Stephen Felton has been making art since he was 15, at first drawn to graffiti, spray painting walls turned to coloring abandoned houses and cars shades of pink and purple, he now makes art that is either really simple or really complicated, depending on how you look at it. Felton chooses to call his work ‘documentary’, meaning that on some level what he is expressing changes significantly depending on the given day- he weaves this autobiographical thread by painting on the backs of canvases, having paint flow off the canvas on to the stretcher and even on to the floor, and sometimes very humbly like the rest of us, he draws, crumples up the paper, throws it away and pulls it out of the trash again. Here, he sat down with art critic Timothée Chaillou to discuss abstractions in art, the nature of fragility and modesty in artists.
Timothée Chaillou: Where do you find the symbols and forms you paint? Have you ever done a series with the same pattern or a repetition of the same motif?
Stephen Felton: I knew when I made the decision to become an artist that I wanted to work from a very personal position. Much more akin to the work of someone like Picasso rather than someone like Sol LeWitt. I was always interested in putting myself in a place where I could work more freely. My aesthetic place has always sided with a more minimalist approach. I knew I had my work cut out for me. My work has to do with this ongoing development of a new language for painting that is a hundred percent documentary. A language that has its own rules, even if they are set up to be broken. A language that goes beyond the markings on the canvas to include the entire painting as a whole: everything, from the stretcher, to the canvas, to the floor. Therefore, I knew I had to strip my imagery down to its simplest form. That is why I tend not to think of my paintings in terms of symbols or forms, but in terms of actions only.
Timothée: When you say ‘painting that is a hundred percent documentary,’ do you mean that your paintings are the documentary of their own production; or do you qualify them as ‘documentary’ as a way to say that you found your motifs somewhere in everyday life?
Stephen: When I say a hundred percent documentary, I mean in the sense that I am working from my own experience. If I am working on a painting when I am happy and feeling optimistic I might paint a rainbow. Whereas if I am in the opposite mindset, I might tear a canvas, or something like that.
Timothée: So, your practice is not connected to the idea of ‘found abstractions’ (like Warhol’s Rorschach or Francis Baudevin’s work).
Stephen: I believe in today’s world where we are drowning in history, it is impossible to say no. However, I feel I am searching for something else. I used to believe you need to ‘kill your history’ in order to find some space to work. Now, I believe I am accepting such history a little more. I guess you could say I accept that all my images are found imagery. I just don’t believe I am appropriating these images.
Timothée: Do you attempt to neutralize the idealist and mystical duty sometimes contained in the abstract art?
Stephen: I don’t believe in religion, idealism or mysticism in general: I believe in the act of painting. When one puts something out in the world to be viewed, one never knows what a viewer will take from it. That’s as close as I get to the mysterious. Abstraction has a deep history in dealing with these factors but I think of them as something of the past.
Timothée: Do you look at the work of Philippe Decrauzat, Stephane Dafflon, Blinky Palermo, Imi Knoebel, or Helmut Federle? In your work, what can be identified with the work of these artists and what sets you apart?
Stephen: I admire each and every one of the artists you mentioned. When I think of them in relation to my own work, we differ not so much in image but we do in the ways we approach the act of painting. I would have to say Steven Parrino is someone I feel the greater relationship to. I believe I have set up the rules of my work not so much to predetermine the outcome, but more so to have a place to start. I never really know what I am going to paint from day to day. This allows me to be more aggressive, and work from my gut. I know within my painting it is impossible to make the same painting on Tuesday as Wednesday. I hate to use the term freedom, but I am looking to place myself in a position where I can work freely, not really knowing what is truly going to happen. If I am at liberty to poke fun at myself, I think of my work as being a little less smart than the others.
Timothée: What do you mean by smart in this context? Are you working on a reduce iconicity?
Stephen: I use the term “smart” to signify a type of work that tends to be more conceptually based. I tend to think of the iconography in my work simply as a starting point. Sometimes the image is something mundane, other times it is an explosion. Just like the terms of a day. What I am expressing here, does not only reflect the day to day practice of painting but expends to life. So you could say I have broken down the power of the icon. I prefer the word module, since it signifies more of a building block. Module is a little too close to minimalism, but to me it seems more like a start than a finish.
Timothée: I think that one aspect that move you away from Philippe Decrauzat or Stephane Dafflon is the connection with the Optical Art? Am I wrong? Are or were you interested at some points in the Optical Art movement?
Stephen: I am interested in Optical Art; solely as a spectator. I think that Phillipe Decrauzat and Stephane Dafflon are the two artists who are producing some of the most interesting work in that field. In my own practice though, I feel I am looking to make something a little more raw.
Timothée: You mentioned ‘raw’ and ‘less smart’ to described your work in comparison to these artists. Could you please define this ‘rawness’, this ‘weakness’?
Stephen: I always use the word raw to describe my work because I want it to have an edge, something to bite into. I feel my work does not have this “finished quality” which I believe is a strength. It puts me at a place where the painting is more physical, less programmatic. I am pretty sure I never used the term weakness (laughs).
