Saturday, January 24, 2009

Multi-D Drawing: Steven Stelling

Sketch Pages flips through the pages of Steve Stelling's "sketchbooks" and leaves nothing behind.

About the Artist
Steve Stelling attended Northern Illinois University and the Ohio State University. His paintings and drawings have been included in exhibitions in Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Columbus, Ohio. “Castle Castle” is the name of his collaboration with Jeff Sims. Their works focus on music-based multi-media projects. Their songs and video work have been included on compilation CDs, DVDs and have been screened in San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio. Steve lives with his wife Kate Joranson in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.

His work can be found at the Drawing Center's Viewing Program White Columns Curated Artist Registry

In your artist statement, you write very creatively about what you mentally and physically experience when making marks. After drawing for some time, how do you see/think/feel about what you see after drawing?

In the works made of cut and folded paper (books or otherwise), I have an intuitive-action part and a meditative deliberation part to the process. In both parts of the process I feel like I am a cloud of attention hanging between my eyes and the thing I’m looking at.

I typically begin work by covering a whole bunch of different sheets of paper with color washes, patterns, and gestural attempts at image-making. This is performed more by impulse than plan. It is kind of fast and messy. I feel like the material is carrying me through its time (speed of water as it carries the pigment, speed of light reflecting color back from the surface, speed of air in the drying time); I might be engaged this way for hours and hours but it feels swift. Like traveling by plane all day long into a western time zone and being astonished that it is only 1:30 in the afternoon when you land.

Then comes a time for looking, evaluating, shuffling, and rearranging. Editorial time. Here time feels slow and chunky until something comes together. I try to find combinations where the materials seem to be presenting themselves as just a little more than what they factually are. This can be some-sort of Rorschach-like image gestalt but can also be a buzz of color, or a fortuitous alignment of unrelated images--exquisite corpse-style. In moments when things do come together I’m frozen within the thing that is in front of me, (or maybe I’m abducted from myself?) by what feels like an encounter with stranger who appears vaguely familiar.

Is creative writing important to your process as an artist?

Yes. I’m mostly an image-maker and I feel like images, as general types of things in the world, slide all over the space between pictures and words.

I try and get into that space a lot of different ways. I am taking “writing” to mean anything verbal, including but not limited to making up songs, constant revision of artist statements, explaining myself to imaginary audiences, introducing and playing records to imaginary listeners, etc. All of this verbal concentration becomes its own body of work that is interwoven with all my visual concerns. I recently seemed to reach an understanding with myself after writing an artist statement that sacrificed all attempts at being curator-friendly. This in turn motivated me to write a brief statement for each song on a CDR I recently made for friends. This kind of reflection is not really meant to explain anything. It is, rather, another way of having my attention held a little bit outside myself so I can have a different consciousness to my view.

Among the things I read that could be classified as theory, I am mostly attracted to criticism that does not set out from an objective, expository point of view--where the writing does not describe and build reasons. No thesis, antithesis, synthesis. There are a lot of ways to be responsive without the usual tropes. I like stuff like Charles Olson’s prose, D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, and Richard Meltzer’s Aesthetics’ of Rock, Clark Coolidge’s “Now It’s Jazz.” Gertrude Stein’s essay “Composition.” et al.

What role does a “mistake” play in your drawing process? (Is there such a thing?) :

I don’t really know if I have mistakes for what I’m working on now. Most work that begins with an idea is regularly abandoned before it gets very far. This way I can forget about it and use it for something else later. Maybe everything is a mistake that I correct later?

I see mistakes as instances where intellectual materials (ideas, motives, attitudes) do not get to have their way. In this sense, mistakes are real life savers. You see, my idealistic, brush-loading attitude is: “free jazz! Open mind! Zen painter! Immediacy! Kerouac! It is somewhat embarrassing. There is little I can do about this. I have a very culturally conditioned (sub culturally conditioned?) idea about how “improvised” things should come off. It is fortunate for me that I’m challenged by all the sincere discomforts that don’t really cooperate with what I think spontaneous improv ought to be able to yield.

So then I have to find a way to handle, or at least feel comfortable ignoring, what didn’t come out right. It is at this problem-solving point where the things that have conditioned me feel (at least to me) a lot less emphatic.

In my B.F.A. program we were taught to paint over problems: rub, buff scumble, and so on. That kind of ‘tough surface’ makes me more nervous than excited and it looks, at least when I do it, really mannered.

I get a lot more from getting an exacto knife and literally cutting an entire troubled area out of the picture. This enumerates potentials and makes the belabored mess feel really new. There is the newness of the hole itself, the unending varitiey of “fillings” that can then be laid behind the work so as to show through the hole(s). Then there is the removed-mistake scrap, that since it is not related to anything anymore, seems pretty harmless. The world of the work expands when the surface is literally opened.

Can you talk at greater length of your interest in interior/exterior and its influence on your work? How also it is a frustration as an artist?

It has a direct bearing on the type of imagery I use. A sheet of paper pulls temples and gardens onto its surface the way a magnet collects iron shavings and finishing nails. There is such a strong analog between sheets of paper, landscapes, and buildings. They are all objects and spaces all at once…or are objects made of space? Space as thing. It is hard to say exactly because in these things interior and exterior are interchangeable.

