an eloquence that moves our viewers more deeply than any string of words. Words have evolved as a tool of persuasion, and ‘by cultivating the art of convincing, that of moving the emotions was lost’ (Rousseau 2009: 329). Drawing, and through it, painting, has not suffered as a language at the hand of progress. Its conventions, though they shift and change, tie it ever to its emotional source.

Leipziger Atelier

 

Klinger, Max. 1985 [1885]. Malerei und Zeichnung. Leipzig: Philipp Reclam.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2009 [1781]. Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to Music. Edited by John T. Scott. Trans. from the French edition. Hanover N.H.: Dartmouth.

 

 

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In the air

Site © Ryan Daffurn (Oil on linen)

Site © Ryan Daffurn (Oil on linen)

Daffurn and Sagrera hold their breath in the space that widens in their paintings. Daffurn’s paintings mutate and multiply as if from within—as if themselves living creatures—with sinewy, bulbous forms expanding by his own imaginative logic, according to his alert response to the physical world. Sagrera’s paintings echo with an eerie stillness, the flat but pocked surfaces jutting abrasively into each other as he focuses on the straight lines that fragment his view. But both painters linger in the space they construct, space heavy with the presence of troubled souls, and this ominous space unites them.

Before building a door © Carlos Sagrera (Acrylic on canvas, Caldic Collection)

Before building a door © Carlos Sagrera (Acrylic on canvas, Caldic Collection)

Sagrera’s souls are departed, only their breath hanging in the recently disrupted air. Though his interiors hold together as convincing representations, they feel torn at the seams: walls align but don’t quite seem fixed, as though they belong to different and disordered moments. We only find traces of our fellow humans in the trails of wear they leave on ageing surfaces, in the weak hope of their return. We try to piece together their stories through the fragments left to us, but the stories are as fractured as the space. It is the inorganic matter that survives and that speaks for us. Our presence is recorded in its stark geometry.

Crowning © Ryan Daffurn (Oil on linen)

Crowning © Ryan Daffurn (Oil on linen)

We face ourselves torn open in Daffurn’s paintings, stripped of our skin and grating against the rugged earth out of which we emerged. We face our humanity as broken, distorted, inconsequent in his cruel cropping that isolates limbs or removes them. And yet, the human body is the source, the vital organ that galvanises his work. The body pulses with our private hungers and fears; our firm, strong, blood-swollen flesh writhes with the hurt and desire of existence. The very rocks that cradle our mortal forms seem fused with our beating hearts; the rolling earth and monstrous trees seem an extension of our wretched human writhings. We try to shape the earth, we push and pull at it with all our strength, but we must face the fact that we are inseparable from it. That catastrophic realisation is always hanging heavily in the air, the moment ever about to burst.

Painting the bathroom © Carlos Sagrera (Acrylic on canvas, Winter Vandenbrink)

Painting the bathroom © Carlos Sagrera (Acrylic on canvas, Winter Vandenbrink)

Violent colours accost us, each painter subjecting them to light of very different qualities. Daffurn’s are fierce and augmented, making the very air tingle. His light is strong and coloured with a personality of its own, his shadows reverberating back just as fiercely. Sagrera’s colours are set under a more natural light, showing up the dirt and the gritty surfaces. He turns his sober light on the decay we leave in our wake; the neutral shadows that inhabit grazed walls drench everything in a deep sadness. For each, the light is honestly probed, systematically calculated, and cuts through the air that carves out convincing space.

Whitewash © Ryan Daffurn (Oil on linen)

Whitewash © Ryan Daffurn (Oil on linen)

From opposing positions and with different intent, Sagrera and Daffurn draw us into disquieted spaces heavy with the drama and responsibility and yet the inconsequentiality of human presence.

Double © Carlos Sagrera (Acrylic on canvas)

Double © Carlos Sagrera (Acrylic on canvas)

 

PROBED LIGHT
DAFFURN / SAGRERA

Vernissage
25.05.2016 | 18:00

KTR Galerie / activeART Showroom
Tschaikowskistr. 21
04105 Leipzig

Ausstellungsdauer:
26.05. – 13.07.2016
immer Freitags 15°°- 19°°
Samstag (28.5. / 18.6. / 9.7.) 14°°-18°°
und nach Vereinbarung: 0341 – 22 30 24 01

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Ortsbindung

Die Ecke / The corner © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Die Ecke / The corner © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Stability is not my main requirement to work, though painting is such a material career, and too much mobility limits my work in terms of scale, time and tools. For even within one city, it is possible to live and work in a rootless manner, in the city itself—painting at home, writing classes in a café, drawing in the gallery, writing philosophy in the library, painting at the sketch group. Sometimes I have the sense that I live in the city of Vienna itself—my workday stretched across its many districts, my books and pencils in my trusty backpack as I bike from place to place. It’s almost more important to feel myself in Vienna than to be able to work for eight uninterrupted hours. The city feeds my work. It is not stability, but a clear sense of place that keeps me content and focused.