Timothée: I, maybe, feel a kind of weakness or maybe fragility in your paintings because you paint some “light” and simple motifs, like if they were lost in the big space of the painting, and your drawings are crumpled. Am I wrong? Is it relevant somehow? Is this fragility melancholic?
Stephen: I definitely like the word fragile. A lot of people mention the light in my paintings, this is something I think about. Definitely. I tend to allow myself to show the fact that there is a very human aspect to my work. Melancholic? At times, yes. For instance, you mentioned my drawings. I will make a small painting on paper and crumple it up. Then, I would decide to come back to it and straighten it out; or not. Then it will be trashed. This practice comes from how I think about painting. I work in a way that allows me to be more in the moment, not concerned if the painting is going to work or not. I can always do it over. I have always said I want to go big. I would much rather go big and fail, rather than tip-toeing around some ideas. That is one of the things that brought me to work on the paintings I call “B” sides, where I work on the back of the canvas. It is like having another shot.
Timothée: Do you share Sol LeWitt’s point of view when he says that ‘prolixity created simplicity and unity’?
Stephen: Absolutely. A great debt is owed to someone like Sol LeWitt for paving the way on that ground. Not only to my generation of artists, but also the previous generation. Now as a result, we are in the position to take these histories for granted.
Timothée: Do you try to create in this way?
Stephen: When I am in the studio it is not something I think about. When I am thinking about the bigger picture, I think about the steps of modern picture making. Someone who would be between these steps is someone like Dan Walsh. He is a painter I really admire and someone who I feel is in the middle ground between myself and Sol LeWitt in a way. He is more aware of his own position, but in a more playful way.
Timothée: Could you please describe this liberty? Does this freedom refer to the fragility of your motifs and their supports ?
Stephen: I guess you could say I feel I have the liberty to act in a way that I don’t need to respond to these elements in history because they have already ran their course. When I think about painting, this is something completed. Now to work in what I feel is a modern position I do not need to reiterate something that I believe is already true.
Timothée: As I’ve said before I feel some melancholy in your work, as well as some joy. When one would ask Agnes Martin what would she wanted her pictures to convey she answered that she ‘would like them to represent beauty, innocence and happiness…Exaltation.’
Stephen: I like very much what Agnes Martin said about her paintings, and I cannot think of a more accurate description. If I were to answer that same question, I would love to be able to say something similar. I might just add distraction, misbehavior, disappointment, connection, disconnection, the absurd, fear, excitement, exhaustion, and mortality.
Timothée: Do see your work as tentative? Would you qualify it as modest ?
Stephen: Tentative, yes. I like the synonym conjectural even better. But modest, no. I am interested in making a statement, to me there is no real room for modesty.
Timothée: Could you please go further on this idea that “there is no real room for modesty”?
Stephen: When I think of the idea of making art, I think if it as three things: a culmination of ideas, work and of course, the unknown. When making a painting you have an idea and most of the times you stick to that idea and see the painting through. Other times, you end up on a different path somewhere along the way, so you just go for it to find out where it might take you. What I am trying to explain here is that being an artist requires a certain level of confidence not only in what you already know but also a confidence in your ability to proceed into a new territory with your personal history under your arm ready to take whatever comes at you and make it your own. I am not quite sure this answers your question about modesty, but I guess it describes the way I work. I know modesty is not a word often used to describe me. That is a good thing in the studio.
Timothée: Agnes Martin also said: ‘I considered myself as an abstract expressionist’. Do you think the same about your own production?
Stephen: That is a funny question to answer in 2011, because it feels so out of date. However, I cannot say I don’t like the term. I also cannot say in the most stripped down terminology it does not apply to me. When I think about abstract expressionism I think about letting ones self go, this is at the core something I work with. But then again, I don’t even really like the term abstract either.
Timothée: I was thinking of your patterns as more ‘expressionist’ than, for instance, Philippe Decrauzat or Stephane Dafflon. In a way, when you say about your work that it is less “smart” than us, I was thinking that you were more “expressionist” than them. Is it the meaning you would give to the word ‘smart’?
Stephen: This is true. When earlier I was using the term ‘smart’ what I am referring to is the idea of a rigorous program. So yes, I do believe my work to be expressionistic.
Timothée: Do you consider your paintings as sensual?
Stephen: No. That would be something which exists deeply in abstract expressionism, but it does not apply to me.
Timothée: Do you agree with Olivier Mosset who said ‘What I want is the opportunity to see the painting for itself’?
Stephen: I believe that to be true. Any artwork today should wish to be viewed in this way. Not to mention Olivier is probably the coolest guy whoever walked the planet.
Timothée: Do you think your work is materialistic?
Stephen: I think that most artists are aware they are making materialistic work. Hopefully along the way you are learning from your experiences, from the documentation of the whole process.
Timothée: Do you think that in the pyramid of things, forms precede ideas? Does form lead to thought?
Stephen: Pyramid is a great word. There is no question that images materialize from thought or ideas. Then they move on from there, taking on new meaning, or even sometimes new forms.