Tuesday, May 26, 2020

05/20 Stephen Scott - Recent Works

Swim, 2018 -2019

I ‘d really like to talk to you about Stephen Scott and his current figure painting, and about his wife as a model, but in the way I might talk about Rembrandt, if I had known Rembrandt, and his wife Saskia. I’d like to talk to you about Stephen Scott’s painting while thinking about the work of the late Lucien Freud and how his models played a role in his work. But first I have to take you to Atlantic Canada for a moment…

Stephen Scott, as an artist, is situated both physically and aesthetically in what we call the Atlantic Canada realist tradition, having studied art at Mont Allison in Sackville, New Brunswick and having evolved in the shadows of Alex Colville et.al. So while my art observations is informed by knowledge of a broader understanding of art, as a writer I often feel pulled back to talking about his work within the bounds of this more localized tradition that somehow seems to narrow the view of the complex issues that arises in his work. We somehow view regional artists differently than internationally known artists. But let’s just say it. This has more to do with the artist’s audience than it has to do with his or her work.

Northern Summer, 2018
Wandering through the recent Alex Colville retrospective at the AGO in Toronto, I overheard someone say ; “I don’t want to look at Alex Colville’s naked wife.” I was not sure if the viewer meant he was repulsed by what he saw or that it made him uncomfortable, knowing this was the artist’s wife and not a professional model, feeling a bit like a voyeur faced with this shared intimacy, one he was not prepared to receive in Alex Colville’s work. It struck me that this gallery visitor, sidetracked by a regional familiarity, was not looking at the art. He was looking at the narrative depicted in it. The discomfort felt at this narrative was driven by a perception of Colville as a regional artist, and a social anxiety similar to that of encountering Colville’s wife at the grocery store kicked in. We seem to need some distance between content, at least when it comes to the nude, and form to appreciate art.

More recently a gossip book on Newfoundland painter Christopher Pratt, spilled all about his relationship with his wife and with his model, and once again we were made uncomfortable with maybe, too much information. We just didn’t care. We didn’t want to intrude. The only thing that mattered to us was the paintings themselves. We want to appreciate the quality of the artistic gaze separately from the information about the private life of the artist. So one of the challenges a regional artist faces is to create sufficient distance between his content and his aesthetic handling as to create a more universal experience.

British painter Lucien Freud, (1922-2011) arguably the best painter of nudes in recent times, also painted nudes, of models, Baroque in scale. We know through extensive documentation of both his life and his methods of working that some of his subjects were people with whom he had close relationships, others less so. He painted nudes of women. He painted nudes of men. And because of Freud’s stature as an artist, we do know in excruciating art historical detail how all these models figured in his life and his work. But in the end, here too, it is only the quality and authenticity of his painting that contains the information we want, that persuades us that we are apprehending, dare I say it … beauty. And yes, we have a similar experience when looking at the nude ‘Danae’ by Rembrandt, even if she is purportedly Saskia, his wife. We see Rembrandt at work, we see his art, not his wife.

The dilemma all these artists face, whether regional or international, all being naturalistic painters, is that regardless of who sat to them as models, it is the work and how they make it that is ultimately intended for public consumption and not the details of their private life. The artistic intention is the only one we must decipher in our appreciation of the work, but being the nosy, paparazzi minds that we are, we want the gossip we are accustomed to and somehow we think that because the artist presents the work publicly that we are somehow also entitled to enter their private lives. This is particularly so when it comes to highly naturalistic figure paintings, whether it is in the form of portraits or nudes. The narrative sometimes supersedes a full appreciation of the formal or aesthetic qualities of the work. This is especially true of naturalistic or realist painting today where artists go no further than their immediate not to say domestic environment for subject matter. Gone are the days of representations of the gods cavorting on Mount Olympus or holy figures in religious ecstasy. In order to appreciate the work of contemporary artists then, we must consciously suspend our analysis of content as symbolic in favor of more gestural signifiers.

