Steven Cox was born in 1986 in Scotland and was influenced by the poems of Robert Burns. He is an artist who uses abstraction to investigate the complexity of structural possibilities, as well as the chromatic and material aspects related to the practice of painting.
Despite a seemingly “tamed” and focused result behind Cox’s aesthetic there is a deep, yet peaceful fatigue, that brings him to a very decisive synthesis.
Vincenzo Della Corte: A conscious dualistic quality seems to always be present in your canvases. The partitioned sections often point to a succession of smooth/rough, shiny/matte, and expressionist/geometric situations. Why are most of your works articulated like that? I would define them almost as “sequences”, does this seem like an accurate interpretation to you?
Steven Cox: The stripes present within my linear works do explore both sequential and non-sequential patterns, whilst there is no set consecutive chronology, I aimed to create a series that contained and explored rather specific contrasting painterly languages. You are right to highlight the dualities of colour, line and texture, for these are formal elements within painting that specifically interest me and are components I visually scrutinize. These textures, surfaces and marks are very consciously considered in advance of their application and there are subtle references within these works that require the viewers attention.
VDC: Only by looking intently at your paintings and analyzing them deeply can one discover their complexity. Almost every work contains a hidden level; it’s a kind of “avoided perspective”. Could one put your works into a kind of “geometric abstraction” category? And which origin or process brought you to choose such abstraction?
SC: Sure, the categorizing of the stripe works within geometric abstraction is right; it opens the work to a common dialogue when aiming to interpret the linear structural planes of these works. To date I have made 2 distinct series of stripe paintings, one being my ‘Ode’ series which is more subdued, and the other being a black and white series. Both series illustrate a disparate approach in exploring these contrasting sequences.
Throughout the time of creating these works, I was interested in the gestural calligraphic marks in the works of Brice Marden, the structural compositions explored by the likes of Camille Graeser, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Pierre Soulages and Sean Scully. In these cases, I found their approaches to stripe and geometric painting seductive, their methods in creating sharp contrast formed energies both subtle and vibrant, though most of their methods are/were physically flat so to prevent any surface noise. In contrast, I aimed to combine more painterly elements that explored physical layering whilst simultaneously commenting on painterly tropes that were cliché or referential to art history. I was also aiming at subverting such approaches to flat abstraction by consciously making the painted surface texturally rich.
VDC: Having pulled from poems by Robert Burns, it seems that you definitely embrace your Scottish roots. Could you elaborate on this theme?
SC: I picked up an old Robert Burns poetry book several years ago from a charity shop and it has been in my studio ever since. I regularly read this book of poetry by Robert Burns for his romanticized use of language is beguiling to me. It is difficult to not view Robert Burns through rose tinted lenses when being of Scottish heritage; he is a hero of sorts to Scottish culture.
I believe there is a cross over between the structures found in poetry to that of stripe-based abstraction, for the linear structures of both can openly reference each other. My works can be read line-by line from top-to-bottom, much like how a poem is read from left-to-right and top-to-bottom. Though in the case of my work, I am exploring a universal visual language that also hints at painterly dialects interpretable by those more accustomed to painting.
SC: The stripe works required pre-planning, so I would regularly sketch out new sequences. Sketchbooks and loose sheets of paper were always floating about my studio, drawings would be pinned to available wall space and I even drew on the back pages of books I would be reading at the time. I have never been too precious about such sketches, for many would be lost or accidently discarded. The sketches that were used and transformed into painted works were usually kept within a folder and have since been stored away. I would also develop potential ideas through collaging paper samples and making some small study works on paper. This process was important in order for the actual painting time to be exact and structured, for second-guessing elements whilst in the process of painting on the canvas would never result in myself being satisfied.
Whilst making the works, I would use a lot of polyester materials, hessian jute, masking tape, rollers, spray paint, enamel and both oil and acrylic paints. The works were not too painstaking to create, though at the time of making those works my studio was pretty small and cramped. I was making something in the region of 10 paintings at a time so the movement of those canvases whilst wet was a challenge to say the least.
VDC: Do you think music can influence a visual artist? I am not talking emotionally. I mean, technically, can a phrase or a musical period give an artist an intuition, a visual suggestion? And along a similar line of thinking, what music do you listen to?
SC: Yes absolutely, I would regularly hear comments about the gestural lines within my works, for many would inquire what I was listening to whilst making those energetic marks. In my studio I would listen to a wide range of music, anything from hip-hop, rock, metal, trap to minimal techno, though specific favourites like Beastie Boys, Nine Inch Nails and my friends band Young Fathers are regularly listened to. I feel that the power of influence is difficult to ignore, for the beat of music would keeps me alert and enthusiastic. Some artists can work in silence, though personally I need the rush of a good beat or lyric to keep me active.
VDC: One of my Leitmotifs, that I can’t help but ask every young artist I talk to, is how do you deal with the internet? How much does it influence your work?
