Stieg with It

Andrew Stephens
Art Guide Australia, 11 May 2018
As he worked with cura­tors to set the para­me­ters for his new sur­vey exhi­bi­tion Poly­phon­ic, Stieg Pers­son was not inter­est­ed in mount­ing a straight­for­ward lin­ear chronol­o­gy. Tak­ing out almost all of the space at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Melbourne’s size­able Ian Pot­ter Muse­um of Art, Persson’s show cov­ers much ter­ri­to­ry and is bro­ken into dis­tinct the­mat­ic zones – the black’ works here, the Brighton’ works there, the skele­tal stud­ies up one wall, and the death met­al’ pieces com­ing down anoth­er one. We are led along by engag­ing ideas, colours and visu­al phras­es rather than the course of the artist’s life. Or are we? Despite his deci­sion about chronol­o­gy, it just so hap­pens that this the­mat­ic sequence has end­ed up run­ning as a rough time­line. It begins with the work he did in his twen­ties and clos­es with his most recent cre­ations (he is now in his fifties, with no signs of adjust­ing his work eth­ic). It was odd, real­ly,” he says, amused. But it all comes out of the same head.” Stieg Pers­son, South 1998, oil on can­vas. Cour­tesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery. Curat­ed by Saman­tha Comte and the Potter’s direc­tor Kel­ly Gel­lat­ly, Poly­phon­ic is apt­ly titled, explor­ing the many voic­es with which Pers­son speaks – but also trac­ing the con­nect­ing tones and notes with­in his breadth of work. As he led the cura­tors through the exten­sive­ness of his art – he is a steady work­er who puts in a dai­ly 9 – 5 rou­tine – they began to pick up on var­i­ous recur­ring scenes, meth­ods or ideas that he had not always been con­scious of. For exam­ple, the show begins with a paint­ing from 1983 with a don­key and objects sur­round­ing it,” Pers­son says. It was about con­sump­tion – and it only occurred to me when putting all the works togeth­er that the paint­ings I was doing last year were about exact­ly the same top­ic. I didn’t set out to do that. It just comes out of the same head and revolves around in there.” Pers­son says he has always giv­en him­self free licence to paint kit­tens and rab­bits” or to do every­thing pink if that is what he wants, with­out hav­ing to jus­ti­fy it. The result is that he enters into the work with­out con­straint, and the deep­er themes and ideas emerge. A painter with a strong visu­al vocab­u­lary, he says that the process of work­ing can lead the direc­tion in which the paint­ing is going. Some folk think I am a con­cep­tu­al painter,” he says. In some ways I am, but at the same time when I am actu­al­ly gen­er­at­ing work, a lot of it is just pure­ly visu­al, con­nect­ing one thing to anoth­er. The con­tent can often be gen­er­at­ed from that.”  Stieg Pers­son, Patholo­gie 2005, oil and alkyd resin on linen. Cour­tesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery. Comte describes Persson’s works as both exquis­ite­ly paint­ed and beguil­ing in their effect on us. She says one of the real­ly strong link­ing ele­ments with­in this painter’s 30 years of work is his explo­ration of the mul­ti­ple voic­es with­in our soci­ety, draw­ing on them with an under­ly­ing exam­i­na­tion of what pur­pose paint­ing serves, ask­ing whether it is still able to be an authen­tic mode of self-expres­sion. Even in his ear­ly black’ paint­ings and col­lages, Comte sees some of the motifs that have per­sist­ed, such as a swirling arabesque, var­i­ous dec­o­ra­tive ele­ments and an inter­est in mod­ernism, taste, class, art his­to­ry and tra­di­tion­al paint­ing styles. This comes back to the idea of many voic­es and the lay­er­ing of art his­to­ry and cul­ture,” she says. Comte and Gel­lat­ly have clev­er­ly por­tioned the works so that we see these dif­fer­ent lev­els emerg­ing, from ear­ly works with X‑ray imagery done dur­ing a hos­pi­tal res­i­den­cy, to a series of skele­ton and skull stud­ies made while he was teach­ing TAFE stu­dents, to the death met­al works he made while on a res­i­den­cy in the Swedish city Gothen­burg. There, he drew links between heavy met­al cul­ture and its strange inter­est in clas­si­cal art imagery, and its con­nec­tions with par­tic­u­lar seg­ments of mid­dle-class youth.  Like­wise, his most recent works exam­ine the com­plex sides of the middle-class. These paint­ings com­bine images of graf­fi­tists’ tag­ging with text lift­ed straight from café́ black­board menus from the streets of Brighton: zuc­chi­ni flow­ers and heir­loom car­rots for the par­ents on the high streets, while the o spring wield their spray cans not too far away. There, too, are his per­sis­tent ref­er­ences to art his­to­ry, which is why so much of his painstak­ing­ly pro­duced work has such an impres­sive feel­ing of endur­ing qual­i­ty about it. I don’t want to paint Rem­brandts in the 21st cen­tu­ry but I get a lot of ideas and inspi­ra­tion, for want of a bet­ter word, from old­er art. I find it sat­is­fy­ing and an enor­mous resource.” Stieg Pers­son: Poly­phon­ic Ian Pot­ter Muse­um of Art 27 March – 1 July Fea­tured image: Stieg Pers­son, Din­ner with the Abbotts, 2014. Oil on linen. Cour­tesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery. Arti­cle link: here
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