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Studio Conversation November 2019

Simon Streather with Stephen Carter

Stephen Carter  + Simon Streather In Conversation


ACAVA Studios, 62 HETLEY ROAD, London W12 8BB


25.11. 2019



S.S. I can remember you saying: - In our desire for clarity – things become obscured.  With these recent paintings what do you think you are trying to clarify and what through the process might become obscured?

S.C. I think there is a certain kind of release. If you release something from its known context, it becomes something else and opens up another kind of reading. With these works – the text is usually a text that has been put out there to reach as many people as possible, such as a press release on the internet. Then I take that thing and remake it by hand and give it a different type of material expression, a different kind of look, and a different kind of aesthetic. Also very often the text is truncated arbitrarily, and you might read on to imagine the words that could complete the sentence. I’m not sure about clarification; it leaves more in the mind of the viewer, more in the imagination.

S.S. How does that relate to empowerment?

S.C. The problem is that there are so many messages we are receiving. We are bombarded with these messages. There is a question of too much in terms of quantity, but also too much in the content of the message – the problem that the message is addressing, such as global population trends or global warming and climate change are so massive that we can feel a numbing sensation. We switch off from the message, we switch off from the communication, when we don’t know what to do with it and we feel impotent.

S.S. What about the primacy and the power of the word?  We can encounter these paintings and feel there are too many words, too many letters and most western painting can be seen as an area beyond or outside written language. It might be a delusion and yet we look to the word for guidance, for clarity.

S.C. In the visual world, there are inevitably words accompanying images in some way; as voice over, as subtitle, as label, as description. With abstract painting – a title appears alongside the work and we look to the title to gain some kind of clue, what the painting deals with. So I think words do congeal, do exist around and about visual statements. We might think these words are external to the thing we are looking at, but actually they are not really external, because we bring them into the space of the visual. Or like these works the words form part of what the thing is.

S.S. Have the words become enriched, deeper, heavier, and weightier by you copying them by hand? Or have they become exhausted? I feel – I don’t know, I can sit with that; it is an interesting place to be.

S.C. I think they are on the cusp of that feeling that things are being drained and the repetition does that as well. I am repeating some of the same texts. I think there is a cumulative effect, because when the same text is not repeated, the same issues are referred to over again. There is literal repetition as well as content repetition.

S.S. There are two recurring themes– the wall and the apocalypse. There might be something affirmative in that this is just our current apocalypse that you are retracing?

S.C. That has to do with being in the moment; all the texts are very much in our moment, our current obsession and anxiety. If you make a work of art, rightly or wrongly, there is the idea that this work of art is not just for now, it is for an indefinite period of time, and it could be that what is produced now is of more interest in twenty or fifty years time. So there is a different kind of timeframe compared to things put out on Instagram or Twitter. Things that have a currency for a very short period of time and are put out to influence things in the here and now. Meanwhile these texts refer to issues whose consequences stretch way into the future – sustainability, climate change, overpopulation of human beings on the planet – along with reference to disputed walls, barriers and borders.

S.S. We are also talking about labour, effort and material. Media is produced and consumed much faster than it used to be. I feel these paintings have taken longer to make than the messages they are derived from and they are also the work of one man, whereas the messages come from many and are a collective endeavour. Is there a virtue in labour?

S.C. I think there is. The labour is my labour in making the work or reiterating the text. This is hand-done and time-consuming. There is also labour involved in reading, which is different from reading a text on an A4 sheet of paper or on a screen. The act of reading these paintings is different. I hope I am causing the viewer to linger on the text in a different way than they would do otherwise. This is a form of labour; reading and writing go together – Susan Sontag says - before I was a writer I was a reader. So the act of the viewer or reader is very close to the act of the maker or writer.

S.S. Roland Barthes suggests that the origin of visual information is scriptural and not imagistic. When I look at these paintings, I enter and leave them repeatedly, but not in a linear fashion. I don’t start from a beginning or an end; I don’t feel there is a beginning or end in them. I am presented with a fragment.

