Stephen Pusey is a New York based artist. I'm tempted to call him an abstract expressionist, but he says his work www.stephenpusey.com is more surrealist. Either way, his style is unique. For that, he is truly a "Signature Artist."
MICHAEL: Stephen, I'm glad to be chatting with you. Your work is bad-ass! It's hip, modern and hyper-kinetic. I'll let you bring up your technique. How's that for a conversation starter?
STEPHEN: I'll take "bad-ass" as a compliment. Not sure how it applies to my work, though I think any artist is "bad-ass" if they have stayed the course in New York City. As regards the other definitions I have never cared whether the work is aligned with current trends. I follow my own direction or perhaps that which is dictated by discoveries along the way. I am a product of this timeline, so it is inevitable that the work reflects this. If that makes the work relevant to current concerns, all well and good, but it is not my main objective.
MICHAEL: I really think that hyper-kinetic really sums up your work.
STEPHEN: I guess by "hyper-kinetic" you allude to the visual energy of the work?
STEPHEN: That is what essentially intrigues me and is what I hope the painting conveys to others. I have realized that it is basically about signature - literally, as a calligraphic mark, but also in the sense of identifying an energy that is both personal and universal. I believe I am channeling in the work an energy that is shared by all and which flows through everything. I am interested in the duality and contradiction of this energy - the tension between chaos and structure of progression and regression and of a biological shape-shifting and persistence of similarity that resonates throughout existence.
MICHAEL: And your technique?
STEPHEN: A painting begins with quick, broad calligraphic gestures to which I continually and autonomically respond. While the marks get overlaid and obscured in the process - the information and energy of the initial strokes are carried through the painting to its point of arrival. It's an imaginative process that's encoded with my observations. So what evolves through this random process is like a neural network that carries beyond the boundaries of the canvas. At its point of arrival, when the painting "works", there's a contradictory sense of symmetry and continuation in the painting. That's the tension that fascinates me. I see them as mantras that are continuously breaking apart to become something else. On a formal level, the paintings are very flat - both in tone and surface texture. The tonal equivalence of the colors produces an optical vibration in a level field whereas the matrix of marks affects the illusion of depth and perspective. My method is not dissimilar from the Surrealist process of Decalcomania or Frottage in which the artist works creatively with what is suggested by the accident of the material. So while my work may be overtly abstract, I see it as being more aligned with Surrealism than with formal Abstraction. I also like to think that the paintings can be a psychoactive vehicle for the viewer in which forms appear and dissolve ... never arriving at a fixed point. That is how I enjoy the work.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. I'm looking at your website right now and a term comes to mind; "Energetic Meditation" or "Meditative Energy." It's like seeing the actual inner workings of human intellect, emotion or even brain function ... what the firing circuits and synapses look like. I feel like I could jump into one of your paintings and bathe in it and get energized. Your work also seems musical to me ... jazz, techno or symphonic. Does music influence your work at all?
STEPHEN: I think the paintings do describe an immersive experience and that the consideration of them is not just how they work formally, but with your imagination to provide a transport. I am often asked this question about musical influence on the work and my answer is that while my taste in music is extremely eclectic, there is not a direct influence. Rather my work stems from the sum total of my experience. For many years, I worked with just the noise of New York City in the background. There is something of that energized noise field in the paintings, I believe. More recently, I have been occasionally listening to music while I work as a means of throwing my rhythm into a different space. There are composers whom I think of as describing a space that coincides with what I am involved with, for example ... Dickie Landry (Fifteen Saxophones), Thomas Tallis (Spem in Alium), Rhys Chatham (A Crimson Grail), Arvo Part (Te Deum; Tabula Rasa) and so on.
MICHAEL: I've just listened to a couple of those selections and I see or rather hear what you mean. You know, your work makes me think about what creation might have looked like before God said, "Let there be light." It wasn't nothingness, but rather, this formless energy that needed the BIG BANG to spring forth actual figuration. There seems to be even hints of figuration in some of your paintings. But hey, that's just my uneducated thought. I love the fact that some of your works are very LARGE. It makes them epic and operatic. Do you like working BIG?
STEPHEN: The title of a painting from 2006, "The Persistence of Similarity," intentionally evokes Dali's 1931 Surrealist landscape, "La Persistencia de la Memoria." I am fascinated by the resonance and similarity of forms in the biological sphere. I suspect that the beginning was never a beginning, just a continuum which held the fundamental signature of all that came hence. The "Word", if you will. Possibly all may return to that state before the process starts again. The most basic idea of String Theory is that all particles consist of strings and membranes and the frequency with which they vibrate determines the nature of that object. I find this notion very entertaining - that the whole universe may be comprised of resonating, pervasive and interrelated signatures.
