Paul P. on Two Works by Stephen Andrews

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There have been many works of art made by artists about September 11th; countless artworks attempting to make sense of, or commemorate, the geopolitical ramifications of that day. Some grew out of an intellectualized perspective gained as the decade continued, others were the emotional result of the relatively immediate aftermath. The above work, titled 10 IX 01 by Stephen Andrews, is particular because it is an artwork whose inception was almost perfectly synchronized with the falling of the twin towers.

The painting was begun on the preceding day as its title records, though its true inception took place on the following day. I was Stephen’s relatively new studio assistant. We may have made a few marks early that day, though as the reality of the morning progressed, we sat around his bedroom TV, while Stephen’s partner John silently ironed shirts. Our regular studio days of chirpy easy-listening radio were interrupted. No other physical work was done that day.

The multitude of micro dots that make up these paintings were executed by him and me in the those anxious, terrible, even somewhat exhilarated moments which stretched into days and weeks afterwards; we knew that history’s course had experienced one of those rare irrevocable alterations. The sadness of the event mingled, at least for me, with an excitement at the remote possibility that the world might somehow change for the better; that the anarchy might be progressive. Of course it didn’t, and it wasn’t. I recently mentioned this sensation of mine to Stephen, and he let me know that never for an instant had he imagined anything but the worst. Those emotions – of our world transgressing a deadly threshold – are embedded in every mark on this painting. Those circular stamps that we dipped carefully into paint and then touched to the canvas were, literally and figuratively, his impressions.

Stephen’s work, taken individually, or as an oeuvre, is an emotional and subjective reportage. He relays the effects, presented poetically, of contemporary historical tragedy as it becomes personal. This painting may begin with September 11th – but Stephen’s point of origin as an artist was the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ‘90s. From out of a period of relative calm – as the progress of gay-liberation steadily pushed forward, within a time of gay spiritual and corporeal freedom – AIDS, sustained by a still seething homophobia, ushered in the Plague Years.

Stephen Andrews had the misfortune, or fortune, to have lived through the AIDS crisis. He has lived with HIV for decades, experienced the death of many friends, his heroes, his partners. His body was deteriorating and his mortality was very near, so when I refer to his fortune, I don’t necessarily mean the luck at having survived, but something harder to contemplate or account for: the wisdom gained from a terrible, humanizing experience. If terrible things must happen, may they happen to someone capable of communicating their horror back to society, thus working towards the alleviation of suffering, however little, in their present, and in the future. Stephen was still alive just, just in time for the invention of the “AIDS cocktail.” Stephen knows about preparation for death and also about the nebulous promise of second chances.

This is what distinguishes his activist spirit, which Stephen both wields and is haunted by, and which allowed him to acutely recognize the watershed moment of September 11th. He is sensitized to recognize the precipice off of which change hangs. Because of his experience with the horrors of the AIDS crisis he was able to analogize his experience of conflict, grief, and struggle towards understanding, and genuinely sympathizing with this global upheaval.

The impulse to mark life as it’s lived is Stephen’s MO: I paint, this is how I exist, dot, dot, dot. Stephen is a master drafts-person, proficient within a tradition, but he is also an alchemist, in that he devises or divines the process in which he works, from scratch. The ignition to Stephen’s work is not his chops or his magic, but the power that lies in his capacity as an observer, as a witness.

This work at hand may be opaque in some senses, may seem like a like a formal exercise or a modernist trope, and to some degree it carries this at its base level. But it is a work about labor (as labor is equal to care in Stephen’s hands). It is also about printed media, and its nefarious, as well as radical and positive, potentials. Finally, it is about the subjective power of the artist’s hand; this ostensibly abstract work is imbued with the drama, beauty, and eroticism of all the work he’s produced previous to it. Everything piles up; there is no fresh perspective for an artist – the subtext is the text.

By Stephen’s reference to printed media I mean that these thousands of dots are laid down in an imitation of the four-color separation technique know as CMYK: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. 10 IX 01 heralds the beginning of Stephen’s fascination with, investigation into, and mimicry of this process, but also the establishment of his interest in color, which robustly continues in the present. These works also signal the beginning of Stephen’s life as a painter. He’d previously been a drawer of images in black-and-white. Here came new and uncharted ways of working and being. Despite the inauspicious moment from which they emerged, there was an undercurrent of sustaining creative joy.

10 IX 01 and A Small Part of Something Larger #1, which begin this exhibition’s chronology, are perhaps the follies that were necessary to bring Stephen to where he is now. Rather ambitiously he sought to replicate, by manual labor, CMYK printing. The plan was that each color, in its proper order, be applied in dots by little hand-carved rubber stamps. Each layer was left to dry before the next one was applied in its corresponding direction: horizontal, vertical, and two diagonals. A beautiful idea, but punishingly painstaking. Stephen and I sat in close proximity, on those September days, and far beyond, staring into and making dots. We were blinded by dots; when I lay down to bed all I could see were dots.

Time, his time, our time, was marked and preserved. As if time were bottled, it is here in these paintings ready to be un-bottled, here for the viewer to read. The painting is the marked experience of time spent in its making.

When Stephen hired me, I was in a very precarious place. I was 24, and I was driven to be an artist but had no practical examples of what it was to be an artist, let alone a gay artist. For my particular generation – I was born in 1977 – we were incarnated along with the AIDS crisis. There was never any before or after; as a gay person my sexual awareness developed in relative lockstep with the ravages of the disease. I was deeply affected by the stories of lives lived and lost. That late summer I felt miraculously rescued, but also unworthy and inept, as well as blissfully happy to be there.

A Small Part of Something Larger #1, from the same period, is a portrait of John Greyson, Stephen’s wonderful boyfriend (the one ironing that morning). I recently mentioned my memory to John of his very domestic coping strategy; he said it was the last time he’d ever ironed his shirts! John, in addition to being a very handsome man, is a brilliant filmmaker whose Lilies, from 1996, had, years before, made a profound aesthetic impact on me. He is Stephen’s muse; symbolic of love and the beginning of the second part of Stephen’s life, the sequel. In fact, Stephen’s original conceit for both of these paintings imagined them as the promotional posters for his “film,” or rather the idea of a film in the form of drawings and collages laid out in film-strip format which he had been making, images to be amalgamated into an unrealized film. Cinema was in the air. Hollywood romance was his rubric, John was the love interest.

These works, like much of Stephen’s work, speak about love, for love is simply fascination. The total density of John’s darkened almost-profile (a profile in contra jour – the art-historical term for the shadowy silhouette caused by standing “against the day”) has a gravity and intensity, a foil for the psychedelic effect of the just-off-register abstract work. Both are about devotion and made through devotion.

Stephen had also devised a method of a making a monoprint at the end of each day’s work, whereby a piece of rolled canvas was lowered and pressed onto the fresh dots, making a secondary print/painting, and also giving the dots their puckered quality. The daily impressions are visible in the slight horizontal bands that run through the picture’s background; evidence of how little, or how much, two hands can do in a day.

The impulse to make the indelible mark is an acknowledgement that feelings are felt and their communication has been attempted. I’m reminded of a Joni Mitchell lyric from Hejira: “I looked at the granite markers/ those tributes to finality to eternity/ and then I looked at myself here/ chicken scratching for my immortality.” All good artists are, at any time, chicken scratching, at their best; groping for the ineffable with nothing but our ultimately flawed communication. Trying to harness a moment of life in the only way possible, which is by letting it be known that, “I’ve loved.”

 

This text was first commissioned by, and presented at, First Thursdays at the AGO, on June 4, 2015.

 

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