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Sunday Salon 8 | John Stephens  | New works

14 July 2019

A Saturation Point project hosted by Patrick Morrissey and Hanz Hancock.

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Two Blues, Two Violets (2019), 93 x 113 cm, oil paint on canvas

John Stephens: artist’s statement for Saturation Point Salon 8

The main thoroughfare of his school’s Victorian building, now long gone, was a lengthy, slightly curving corridor, and because of this you couldn’t see the ends. It gave a feeling of isolation to a reproduction of Piero della Francesca’s Nativity, placed just above eye level on the wall at about the mid-point. Despite the fading print quality, it invoked in him a powerful and enigmatic sense of its order and stillness. The real thing, in the National Gallery, which he saw not long after leaving school, remains an influential favourite of the artist, and many visits over the years have involved returning to look at this painting. More or less square, its components, the figures, are judiciously grouped in different areas on the picture plane and in the pictorial space. The aesthetically disciplined geometric links between each of them, the subtle colour of their robes and the landscape in which they are placed continue to be a source of fascination and guidance to the artist.  Later, reading The Golden Section helped him make sense of his reading of the aesthetics of the painting, and resonated with the predominant logic of his education: largely science-biased, embedding the idea of structure as an important element of picture-making.  But it also conflicted with his intuitive gestural, mark-making approach to working.

Two Colours Blue (2019). 93 x 103 cm,  oil paint on canvas

John Stephens’ artistic practice is based on an abiding interest in modernism and the problems of contemporary abstract painting, making works with oil paint on canvas, watercolour on paper and more recently pigment-based wall hangings. There is a preoccupation with the material and the intellectual processes involved in an image-making that is characterised by a ‘pared-down’ or minimal aesthetic, based on simple but carefully considered pictorial structures.  It’s an aesthetic that he traces back to those school years, but also one which over the years has continued to reference the history of painting, particularly the early Italian Renaissance painters, the Venetians Bellini and Giorgione, the Spanish painters Goya and Velazquez and then on to Matisse, Malevich and American colour-field abstraction.  

His somewhat unusual art school training in the mid/late 60s in Berlin introduced him to European abstraction, at first the gestural nature of Taschisme, then in the later 60s, minimalist abstraction which inspired a more philosophical approach. The then radicalism of a pared-down abstraction that derived its legitimacy ultimately from Malevich seemed apposite in that politically charged time.

Following a long hiatus in any sustained approach to making art, brought about by a commitment to art education, Stephens is now again confronting the problems of modernist abstract painting, a genre that he feels is still relevant.

This collection of five paintings was made specifically for Salon 8 and they follow on from a set of wall hangings made for Eastbury Manor in Barking, London, earlier in the year.  The significance there was the palette of predominantly earth colours drawn from the frescos that can still be seen on the walls of the main upstairs reception room in this 16th century manor house, and Stephens’ use of pigment mixed with linseed oil, effectively making his own paint.

Predella with Orange and Violet (2019), 109 x 118 cm, oil paint on canvas

The paintings use simple compositional structures involving vertical and horizontal divisions, and explore colour orchestrations that take account of the tonality and degrees of saturation of colour. They are the product of successive applications of thin layers of colour, with an attempt to keep the colour close to the canvas.  This can result in the creation of optical mixes, often defying a colour nomenclature, and are set against more heightened saturated colour incidents at the edges of the composition.

To say that the paintings are wholly metaphysical in their abstraction would not be entirely true, as there is some allusion to the experienced world - a tacit acknowledgement of the urban environment of the metropolis with its bounded spaces, facades and structures, an immanence of surface and a sense of incident, and sometimes, absence and emptiness. But equally, Stephens draws on precedents in the history of painting itself with its lessons on compositional and colour structure and the processes of laying down layers of paint.

Indigo, Green Earth, Pink (2019), 93 x 113 cm, oil paint on canvas

He tends to favour working within given restraints and with the involvement of numbers.  In the works’ conception they become painterly propositions involving the design of their structures and the processes of their making. The compositional designs derive ultimately both from the numbers of the Fibonacci Sequence as well as an intuitive delineation between one plane and another, whilst the processes involve those of traditional oil painting.  Throughout the process he is guided by the potential for creating a visual poetry of compositional poise and colour.  

John Stephens spent his early childhood in Germany and later returned to study fine art at the Hochschule fur Bildende Künste in Berlin (now Universität der Künste Berlin) and was there during the politically significant years of the late 1960s. His professional life has been in art education and he was until recently Head of Art and Design at the University of Bedfordshire. During the 1980s and 1990s he was closely involved in the Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, one of the first artist-run galleries in Britain outside London.  More recently he has become involved with Directional Forces, a loose grouping of artists based in London that establishes activities involving artist residencies, exhibitions and events.

John Stephens, July 2019

Red and Blue on Blue (2019), 129 x 186 cm (two panels, each 129 x 93 cm)