Earlier this year I went to the Westspace annual fundraiser exhibition in Melbourne, which brings together a pretty incredible and very varied collection of artworks donated by both established and emerging local artists, with all sales from the show benefitting this not-for-profit artist run space. This annual fundraiser is a great opportunity to pick up a relatively inexpensive work by an amazing line-up of artists, all in the name of a great cause. It was here I first discovered local painter Stephen Giblett – who had one incredible painting included in the show – a haunting out-of-focus portrait, in vivid mauve and pink hues, reminiscent of an infrared photograph, pulsating with buzzing energy. The work instantly caught my eye from across the crowded room… and couldn’t quite let me be! I don’t know what came over me, but I did something quite out of character – I bought it on the spot.
I didn’t know Stephen’s name before this unexpected encounter… but it wasn’t long before I found myself doing a little more research on this supremely talented Melbourne artist, who appeared, at least initially, to be almost entirely absent from the internet (not even a website… can you believe!?).
The truth is, though he’s only in his early 30’s, Stephen is a decidedly ‘old fashioned’ artist. I hope he won’t mind me saying that – I mean it in the most complimentary way! For one thing, Stephen is fascinated (one might say obsessed!) with the archival quality and longevity of his painting materials. He favours real lead paints, handmade in the UK, for their superior archival qualities. This commitment points to something of Stephen’s unique personality, and his uncompromising attention to detail.
Inspired by low resolution photographs and pixilated imagery, Stephen builds up his paintings with multiple translucent layers of oil paint, gradually creating fields of luminous colour, which radiate from the canvas. Figures are reduced to indistinct, blurry forms, whilst buildings and vegetation appear shrouded, almost ominous. With a consistent fiery palette of oranges, vivid pinks, burning bright whites and ultra-violet tones, there is something truly mesmerising about Stephen’s work.
Stephen holds a BA in fine arts from Monash University. He was highly Commended in the John Leslie Art Prize in 2010, and his first solo exhibition was staged in 2012 at Gippsland Art Gallery, Sale. We’re thrilled to present three exquisite new paintings by Stephen at our TDF Open House event in Melbourne next week (you can view the works here!)
Tell us a little about your background – what path led you to becoming a fine artist, and to creating the style of work you are currently making?
I have been making art for as long as I can remember. I used to draw a lot when I was a child, and I moved to photography when I was sixteen-years-old. I used to develop and process my own film and photographs in a darkroom that I made at home. I started painting soon after that, with the support of my sister and father, who were also trying to make work in one form or another. I guess art was something that I was born into, and the support of my family was the initial push.
I have always combined elements of photography with painting in my work. I used to treat photography as some form of ideal ‘perfect image’, and I believed that replicating a photo with paint in exact detail was the highest form of art. But as I have matured as an artist, I have come to realise that a lot of photorealism is sterile and lifeless. Now, I much rather prefer ‘imperfect’ painting, expression, composition, design and above all else – energy.
In 2012, I had a conceptual shift in my work, and I ended up exploring photographs that were of a degenerate nature, referencing low resolution, blurry or pixilated imagery. I found solace in the absence of line created by this digital blur. My mind was forced to create, as there were no outlines, no definite forms, just fields of colour glowing and radiating next to each other. The speed and energy in which I was making work changed too. Imperfection became my new perfection, and I commenced ‘unlearning’ many skills.
My most recent work has been painted entirely from my imagination – this is my next challenge.
How would you describe your work?
A bit like a song by Morrisey. I have always taken a liking to imagery that is ‘dark’ in some way. I have found in my life that great things have often come from bad things, so I’m usually grateful for anything that comes my way. It teaches you to realise that all things must change, and that the transitions are beautiful, whether it be a burning house or a wilted sunflower.
My recent work has strong references to the technologies that we use in day-to-day life, mainly smart phones and the Internet. The themes in my work have often commented on the over-saturation of imagery through these mediums.
Can you give us a little insight into your process?
Many people believe that my work is created with an airbrush, but this is not the case. My works are hand painted with a brush in oils. I’m very particular about the materials I use, I use only the best archival materials – Michael Harding oil paint and medium, and Claessens oil primed linen.
Generally, each painting happens in a three-stage layering process. The first coat is applied very thin, almost like a watercolour painting. I try to resolve basic colour and composition in this layer. I usually wait a week before adding each layer of paint, sometimes two weeks if the weather is cold or if it is humid. The second coat is fatter in oil content, and I usually apply the paint thickly and expressively, before removing excess paint with a coarse brush and leaving a residual image. The final coat usually glazes colours and unifies the picture surface.