S.C. Do you feel like speaking them out loud?

S.S. No. Because they are written, they seem to me quite silent. I suppose we inhabit a cacophony, especially in the city.

S.C. There is a relationship between the mass and the individual. The problems that are referred to in these texts are problems facing the mass of humanity. The work itself is handmade by one person – namely me, in the privacy of the studio.

S.S. Does this make you a romantic artist? Although you are also drawing on a huge edifice of material, which is communal.

S.C. I laugh when you say romantic artist. Maybe I am but I don’t see it that way.

S.S. It is an individual’s labour though. There is an insistence on the grid. Would you like to say something about that?

S.C. This is true. I want a kind of evenness, the material itself is disturbing and challenging, but the delivery is very even and that is where the grid is useful.

S.S. I find the variation in the line affecting, maybe clear, maybe shaky, it is important that there is difference within the repetition. What do you think about the self-reflexive nature of language itself? These words can only be described by other words.

S.C. I want to say something about the W’s. The W gets compressed into the same rectangle as other letters, whereas with other typefaces the W might take up twice as much lateral space; in my system the W only has the same space to operate in as the I. This links to what I call evenness, the levelling out of the look of it that in turn relates to the mass. We are the mass that have to work out our relationship to the world that we live in and therefore the evenness of the text and the evenness of the space mirrors the individual in relation to the mass, and responsibilities that come with that.

S.S. If you were writing in another language – you might not have the W problem.

S.C. True and then there is the blank space between words, which is the same size rectangle. There are certain rules that govern the way the thing is laid out.

S.S. Not rules linked to good taste or typography.

S.C. No. I think it is linked to ideas of democracy and shared responsibilities and evenness. I think that is also what drains the message and de-dramatises a message that in itself is extremely dramatic. It drains off some of the hype that goes with the message, but still the message is there.

S.S. I am fighting then between my own impulses of enjoying shapes and colours and weights and lines and being drawn back to a very potent word. They are bound to the time they are operating within and you are operating within, so they commemorate?

S.C. Yes. It is like the text paintings I did around 2001 – 2002 – the words were appropriated and then juxtaposed with each other and they were all very current because the source was mass-circulation magazines. The words would be released from their context and would then float into another kind of time zone. I think there is a relationship between these new ones and those earlier ones.

S.S. With the newspaper paintings there were three groups – an evacuation, a replication and an abstraction, but I don’t think you called it abstraction?

S.C. It could be abstraction.

S.S. These (new works) seem to be almost a synthesis of those?

Do you think it is in the nature of art that it is commemorative, something of a lament?

S.C. It could be.

S.S. I remember one of the word paintings that I think was entitled ‘More Art’. They were very evident in the final painting – those words - ‘More Art’.

There is a sense of using materials that can reasonably be used; there is a sense of endlessness in these fragments. Do you feel they are moral paintings?

S.C. Yes

S.S. I feel that comes with the restraint. I think perhaps the austerity is moral.

S.C. There is a sort of a poor quality to these works, even the way the canvas threads are left; they could just be off cuts. The poor quality is important because it suggests the limitation of the response and that connects with your idea of a moral position. Whereas the original announcements have a force behind them, these come with a much more reflective quality.

S.S. Even the act of copying is quite a humble one, and yet I do find a kind of sensuality in the materiality. There is something here akin to what Paul Klee once said – In the beginning was the verb. Why have you chosen to stretch, to lengthen, to use this format? Rather than a more rectangular one?

S.C. Probably it started because I had these strips of canvas that I didn’t know what to do with.

S.S. So it was an economic impulse again?

S.C. Not wanting to waste things that I could use. That is how it started and then I recognised there was something in the form that could accommodate repetition and could look ad hoc. There is also something about the literal repetitions as well as the content repetition that produce a rhythm as you glance across the individual columns.

S.S. There can be richness within the poverty?

S.C. Yes. I didn’t really plan for any of this; it has just come up.
In my mind I am still doing the abstract paintings; both streams of work are current and interact with each other.