MICHAEL: That sounds interesting ... the building blocks of figuration.
STEPHEN: Yes, there may well be hints of figuration in my work. It is there and it is not there. The gestures and forms are drawn from everything I have absorbed, so it is inevitable. Also, as the work is a product of an autonomic process, there is an auto-suggestive element in the work that will hopefully trigger an imaginative response in the viewer. It's desired that people "see things", but I guarantee they'll never be able to hold onto them for long before they become something else. I do like working very large and can handle scale well. However, that is not always practical and my work does cover a range of dimensions. Whatever the size of the work, I hope to open a space that is far greater than its confines. The larger the work in relation to human scale, the more immersive is the experience for the viewer. I want people to be pulled into the space of the painting, to feel part of the energy field within.
MICHAEL: Do you come from an artistic family? Were your parents artists? Where do you think your talent comes from?
STEPHEN: My father and his family were English from India and they emigrated to England in 1945/46. My mother was Irish and met my father in England. They later married in Dublin. I suppose there were creative tendencies on both sides of the family, but the early postwar era and the raising of large families demanded a pragmatism that did not afford them time for reverie. My paternal grandfather was an administrator and spent his retirement with my grandmother embroidering pastoral scenes on linen. In his scarce spare time, my hard-working father was an obsessed amateur photographer who nevertheless won a few awards for his photographs of the family and scenery. My maternal family definitely had a literary and poetic streak, but one that never made it to the page. So perhaps out of this vague mix, the genes coalesced into something that would eventually become an artist.
MICHAEL: I'm sure you've guessed that this was my nature vs. nurture question.
STEPHEN: On the other hand, it may just as well be because of all the contradictions in my early development. We were poor and lived in a Victorian project building in Brixton that had no bathroom. A galvanized tin bath leaned against the kitchen wall and my mother would fill it with water she would heat so that my siblings and I could take baths. This was not an uncommon inner city experience for that period. There's a Monty Python sketch, "The Four Yorkshire Men" that humorously references this. When I was eight, we moved to a newly constructed working-class estate on the fringes of London and Kent. Stanley Kubrick later based "A Clockwork Orange" on this neighbourhood. It was comparative luxury, a house and garden. In those days, a boy was more or less left to his own devices, so I joined the local gang with whom I roamed the Thames marshes looking for mischief and adventure. On one occasion, we hijacked a disused shunt train and drove it for a mile or so along an embankment before we were chased by police. I was very lucky not to get caught, but some of my peers were less fortunate and ended up in reform schools. Eventually, my parents managed to buy a house in a good neighbourhood in Kent where I essentially grew up. If we had stayed on the estate, it is likely my creative development would have been of a very different bent. Indeed I was a rebellious, bloody-minded youth, but I read extensively beyond my years and was able to find an outlet for my anger and overactive imagination in writing and poetry. My secondary school (high school) was a row of wooden classrooms that had been built as a temporary structure prior to World War II. We were told by our teachers that we were 50 watt bulbs and the kids in the local grammar school were the 100 watt bulbs. We were destined to leave school at the age of sixteen to work in local factories, etc. This all changed when an Irish sociologist was appointed headmaster of the school. He transformed the system so that I and a few of my peers could go on to take higher exams which would allow us university entrance. It was expected that I would go to university to study sociology, but I had to disappoint my parents and the headmaster when art became my consuming passion. My ability to paint and draw did not emerge until I was sixteen, but it developed very rapidly. At eighteen, I commenced my study at St. Martins School of Art, London, UK where I graduated in 1975. In conclusion, I will say that many people have latent talents and abilities, but it is only circumstance, the right mentors and perhaps the tumult within that will cause it to be fully realized.
MICHAEL: You said earlier that any artist who stays the course in New York is basically a "bad-ass." I totally agree, but do you have any additional thoughts about that? Also, what do you think about the "art world" today?
STEPHEN: Unless you are fortunate enough to be one of those individuals subsidized by a trust fund or have some other means of financial support, choosing New York City as a place to survive as an artist will guarantee you extreme hardship. The only reason to be an artist is because you have to ... that is what you are and nothing else will work for you. Hopefully, besides convincing yourself of this, you also have exceptional talent. If that is the case and New York City is where you must be - you additionally need to have the "bad-ass" factor. The woeful economy has taken such a toll on the art world in the last few years that even bad-asses have had them severely kicked. New York can be a wonderful place that's full of tangible energy and creativity. Because of this, it attracts multitudes of ambitious and beautiful people from other parts of the U.S. and from around the world. It is also a very hard place as is evidenced by the many homeless people on its streets and in the tunnels below.
MICHAEL: Yes indeed. I always notice them.