SC: I find that the internet for me functions as a platform to communicate with other artists, conduct research, source books or materials and to watch countless videos on Youtube that span from the artist interview, gallery tours and ridiculous prank videos. Though I find that the most amount of time on the Internet is actually spent scrolling Instagram and seeing what is happening amongst the networks of people I am most genuinely interested in. I would not say that the Internet influences my work in the same manner an artist who is Post-Internet, for my practice also does not respond to or appropriate imagery sourced online. Similarly, I am not particularly interested in exploring or researching the direct translational fissure between the appearances of paintings on a computer or tablet screen to that of in real-life.
VDC: Your recent works are not as geometric and it seems that you are particularly interested in a sort of chromatic investigation. No more sections and no more stripes it would seem – just abstraction with its infinite possibilities. Is this a new phase of your research?
SC: I just completed a 4-month residency in Netherlands, and from the start I forced myself to respond to the new environment and to use alternative painting methods and materials. The process began by using and manipulating protective decorating sheeting that is most commonly used to cover interior furniture and flooring. I wanted to subvert such cheap protective materials and incorporate this into my process of applying paint. I used the vast size of the sheeting to develop a process exploring printing and paint transferral, for my aim was to create works that were free of my hand. I wanted to make works that were as alien to me as the space I occupied.
Whilst traveling around Netherlands, not speaking Dutch, I found a lot of the text and histories so foreign that I felt like an outsider intruding another’s space. In regards to painting, the process of transferring paint from plastic sheeting to the canvas was equivalent to a metaphorical wall being positioned between my surroundings and my physical self.
I wanted to create works that would adopt the plastic characteristics of the sheeting, whilst also having the weight and opacity of oil paint. By over-layering the canvas with contrasting colours of paint, I developed a surface that was more relational to an Ordance survey map, a topographic map that own undulating contour lines that signify both the ascending and descending layers of oil paint. I found that if anything this process comments more on the physical density and structure of paint whilst the surfaces can be studied and interpreted like a map. I found that the process of applying blankets of paint at a time was risky, for I had no true sense of control over the paint, though I felt like I was as equally out of control whilst being in a foreign environment.
This new series of works will be continue to be explored now that I am back in Edinburgh, Scotland. There is a lot of potential with this new area of investigation and I feel that my time in the Netherlands gave me the chance to expand on ideas that may not have developed as quickly or naturally here in Scotland over a 4 month period.
VDC: Are there any important artistic traditions that you are particularly drawn to or that have inspired your work? In other words, it seems very normal with many good young artists to have some sort of inspiration. Do you or did you have any kind of fascination with a mythology surrounding an artistic movement or singular artist?
SC: That is a tough one, I would say there are working methods surrounding artists that catch my attention, I regularly encounter individuals or groups of artists that manage/d to successfully push the boundaries of art in truly impressive or inspirational ways. Regularly, I find myself attracted to artists who act like lone rangers, protagonists who take risks and accept both failure and successes in the studio or exhibition space. I do find that the most interesting of artists are ones who are not scared to upset the establishment or subvert the expectations of others. Artists should choose to take the route less travelled.
I guess the first artist who really caught my attention and who still keeps me on my toes is Kippenberger, but really who doesn’t like Kippenberger?
SC: Under the moniker of Hunted Projects, I began curating exhibitions within Edinburgh just before the completion of my Masters Degree in Curating and Art Theory. It started during a time when I personally wished to provide a platform for other artists who I believed in and required an opportunity to showcase their works in alternative spaces around the capital city. At the time, I wished to solely dedicate myself to promoting others in a manner that aided in creating a new and enthusiastic art scene within Edinburgh. I exhibited something in the region of 50 artists within Edinburgh before deciding that the Dialogue surrounding the artists personality seemed to interest me more, though this was also due to there being a true difficulty in finding rentable spaces in the city for myself to curate shows, but I also wished to keep as active as possible.
From then, Hunted Projects became more focused on the artist dialogue, interviews with artists such as Eric Yahnker, Michael Dotson and Niall McClelland took place in the early days, with artists such as Trudy Benson, Parker Ito, Evan Robarts, Daniel Turner, David Ostrowski, Michiel Ceulers, Dan Colen, Jean-Baptiste Bernadet and Michael Staniak (amongst others) took place over the years and more recently. The interview is a good space to discuss ideas, an artist’s work and to create a platform where new audiences can learn more personal elements about an artist’s work and personality. I feel that the interview process itself is as equally connected to an artists studio, for their works and translations give fascinating insights to their work…perhaps even making their work more transparent in numerous positive ways.
Recently I curated a Hunted Projects Works On Paper exhibition that featured many of the artists I have interviewed to date, as well as many others I hope to interview in the near future. Full images and list of artists can be seen on the Hunted Projects website.
VDC: What are some of your upcoming projects?
SC: At the moment I am in the process of completing a text/interview with Ryan Steadman that discusses my works made during my summer residency. This will be featured in an online publication that gives an over-view of my residency at LEO XIII in Tilburg. As well as this, I have an upcoming duo exhibition at Galerie Jerome Pauchant in Paris where I will exhibit alongside Dutch artist Bas van den Hurk. The exhibition opens on 7 January 2016.
Courtesy images Ana Cristea Gallery, Halsey McKay Gallery and Steven Cox