Self Portrait Study, 2019 

Well said, I suppose, unless, of course, we are actually privy to their personal lives. Then what? If you are a friend, and a fellow artist sharing experiences on a regular basis, nourishing each other, questioning each other, then everything matters once again. It becomes difficult to remain objective. Looking at art under those circumstances becomes a subjective experience. The packaging comes with that extra disk with behind the scenes interviews. So whenever I am asked to write something about his work, this time about his recent figure work, it quickly became personal, difficult for me to separate the personal from the public. And because I am also an artist, struggling with content and form, even as a photographer, looking at Stephen Scott’s work is often like looking in a mirror. Because of our exchanges, I feel that somehow I am part of it. It is certainly a part of me. So with all this baggage, where do I begin to tell you about my Rembrandt, my Saskia? How do I convince you that there is a painter in Fredericton, New Brunswick whose work is worth looking at in a much broader way than through the filter of Maritime realism? So I let go and thought I would try to forget about objectivity and tell you about his work through my own experience.

I’ve known Stephen Scott since about 2005. I met him in Fredericton while working at the New Brunswick Arts Board. My first encounter with his work was at Gallery 78. It was mid- winter, an exhibition touted as an erotic art show for Valentine’s day. I had quickly became bored of the unending string of romantic nudes. Disappointingly, no whips, no chains, no leather, no rubber or latex to be seen. You must understand that I had been in San Francisco during the summer of 1978. I was a nascent artistic photographer, and for me Robert Mapplethorpe had been a revelation, an emerging artistic force to contend with. Aids had yet to take its perverse toll on the population. Even as a heterosexual man I had appreciated the 70’s leather scene. There was an outward honesty about the homo-erotic gaze that seemed to exceed the merits of the so call sexual revolution of the 60’s. More importantly, it seemed to have more to do with aesthetics, with beauty, than the current canon of street photography that placed Robert Frank at its altar. But back to Fredericton. I turned a corner and saw Scott’s life-sized full frontal naked “Self-Portrait in Leather Thong”. It didn’t strike me as homo-erotic or as gay art. It just struck me as honest, the way northern renaissance painters like Van -Eyck, or Albrecht Durer made self-portraits, looking in the mirror, looking at time racing by, looking at one’s…well.. shortcomings. I have always been interested, in both my writing and in my photography, in how we code or decode our own ways of looking at ourselves, directly or indirectly, through the art we make. We are all in one way or another writing our own ‘Autobiography of Alice B Toklas’. Through that process we investigate our own worthiness, our own insecurities, our own arrogance at making art, that we expect should have some value or meaning to the viewer. “Self Portrait in a Leather Thong” seemed to contain all of it. It was a beautiful painting.

I told myself that I needed to get to know this artist. I contacted him a few days later and invited him to sit on a jury I was composing at the time. I then. waited for the jury to be over and invited him for drinks in a bar and we talked about art until closing time. It was the beginning of a conversation about the state of art, about painting, yes, about beauty, about being an artist, that we have continued since. In 2010 this conversation resulted in a first book on his work I called Surface Reflections. It was a survey of his work to that time that identified some of his motives but that also underlined some things about his work that nourished me, both as a writer and as a photographer.

And now as I move forward in my appreciation of Stephen’s more recent work and how it continues to feed me as a writer on art and as photographer, it was time to take a deeper look at some of the machinations that underlay these latest “surface reflections” . When I wrote the book I was still able to step back a little, to look at his work more objectively, in the context of a canon of painting we label Maritime realism. But as we moved forward my conversations with Stephen took on a different kind of importance. The questions became larger, more universal. I found commonalities in our work and in our lives. We started to compare notes. I was beginning to look for myself through the work of another artist.

It begins with where must I place my feet in evaluating this work. How do I write about figure studies by Stephen Scott, nudes as it were, torn between my subjective appreciation of his figure work, and the objective knowledge I possess about other issues in contemporary art. How do I compare his nudes to the work of say, Dayna Danger, an aboriginal, feminist artist from Winnipeg whose art I admire, whose art I get? Can I simply remove Stephen’s work from the comparison by saying well…it’s just a different kind of art? In my manual, there is only one canon of art. And it is not measured by subjective arguments, it is measured by historical consensus. Does authoritative quality in the pursuit of beauty have the power to trump politics? Or in Freud’s case, does the power of money and celebrity just shut everyone up? Well the answer is simpler. I can only measure Stephen Scott’s progress against his earlier work to date.