STEPHEN: We use the term "art world" so broadly, but it is really a mess of contradictions. There are certainly discernible trends and market forces that would shape the art world, for sure. Auction houses and certain dealers see it only as a commodities business and not much more. There is little high-mindedness at this level. It is about investment and sticking the bulk of it in a warehouse where it will rarely see the light of day ... except for a few works kept displayed or lent to museums to embellish the collector's status. Of course, there are collectors who buy out of sheer passion because the work communicates to them on a deep level. They are true collectors and I, for one, will spare the day for them. My personal view is that the art world is dominated by a terrible cynicism and has been since the '80s. I will not name names, but this may have to do with a core of artists who became studio CEO's rather than artists who made work with their own hands. They are clever business people who focus their energy on going to all the right parties and knowing the right people. It is sufficient for the them to make a few designs and have other artists or workshops fabricate the stuff for them - even paint their pictures. Now you can say that the Old Masters had scores of studio apprentices and this simply continues that tradition. However, the master's work is always distinguishable from that of the apprentice and they continued to paint and develop their artistic language. Many of today's most "successful" artists never touch a brush or any other tool. The work might as well be printed from a photograph. It is simply about mass production. What possible personal gratification can be derived from that is beyond my comprehension other than the satisfaction of having a very healthy bank account and being a celebrity. Their work is not about pursuing a genuine inquiry, but it's about brand image, acquiring a "signature style," and reiterating that constantly until it becomes fixed in the public mind. There are, of course, many genuine, wonderful artists out there of every generation. They are not out to create something radically different for the sake of it or to be aggressively fashionable. Their work is the result of an ongoing lifetime investigation which has produced a personal language of depth and extendibility from which they will never retire. I suspect that posterity will champion the work of these artists over the court jesters of the last few decades, but that is just an optimistic guess.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. Many young artists search for a "signature style." You seem to have mastered that rather early. Do you ever just want to break out and paint something completely different like full figuration or some other departure?
STEPHEN: If you search for a "signature style" you may only find a suit that will soon be ill-fitting. I think this is quite appalling, but many fall into this trap because of the way the market operates. Really, the signature lies within and only by doing the work will it be revealed. Actually, my trajectory has not been so straightforward. My earliest work was figurative and influenced by the Surrealists, particularly Max Ernst and Roberto Matta. From there, I went to Photo-Realism which developed into a kind of Irrealism in the early '70s when I was an art student. I thought I had coined the word at the time but later, of course, realized that it had a wider use in literature from which I had probably picked it up. I read a lot of Sartre at this time, the existential outlook is peculiarly well suited to the insecure young man who thinks he perceives life in all its rawness and perhaps he did. I was also looking at Edward Hopper's work and was stunned by the sense of apprehension and alienation in his paintings of urban scenes. In the background were various political events in the rest of the world that made an impression on me - particularly the fall in Chile of Salvador Allende's democratically elected government in a military coup led by Pinochet in 1973 and the subsequent brutal incarceration, torture and execution of artists, musicians and the general intelligentsia in the National Stadium. During this period, I was engaged with a metaphorical political realism. In 1977, I painted my first public mural at the entrance to Covent Garden in the West End of London. It was about forty-four feet high and was painted in a Photo-Social Realist style. I continued to paint public murals until 1982 when I returned to studio work.
MICHAEL: Wow. It sounds like you've been all over the map.
STEPHEN: Concurrent with all this work I doodled incessantly - in a manner that relates closely to my present work. However, because I had this facility to paint figuratively and also because of my political leanings, I did not take it further. After returning to studio work in 1982, I went through a period of rediscovering my language and actually made paintings not dissimilar from those I do now as well as many drawings that combined figuration and abstraction. Eventually I returned to a metaphorical realism which culminated in a body of work about the Holocaust which I exhibited at PS1, New York City in 1986. New York City then became my domicile and my work in the following years became more Symbolist, a combination of symbol and the kind of gesture in my current work. By the early 90s, I had started using computers and found that I could understand and do things with code. In 1994, I started plexus.org - which was one of the early art websites and web-based art forums. I was also a founding member of the now defunct Foundation for Digital Culture - a loose association of other online art labs. My studio work continued during this time, but I was very immersed in the online phenomena. By 2002, I felt a desperate need to return to painting and when I did, it was as if I had uncovered a deep well. I no longer cared about making a painting - I just let the painting make itself. The current body of work is the result of that. The work continues to evolve and there will always be changes. I shall see where it takes me.
MICHAEL: Stephen, this has been a great pleasure ... fun and quite illuminating. Let's stay in touch.
STEPHEN: It has been most interesting and useful for me.
To find out more about Stephen Pusey, check out his website at www.stephenpusey.com