I feel with Neo Rauch (in Mueller-Stahl, 2015: 37), the esteemed Leipzig painter, that:

‘Ich bin besonders raumfühlig und von äußeren Gegebenheiten abhängig in Hinblick auf das, was ich da meinen Leinwänden anvertraue.’

(‘I have a strong sense of space and of my environment, and that relates to what I put down on canvas.’)

Paints

But somehow I lost the unhurried stillness of Vienna in my increasingly busy days. An urgency nagged at me at every station. Even home ceased to be a haven. Long bike rides through narrow streets watching the smoke rising from the pipes of lonely men in singlets leaning out of windows ceased to soothe me. I cannot work when I cannot ground myself, and even my beloved Vienna was slipping out from beneath me.

Desk

So I went to Leipzig for a quiet retreat, where a desk awaited me with a neat pile of Wittgenstein, Kant and Rilke, where a freshly-prepared square canvas perched upon an easel next to a glass-topped table of gum turpentine, wax, Champagne chalk and willow charcoal awaited me. Everything laid out with care and attention by a very peaceful soul, who attended to his paintings like a devoted gardner to his potted plants in a neighbouring room.

Window

The light streamed in the bay windows every morning, and we woke slowly with the scent of brewing coffee and burning coals lingering in the chilly air, Spring hesitating at the door. Soulful Bach cello sonatas filled the air with their deep resonance as we brewed our age-old potions: rabbit-skin glue on the double-boiler, with chalk and titanium white pigment; the rhythmic, physical labour of stirring and painting, of stretching and restretching linen, before we returned to our pictures and our books.

rabbit skin glue

‘Ich bin sogar auf eine gewisse Ortsbindung angewiesen. Der Ort muss mich aber auch nähren, er muss mich atmosphärisch beschicken mit Dingen, die vielleicht in jedem Mauerstein nisten, in jedem Winkel dieses Raumes als Schwingungsrudiment anwesend sind.’

(‘You could even say that I depend on my bond with places. But the place also has to give something to me. Its atmosphere has to fill me up with things that nest in every stone of the wall and linger as low-level echoes in every corner of the room.’ (Rauch, in Mueller-Stahl, 2015: 37).)

view

I escaped to a pocket of Leipzig that gently nuzzled me into a quiet rhythm. There is always more work to do, more that could have been written, paintings that could have been further refined, more moments that could have been stolen for drawing, more books on Ingres, Balthus and Klinger that could have been devoured. But better than all measurable progress is regaining one’s equilibrium by merging oneself with the very cracks in the walls that surround you. At last I let myself just be, and became absorbed into the hushed but diligent pace of another’s place.

hands

 

Mueller-Stahl, Karoline. 2015. ‘Dinge, die in jedem Mauerstein nisten: Ein Gespräch mit Neo Rauch.’ Spinnerei: From cotton to culture (Report 2015). Trans. Alison Kirkland. Leipzig Baumwollspinnerei Verwaltungsgesellschaft: Leipzig.

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Leipzig calling

Bathurst Rhythms © Ryan Daffurn

Bathurst Rhythms © Ryan Daffurn

I have had the unimaginable pleasure of forming a close bond with an incredible painter of my own generation: Ryan Daffurn. I secretly think he is one of the most skilled and genuine painters alive, his age notwithstanding. His work is formidable: the fluent synthesis of years of dedicated study and obsessive practice; his lines are sure and energetic, brimming with life.

Ryan Berlin

I first made his acquaintance at the school he teaches at and co-founded in Brisbane, Australia, where his humble and attentive and famously slow and thorough mode of teaching quietly won me over. It was a long time before he showed me any of his drawings in aid of teaching, and when he brought out an eloquently hatched pencil drawing of a tree, curling off into space in all directions, I was shaken by the descriptive power of his restrained and firmly-placed lines. As a student, you place yourself trustingly in the hands of another, and I fear that too often this trust can be misplaced. When you see your teacher’s own rendering of the task you are battling, and their hand is decisive and elegant, and they present it to you quietly and humbly as but one method of working, little seeds of respect begin to take root.

Ryan Amsterdam

Ryan is a teacher of great humility, and I am convinced that this is because he sees himself as an eternal student. He would rather listen than instruct. His respect for other painters–living and dead–is unending; his determination to find merit and to learn something from every work he sees is limitless. And when himself without a teacher, he turns to the physical world for instruction, stimulation and challenges. His devotion to his senses energises his work, but his inner world twists it imaginatively. Ryan’s work is idealised, re-envisioned, accentuated—beautiful lies delicately woven together into a seamless fabric. Through his incessant reinterpretation of the natural world—his sketchbook always to hand—I have learned to appreciate that art can be better than life.

Leipzig

If there was a living painter whose powers ought to be recognised, whose path ought to be smoothed, whose labours ought to be supported, Ryan Daffurn is he. The winds of change are calling him to Leipzig, where his hard-won abilities can be inspired afresh and wholly concentrated on his own work.

Ryan has a true reverence for art and its power to move us, describe us and even redefine us. His ambition is somewhat disconnected from popular notions of success: he is intent on doing his utmost to contribute something of real worth and meaning. And in my humble opinion, he is capable of anything.

Conceptual artist

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