In an effort to push content to a less symbolic function, Scott’s figures have become more expressionistic lately, more formal, or as one my own models expressed, more abstract. There appears to exist furthermore, and apart from anything else, multiple series or themes in his female figures now, creating a conceptual strength than in turn reduces the content to formal element as opposed to literal narrative.

Shallows, 2019 
The first of these series is the on-going one, the swimmers or bathers now having morphed to “northern” swimmers to indicate it’s inclusion in a preoccupation with “northern” light. Scott has been doing these for years but lately the series has become seemingly more gestural, more expressionistic than ever. Looser if you will. I used to think of this work as a dark repository of Stephen’s inner psychological world. But the more recent figures seem more active and outwardly physical. There seems to be a confidence or a psychological resolution, a lightness of being, that brings this body of work forward and leads him to make, of late, looser oil studies. Something has emerged from the water. Something has emerged in the painted surface. In ‘shallows’ the water has become almost imperceptible as the figure lifts from the water. If I was of a more psychoanalytical nature, or more academic, I would venture that “here we see Sophie lifting Stephen from the darkness.” Nice bloody line if I say so myself.

Northern Swimmer, 2019
In 2018, I took three days to make a the trip from Montreal to Halifax stopping at a favorite haunt in Rivière du Loup. The second day I drove from RDL to Fredericton and visited Stephen. He had now finished the new studio and was working in it. He was hard at work on some figure studies. With this new studio that included an entire roof section in corrugated plastic that diffused natural light it was an opportunity to look at painting being made directly from the model under natural lighting. It was like watching a painter working in a turn of the century Paris studio. The studio was creating a transitory space, an observatory, and I could sense a transition. Stephen was making a series of sketches of Sophie, “model in a swing”, using generic titles as a means to, once again, distance the private from the public I saw in this series of transitory sketches as a second theme onto themselves. Stephen was developing a heightened gestural confidence, working more from the elbow than from the wrist. It reminded me of Freud now, throwing excess paint at a nearby wall.

I was taken by these quick oil sketches. One element in both painting and photography that is not often talked about is the sense of urgency of execution when working with a model. When you hire a model, there is an urgency to get as much done as possible in your allotted time. It's no different in making art as it is when making commercial fashion shoots. You are on a bell. Working with a loved one is also sometimes tricky because you are dealing with someone's generosity of time as opposed to a professional transaction. Both situations have an impact on your work. I wondered whether the expressive quick lines Stephen was making in the studio was in part because of that. As a photographer I have to plan my shoots. I often make sketches to show models what is expected. "What, you make drawings for your shoots?" is often the reaction I get. Once an art director always an art director. In advertising you most often give your sketches to the photographer and he looks like a genius in front of the model while the truth is elsewhere. Sitting in the studio with Stephen that day was an oasis for me. I had been widowed only two years. The lightness of his sketches reminded me that art has the power to separate you from the day to day of living. Stephen lifted Bob from the darkness.

Nude Study, 2018
This new confidence in brushstroke has allowed Scott to turn to more intimate subject matter such as the figures he now makes with Sophie, his partner, forming a distinct and seemingly third theme, underscoring Scott’s evolution as a painter as he makes a concentrated and more focused return to the figure as a central theme of his work, through his personal life. His handling of brushstroke, color, control of light and surface removes us at first from what is signified by the content and takes us in his painterly voyage of expression, and having lifted us through an aesthetic experience now drops us gingerly back into a kind of appreciation of how his personal life can be a source of strength in his work. No longer are we distracted by the politics of making nudes but simply through his quality of execution back to an aesthetic experience and ultimately to a shared experience of beauty.

