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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Habit and curiosity

Steffi (2.5 hour oil sketch)

Steffi (2.5 hour oil sketch)

There is an inherent tension between a painter’s sensory encounters with the world and her own habits. As I push myself to paint and draw with increasing intensity, I am driven by conflicting impulses to improve and to investigate. Improvement requires repetition and practice, but investigation tends to tear down all this dedicated work. My understanding and my repertoire broaden and deepen with investigation, but my improvement stagnates, or worse, everything I was so anxiously holding together comes completely undone.

Steffi drawing

In moments of doubt, I return to trusty Robert Nelson (2010: 121), who reassures me, ‘We all have habits.’ In his judicious way, he writes that habits have their advantages and disadvantages. Hard-earned habits through which we have assimilated knowledge ‘are at the root of our fluency, our readiness, our comfort in tackling the lofty task of representation by the senses and the hand’ (2010: 121). Without such dependable tools, we would face each new picture completely disarmed, unprepared and overwhelmed at the formidable task before us. And these tools, once acquired, need maintenance, and permit refinement, and generally positively benefit from regular and sustained attention.

Copy after Rubens, Selbstbildnis

Copy after Rubens, Selbstbildnis

My attention has turned rather feverishly toward copying: with religious zeal I am flooding pages and pages of my sketchbook with wholly unoriginal drawings; copies of old master paintings, copies of anatomy drawings. It can be a very passive way to draw: the burden of having an original idea or making an original investigation is gently taken away from me. It could yet be investigative—with due concentration, I could, through such copies, begin to unpack the decisions of the artists who produced the originals. And sometimes I do. But sometimes I just copy, pleasantly pulling my pencil across the page, enjoying the motion, and daydreaming a bit. This pleasure drawing has its advantages: the habit of going to the gallery, of plunging into the anatomy book, means I give time to some form of drawing with dedicated regularity. And each time I start, there is the possibility that my brain will actively engage. The act itself, begun unthinkingly, can trigger thought.

Copies after Gottfried Bammes

Copies after Gottfried Bammes

But as I practice and practice, investing in my favoured media, becoming more accustomed to their limitations (and my own), I fall into patterns of working, and the patterns lead to ruts and their accompanying frustration. What looks like fluency and adeptness and confidence to outsiders actually feels like being stuck. Showmanship can get in the way of honest engagement with the physical world, and instead of turning afresh to sensory experience we rely on mechanistic motions. ‘By and large,’ writes Nelson (2010: 130), ‘a mechanical application of directional gestures is about superficially looking flash or stylistically sophisticated, or emotionally confident, or artistically full of panache and bravura rather than serving exploration and curiosity.’

Pregnant lady (oil sketch, 2 hours)

Pregnant lady (oil sketch, 2 hours)

And so despite the benefits and even necessity of forming (hopefully good) habits, Nelson cautions the painter against a ‘mechanistic’ approach, a mindless, formula-driven mode of working that crowds out the possibility of active picture-making. ‘Making art from habit,’ he writes (2010: 121), ‘has questionable consequences.’ For we are not simply producing polished products, little one-man factories. We are constructing pictures by means of a certain kind of logic: an organic, integrative logic that brings together all of the knowledge we have collected about tone and colour and gesture and space and texture and so on (2010: 117; 124). Though we can separate out each element and map out distinct stages of a painting through time, the most thoughtful pictures are those that weave everything together, and this unity, argues Nelson, has its origin in the sensory experience, and not in well-oiled mechanistic habits. ‘All of the painting is about building, constructing forms, constructing spatial relationships and constructing rapports in colour; and these are integral to looking, seeing, remembering and imagining’ (2010: 124).

‘The painting conceived in this way replicates, on a somewhat clumsy and grandiose scale, the process of perception itself, constantly gauging relationships and skipping all over the field in order to assess the spatial calibre of what is observed.’ (2010: 122-3)

Such alertness means we have to sacrifice some of our hard-won ability. Confronted with a real subject, with differing light conditions, with the air shimmering at the horizons of the forms, with compositionally compelling shapes that compete with descriptive and meaty forms, we find our assortment of tools to be lacking. What served us well in countless previous situations is not up to the task at hand. The world is ever lavishing new sensory experiences upon us, and the genuinely curious painter responds to the experience, indulges his senses, rather than repeating his well-rehearsed performance.

