Stephen Palmer is an artist based in South London, UK, whose work A toast to never, pictured below, was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize 2019. As seen in the work, Stephen’s paper models undergo a unique process of manipulation to achieve the desired outcome. The resulting works reflect an undoing of formal geometry, grid systems, and mark-making. In turn, they celebrate negation as a positive creative act. We caught up with Stephen to find out more about this process, the materials he uses, and how he develops his work.
Daniel: Tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education.
Stephen: I studied painting at Winchester School of Art in the late 80s and following that, after a spell in London, moved to Newcastle upon Tyne in 1998 where I took an MA in fine art at Northumbria University. My plan was to stay in Newcastle for a couple of years but it’s such a great place to live and work as an artist that I ended up staying for nearly 15 years.
There’s a brilliant artist-led scene in Newcastle with long-standing galleries like Vane and Globe, complemented by newer spaces that come and go. Plus there are some great printmaking resources such as Northern Print and Hole Editions, and bigger museum spaces like Baltic in nearby Gateshead.
Doing an MA really opened things up for me. I guess it’s easy to follow a particular path after your degree, informed by the teaching or ideology of the particular art school you attended. David Dye was head of the MA at Northumbria when I was there and his approach to teaching was very different from what I experienced at Winchester. So the MA is really where it all began for me in terms of the work I am making now. I’ve been back in London since 2012.
Daniel: How would you describe your practice?
Stephen: For the last 10 years or so I’ve primarily been making small paintings and drawings. Occasionally I also make editions, mainly screen prints. The recent paintings are all gouache on paper and the drawings are graphite pencil on paper, sometimes with a bit of coloured pencil.
I tend to work in series and will work exclusively on paintings for an extended period (sometimes several years) and then work exclusively on drawings, rather than working on both concurrently.
Daniel: Could you tell us more about your process when making your recent ‘paper’ works?
Stephen: The current paintings, and the series of drawings that immediately preceded them, result from a decision at the end of 2016 to really strip things back and simplify things. 2016 was a pretty rubbish year both in terms of the broader political and cultural context, and on a personal level. As a result I made the decision to ditch any obvious narrative references from the work and to start making things that could perhaps seem empty, but with the hope that that ‘emptiness’ would be pretty loaded.
In terms of the process, I start by making a ‘model’ from a sheet of A4 paper that has been defaced through a series of actions – folded, screwed up, ripped, cut up, scribbled on using blue or red biro or maybe embellished with geometric shapes (also in biro). The paper is then unfolded and flattened out in an effort to make it good, or re-assembled if it’s been cut into sections. Many of these models get discarded before one of them seems right to be the subject of a painting or drawing.
The paintings are created in gouache on another sheet of A4 paper, or most recently on paper mounted on board. I’m painting on black paper and the drawings are pencil on a white sheet of A4 paper. Although on one level these could be read as still life works, the model is depicted floating with no shadows, so it’s detached from any physical reality.
Daniel: What is it about gouache specifically that you find useful for making these works?
Stephen: I wanted to keep things as simple and everyday as possible in terms of materials. I like that A4 is really the most ubiquitous paper size, and working in pencil on paper seemed the most straight forward way of depicting these objects.
When it came to making the paintings I wanted to use a medium that wasn’t too ‘fine arty’. Whilst gouache is still a specialist medium, I like that it has connections more with design than fine art (in western art at least) and doesn’t have the same loaded history that oil paint has.
I tend to work with it in a fairly free way, adding areas in, stripping parts back, trying to keep things as fresh as possible. It’s probably not really designed to be used in this way and if I overwork it there’s always a danger that the surface of the paper starts to disintegrate, but I’m trying to live with this when it happens.
Daniel: Could you talk more about your interests regarding negation as a positive creative act?
Stephen: On a certain level I’d prefer a sheet of paper to be pristine and perfect. I guess I have a bit of a problem generally with objects that are chipped, broken or scratched. So ripping, scribbling on, screwing up and destroying the pristine beauty of an immaculate piece of A4 is counter-intuitive. Unfolding and flattening it is an attempt to make it good, to straighten it out, to fix it and put it back together (although it’s a futile attempt obviously as it will never look as it once did. I think of it like a piece of fine China that’s been mended really badly with UHU).