Woman Asleep, 2019
As painters and photographers our primary medium is light. Light is the language of emotions in making pictures. In that sense all of Scott’s work is preoccupied with light and how light as an emotional palette is as important as the paint on the surface to reflect the emotional response of the artist to his subject. In that sense Scott now seeks more in common with painters of the Northern Renaissance in Europe than he does with painters from the Atlantic, or any other, realist tradition. This has been supported by his numerous trips to Germany and Scandinavia, or closer to home, Newfoundland, where he has worked consciously to distill “Northern” light into his method of painting. Put together with the language of portraiture and what you end up with is a self-portrait of Scott with Sophie that owes as much to Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait as Grant Wood’s American Gothic, as obvious as this last compositional rapprochement may be. In Northern Gothic Scott sets up a code in paint and in light using darker tones than usual making a clear statement that he is moving from a naturalism based on drawing toward an expressionism that uses light as its fundamental formal strategy. The symbolic content is rendered more theatrical as a clue that the content is a composed drawing or arrangement rather than a witnessed event. It works like a still life where the subject may be naturalistic but we understand that the subject is a formal structure based on objective references from art, reducing the artist’s personal life to secondary importance. Back to Rembrandt:

In 'Rembrandt’s Eyes', Simon Schama says, "Rembrandt cannot and does not seek to share the kingdom of high art with the base nature of physical life…, …However, Rembrandt was able not only to continuously cross the line between art and everyday life, but also to make a delightfully rich storyline from this 'wandering'."

Northern Gothic, 2019
Whenever I have coached other artists about how to write about their work I always pointed out that being a professional artist is a bit like being a politician; you are engaging in a public life. You have to separate the concerns of your private life from the concerns you have as an artist. Many occupations demand this sacrifice, but with art it is often confused since the private life becomes, especially in naturalistic work, the subject of your art making. It is in this sense that I mean that visual art can be rendered literary if not literal. You begin to create a mythology about your own life and one needs to be careful about how much intrusion you are willing to allow before it gets in the way of the work.

Head Study, 2019
Stephen Scott’s nudes may not be politically up to date to sophisticated art audiences, but they contain a language of painting that transcends the myopic view of art that restricts you to looking at it only in the context of current contemporary criticism. It does not ignore the current issues. It embraces them and comes back again and again with an argument, that we may be losing more than we gain by restricting our gaze to neutral, safe, territory. It is an assumption that men make nudes from a point of objectification at all times. It is now often made with perilous consciousness, intense self-introspection and study. It is made, perhaps more importantly in defense of a concept that makes us uncomfortable…beauty.

The artists I know and largely write about are artists who function within was is perceived as a more antiquated view of art, a non-political environment in which aesthetics and beauty still dominate over political issues. But I found myself, in writing about Stephen Scott, to be in that pre post-modernist mindset in order to write an appreciation of his work. Here again I find myself in an in-between situation, between what I perceive as beautiful and what I know to be the current thinking in art. The two have seemingly no point of reconciliation. In writing about Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky (Manufactured Landscapes) I found myself screaming from the rooftops that one could not template values of aesthetics and beauty on top of contemporary environmental issues, that you cannot have it both ways. For me Burtynsky’s work screams of male paternalistic values louder than someone making nudes of women. But somehow this doesn’t seem to resonate so I despair at the hypocrisy of contemporary art more than that of male romantic perceptions of beauty. Convenient argument rules.

I have always had a special interest in the relationship of painting to photography and vice versa. I initially studied art, learned to draw and paint, but through a series of opportunities found myself working with photography. This is a common scenario in post-modernist visual art as opportunities for painting have been restricted comparatively to the 19th century. In short, except for a few collectors, nobody cares. I still paint and draw from time to time and both these activities have consistently sent me running back to my camera with solutions to photographic problems. After some time and a series of epiphanies, I finally conceded, surrendered, as difficult as it is to think of myself as a mere photographer as opposed to an artist. But art and painting in particular still has that elusive power of being the medium that defines you as an artist. Ask filmmakers Peter Greenaway, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch. In every interview, as successful as they are, they make a point of exclaiming that they started out as painters. So painting remains a reference for me in my photography as well. I have often argued that photography and painting actually live in a symbiotic relationship to each other in contemporary art. They don’t exist as polar opposites. They feed off each other. And in Stephen Scott’s recent figure work I have found somewhat of a mirror reflection.

I now own numerous of those oil sketches by Stephen and they serve me well in maintaining a safe distance between the literal and enlightenment. If you can find that in art, I would risk saying that you are looking at good art, regardless of its subject matter.

To learn more about Stephen Scott, you can go to stephenscott.ca