I think that at a very primary level, space is our incessant first image. The first thing we encounter on the other side of our skin is space. We know it without having to think about it. Before we even develop an awareness of other people or objects we have an awareness of space as the thing that is not us and is immediately outside us. I’ve not done any significant research into this kind of stuff but it feels accurate, or at least amplified, every time I take off a stocking cap or sunglasses.

As an artist I don’t find the division of interior/exterior frustrating. Just curious. What is maybe frustrating is that what belongs to our subjective experiences seems to be put at an unfair distance—an internal distance. We say things like “whoa that’s deep,” as though we need special gloves, nets, and work crews to harvest it. Don’t you think imagination, daydream, fantasy, and memory, are all very close by? I am in very intimate proximity to stuff like that and I can’t be the only one who has memories that are undeniably closer than a lot of objectively physical things. I’m sure it is just because our language has developed out of a cultural attitude that does not privilege this stuff, but the products of these faculties feel like they have little choice but to be marginalized to a psychological “elsewhere.” Does this make their credibility suspect or am I just sensitive? It is excellent that art takes all this to task.

When did you begin to create artist books with your unfinished drawings?

It started when I had too many leftover false starts and scraps that I did not want to throw away but also did not want to cement into any single artwork.

I also started to see that what really excites me is the shuffling of layers and the subsequent changing of aspects that occur when layers are veiled, unveiled, and moved around. I’ve exhibited work with variable layers tacked to walls, but the arrangements have had to stay put for the duration of the exhibit. The book format seems like the best way for a viewer to experience the temporal stuff that excites me without having a nervous gallery attendant rearranging the works.

How did these artist books filled with your drawing change your perception of seeing and experiencing a drawing? Of composition?

First, it has given me a license to be really relaxed in how things develop. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to develop respectably-sized, formally unified “bodies” of work. That kind of thinking was directed by the demands of conventional exhibition contexts. You know: maintain a consistent investigation that makes a good portfolio, and when you get a chance, fill up a room. Perhaps because they open and close, maybe because they can be touched--whatever the reason, books are their own, very small exhibition spaces. Now, for a feeling of accomplishment, I don’t need a room full of conceptually tight works. I need only to find a few things that can be brought together from a pile of rough starts on the floor. I can try out bad ideas, or can start without a plan, things can not turn out, etc. and I can easily ‘move on’ with the confidence that, at least a residual fragment of my activity will probably end up folded into a book. I can do anything I want and there is no anxiety about where or when it will fit with a more congenitally ambitious display. From anyone else’s perspective these might not look as erratic as I’m making it sound but the book context allows me to relax and be much more inclusive.

Another thing that I’ve become excited about is realizing that, even in two-dimensional formats, composition is not dependent on adherence to a surface. There is no law saying you can’t just bring things together into common position. This allows me and viewers to play endlessly. Nothing has to remain fixed.

The most exciting head-scratcher is the need to handle both sides of the paper. Because these works don’t have their backs to the wall, I have to work on both sides (and this is, by the way, technically awkward since I use a lot of wet media). It surprised and frustrated me at first when I’d discover a blankish, dirty backside when paging through a book in progress. Now it is becoming one more place to play. I love how impossible it is to see the front and the back at the same time.

Do you consider a viewer a performer in your work when they turn pages back and forth?
How do you see their different actions affecting how they read your artist books full of drawings?

I don’t know. My first impulse is to say no. But I guess it is only because I think there is a difference between a “performer” and a “participant or agent.” I think of my viewers more as participants.

I associate performance with something a lot more public than these books seem to be. These books function on a so-called ‘intimate scale.’ I think of a performer as someone that “brings the work to life.” My hopes are directed the other way around. I’d rather have people light up. I want people to turn the pages because I see it as a way to hold them in the places I love; the places that make my head tingle.’

If that is what you mean by performer then I want viewers to be performers. But not so they can help the work along but so the work can create a bond with them. I know a viewer is “with me” when they begin layering the pages in an order I had not considered. They see the relationships between the parts I’ve compiled and they understand the potentials of play and find their own ways in and amongst it all.

Is drawing a performance for you as well?

I can’t imagine it that way--even if I’m singing as I work I can’t imagine it that way. In the studio I do not have enough of an objective sense of an external me to really feel like I’m performing. In a sense, I’m barely there. Or I come and go depending on what I’m attending to. Because seeing is our way of getting to overlap with what is just outside us, I feel like I’m pulled out of myself and partially absorbed by the things I see. In the case of the studio, a scrap of color, mess of lines, etc. are like a knock at the door—a call that demands a response. Trick or treat? I suppose I feel less like a performer and more like an anxious party host who has to repeatedly go to the threshold to greet the visitors himself. There’d be no bond with what is on the other side if I don’t attend to it myself.

Maybe indulging in the work of others: Books, records, paintings, etc. is like having a butler.

Any new projects in the works?

If you would like to include Castle Castle, feel free!

My wife and I just bought a house and I’m not sure how quickly I’ll get messy studio space set up for full-on painting and drawing. In the meantime I’m working on smaller, cleaner things.

Illustrating my song lyrics with more or less recognizable imagery in a gestural commix/text manner. Probably take the final form of photocopy zine-like booklet.

Another book project I’m working on is a collection observations and reflections in response to structural/architectural peculiarities of buildings I’ve lived in. This is also executed in an image/text commix-like format.

My friend Jeff and I are nearly finished with a collection of songs for our ongoing recording project known as Castle Castle. The thing we’re working on is a 6-song CDR tentatively titled “Gladstone.”

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