American girl

And this is the tightrope we walk: trying to furnish ourselves with tuned and ready instruments that are fit for the sensory experiences we are constantly greeted by, but remaining open to those experiences, adaptive, and seriously investigating them. It’s no good to throw away what we’ve learned and start from zero every time, but we must also open our eyes and engage our brains. Nelson (2010: 129), ever eloquent, describes the clash of habits entrenched in the body and the inquisitive encounter with the world thus:

‘The brush is constantly invoking the seen: it requires a certain nerve, a zeal for finding out what is perceived or imaginatively solicited and then for correcting what is conjectured. Unless somehow designed with a Platonic conceptual remove, it is all chop and change at a sensory and intellectual level. Add to that the co-ordination of the hand by impulses, the way that the process draws upon the muscles and uses the body: it demands a stance before the canvas and a rhythm of subliminal choreographic vibrations.’

It would be foolish to be dogmatic about either emphasis, for both are crucial. Each destroys the other, but only to rebuild it more firmly, and more enmeshed with the other.

American girl (2.5 hour oil sketch)

American girl (2.5 hour oil sketch)

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

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The sitter

Last night, in a somewhat befuddled, sickly state, compounded by the heady rush of free pinot noir, the Duchess had the pleasure of tripping along to see an exhibition by Keith Burt at Metro Arts in the city. Entitled ‘The Sitter,’ and ushered away in a small and densely populated room adjoining another exhibition, about which I shall not be writing, only because I wouldn’t do it justice, because I’m afraid I failed to penetrate it; the exhibition under consideration was a careful selection of portraits (my favourite!) and what I shall term post-portraits.

The intimate and unmistakably ‘Queensland’ room in fact does justice to the thoughtful and subdued collection of faces, feet and chairs and sheets. The bottleneck doorway frames a large painting of a Scottish Builder, who poses artlessly on his Van Gogh chair, legs parted like the Red Sea, in tiny builders’ shorts like those my dad wears, and heavy boots. Did this man stumble in from the street? Was he doing some work on Keith’s house, and, having observed, ‘You’re an artist!’ ask to sit for his portrait? This is mere speculation. But his endearing working-class pride and fierce Scotch pride are starkly contrasted with the other characters that we then move on to see around the corner—a smart, pointy-moustached man of a long-gone era, a frumpy, indie redhead girl (also in boots) with her iPhone close to hand, modern-day ‘Paul’, leaning forward eagerly and earnestly with a glass of red, and the feet of a mysterious woman. This is only to name a few. I will try not to give everything away.

Each sitter poses on a chair—maybe an old wooden one, maybe a smart vintage armchair, maybe a couch, maybe a modern armchair. Many wear boots, some sneakers, some polished dress shoes, and one has just kicked off her heels. Now, I don’t know if you’ve detected a trend in the documentation of my own feet within this blog, but I have to say that feet are of great interest to me. First of all, they look funny. Everyone’s feet look funny, in different ways. I have tiny, wide feet, with big toes that bend too sharply inwards. J has a gigantic gap between his big toe and the others, granting him a near opposable-big toe, enabling him to climb trees like a monkey. Secondly, they are useful tools, not in the same way as our hands, but almost equally as important. Sure, you can’t do craft with your feet, but you can walk, and perform tricks with them if you learn ballet, and they cop a hiding from hideous spike-heeled things we like to refer to loosely as ‘shoes.’

But I digress.

I was somewhat baffled by the feet and boots and shoes until I saw the heels, and I thought, ‘I love that feeling!’ My living room has, on any given day, about five pairs of heels strewn across it, on the rug, under the couch, next to the piano. A usual day entails me being outside of the house, wearing heels, for fourteen hours, and ends in me floating blissfully to the couch and baring my feet. I’m sure our Scottish friend feels the same after a long day laying bricks. And Paul has something to get off his chest—he should kick off his shoes and unwind as he swills that wine. But Paul is just a guest, moving on again before the day is over.

And this is where the post-portraits come in. My first encounter with Paul is up close in his troubled face, a small portrait focusing on the distress evident in his features. Across on the facing wall is full-sized Paul, a large painting in which we see him seated beside a table, a bottle of wine beside him. This one is hauntingly called Paul, life and death. Then there is his empty chair, After Paul. Perhaps this is so powerful because it constructs a narrative, and this narrative is interwoven with the narratives of disparate others, some united only by their friendship with the artist—some seemingly respectable time-travellers whose jumbled narratives nevertheless merge with the others.

A girl behind me shrieked decisively, ‘Ghost! Ooh, look at that—sheet and boots, definitely a ghost.’ But I think there is something of preservation in the sheets and the boots, though the sitters have risen and left. Like old furniture draped in drop-sheets in old west wings of gothic mansions, the painter has taken pains to keep everything as it was left. The boots are shaken off, life and death have been philosophised about, now it is time to rest.

Keith Burt’s ‘The Sitter’ is showing at Metro Arts, Brisbane, until Saturday 19 November.

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