The models are made quickly and on one level making all these screwed up and scribbled on bits of paper might seem a fairly pointless thing to be doing. But in making them, I start making decisions about what works, about what looks and feels right. A certain scribble or doodle, a rip or a fold, may have a rightness that’s only apparent to me. Decisions are made very quickly. I like the idea that, even though I’m making this most simple and ridiculous thing, only I could make that object.
The painting process is the absolute antithesis of the process that goes into making the models. It’s very slow and labour intensive, academic even. Depicting a piece of A4 paper on another sheet of A4 could be seen as quite a formal thing to do but hopefully the nature of the original object is still there in the finished works, that intuitive ‘human’ quality of the models is still there.
To misquote Poly Styrene, there’s an element of ‘Oh formalism up yours!’ to it all.
Daniel: Can you tell us about the work you did with newspaper clippings?
Stephen: This is where screwing up pieces of paper really started for me. I’d worked on a series of drawings of newspaper clippings for several years, depicted very literally as flat pieces of paper cut from the original newspaper page.
The stories were all ‘non news’, mostly stories relating to past events that for some reason had resurfaced, and there were a few obituaries in the series. For me there’s a poignancy to newspaper obituaries in that often you only really learn about someone you may have never heard of before when you read their obituary.
It was a time when the printed press was looking more and more threatened by online news services so I started screwing up the cuttings partly as a nod to things becoming outmoded. There are a couple of cuttings taken from the final edition of The News of the World for instance, and a series of obituaries featuring pioneering developers who created the very technology that is leading to the demise of the medium they were being remembered in. These works were more like traditional still life paintings in that the object is depicted in a ‘real’ space (although it is a fairly minimal space).
Daniel: What are your most important artists’ tools, and do you have any favourites?
Stephen: Porcelain palettes. I have several including a couple I’ve had for probably twenty years or more. They are great for mixing gouache. I live in fear of dropping one and breaking it.
Daniel: What is a good day in the studio for you?
Stephen: Like many artists, my time in the studio is limited and has to fit around other responsibilities. So from that perspective, every day that I can be in the studio is a good one. It’s great to be doing this thing I really enjoy doing.
More specifically, finishing a piece of work always feels good, although of course it also means the whole process is about to start again.
Daniel: And when you’re working in the studio – do you listen to music, audiobooks, Radio 4, or do you prefer to work in silence?
Stephen: There’s always something on in the background. I tend to listen to 6music on weekday mornings, then switch to the World at One on Radio 4 at lunchtime (just as a reminder that things really are that bad). Afternoons, I might listen to some music from my phone, or maybe a podcast. There are a few really good art podcasts out there. One of my favourites is Michael Shaw’s The Conversation Art Podcast, it’s well worth a listen. During the football season there is something very comforting about listening to 5live on a Saturday afternoon – all is well with the world for a few hours at least!
Daniel: What are your artistic influences? Who are your favourite contemporary artists?
Stephen: One of the great things about living in London is having such easy access to so much contemporary art, so my favourite contemporary artists are generally those in shows I’ve seen most recently. I tend to post my favourites on Instagram, partly as a reminder to myself of what I’ve seen. A few recent favourites are Katrin Bremermann, whose work is included in the exhibition ‘Gradation’ at Patrick Heide Contemporary Art, and Erin O’Keefe who I’d been following on Instagram for a while but first saw her work in a group show ‘Joy before the object’ at Seventeen.
In terms of influences from art history, I look a lot at early renaissance paintings. I love the very detailed nature of the work made by northern renaissance painters like Jan van Eyck. But I guess the more geometric variants of modernism are probably my biggest influence. The László Moholy-Nagy show currently at Hauser and Wirth in London is excellent.
Daniel: What is coming up next for you and where can we see more of your art in the flesh or online?
Stephen: Next up is a group exhibition curated by Marianne Walker in late September at Blyth Gallery, Imperial College, London. It’s titled ‘The Flesh of Thought’ and features a number of artists, including Marianne herself, who works with drawing in the broadest sense. Other artists in the show include Zoe Dorelli, Mary Griffiths, Mindy Lee, Robin Mason, Cat Roissitter, Anita Taylor, and Sarah Woodfine.
Recently I’ve entered a number of open exhibitions and competitions (including the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize) as a way to get my work seen more widely and been lucky to be selected for several of these including Creekside Open 2019 at APT Gallery in London earlier in the summer, and most recently Wells Art Contemporary 2019 Open.