I work on an entire exhibition at once, and I don’t start any second layers until they are all blocked in. It’s important to see how the exhibition will look before you expend labour on something that may not work. It also allows adequate drying time for all works.
All of my recent works have been pre-planned, however, the outcome may be completely different to what was intended – such is the joy of painting.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
On my full studio days, I usually start working at around 10am. I spend the first half hour preparing colours and drinking coffee. I try to make sure that any administration, emails or phone calls are sorted before I start painting. I don’t like having anything that ‘I have to do’ on my mind. Uninterrupted painting sessions are the best way to guarantee a consistent paint layer, in terms of colour and energy. I usually attempt to get an entire layer of paint down on a canvas in a day, depending on the scale of the work. I try not to work beyond midnight, but occasionally I have to pull an all-nighter if I am working towards a deadline.
For entertainment when I’m working, I usually listen to music, audio books or Radio National. Occasionally, I’ll visit my friend Tim Mcmonagle in his studio in Hosier Lane, or I’ll have a knock off drink at Hell’s Kitchen at the end of a session.
Can you list for us 5 resources, across any media, that you turn to for creative inspiration?
1. Martial Raysse, The Exhibition, 2014, Centre Pompidou, Paris. I saw a recent Martial Raysse retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and I have been continually looking to the catalogue/book for inspiration.
2. Hockney’s Pictures, 2004, Thames & Hudson, London. I have enjoyed this book for a number of years and I always revisit the work of David Hockney, mainly to serve as a reminder of what an artist can actually get away with.
3. Spieler, R. 2006, Franz Gertsch, Retrospective, Hatje Cantz, Germany. Another book that I continually revisit. I have an appreciation for photorealism and Franz Gertsch is one of my favourite artists.
4. Popper, K. 1945, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Routledge, New York. A book that mixes sociology and philosophy and one that challenges many of my ideas about the world.
5. Google Images. Sourcing images from online, low-resolution images, thumbnails, etc.
Which other local artists, designers or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?
My fellow neighbours and former studio mates from the Nicholas Building have influenced me over the last ten years and they continue to do so today. These painters include Tim Mcmonagle, Grant Nimmo, Fiona Mcmonagle and Amanda Marburg.
What is your proudest career achievement to date?
My first solo exhibition titled Plume at Gippsland Art Gallery, Sale, in 2012. It came about because I was Highly Commended for my work in the John Leslie Art Prize in 2010, and was subsequently offered an exhibition by the curator, Simon Gregg. It was great to have someone take a risk by exhibiting a relatively unknown artist. I exhibited at the same time as one of my favourite artists named Andrew Browne.
What would be your dream project?
I recently visited London and caught up with a friend of mine named Holly-Anne Buck. We discussed the idea of a collaboration and exhibition, but the distance between our two cities makes things quite difficult. I would absolutely love to paint this body of work overseas one day, and exhibit the work in London. This dream is completely possible, however we would like to exhibit these works at Gagosian – that’s the dream part.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to starting some large-scale projects that I can work on at a steady pace for a longer period of time. Most exhibitions that I have created recently have been done in a three-month period from start to finish. In the past, I have been known to spend a lot longer working on each piece. It would be great to revisit this working practice, as well as continuing with my quicker studies.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
I have lived in North Carlton in the Rathdowne Village area for seven years now and I’d have to say it’s my favourite neighbourhood in Melbourne. It is a quiet area, but it is central to many busy spots and it is close to the CBD. I love the Carlton Cemetery and Royal and Princes Park, which are close by. I can ride my bike to the city in fifteen minutes.
Where and what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
The last great meal I had was at Bar Idda after an exhibition opening at The Alderman in Brunswick. I had pan-fried almond crusted fish with salsa verde and a lovely salad.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
My first stop is the studio at the Nicholas Building. I usually prepare a materials list of what I need for the next three days. Following this, I’m off to sell paint, as I am casually employed at a local art supplies store. I enjoy the slower pace of a Saturday morning as it allows me time to catch up on what I need for my own studio. I study pigments and other materials, talk to other artists and catch up with my co-workers. I have learnt a lot through this work environment, and I’ve met many great artists including Michael Leunig, Paul Ruiz and Ross Watson, amongst others.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
Shandong Mama Mini in Centre Place is a new restaurant in the city. Fantastic food, but still relatively empty in the evening – for now.