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Thinking Aloud

Viewers often like to have an idea of what the artist is 'saying' in his/her work. The following are attempts to meet that need.
June 2015: I think one of the things I should have said when I started writing in this site is that, in common with many visual artists, I would rather not say anything about my work at all. I would rather the work spoke for itself. However, I am advised by IT specialists that it is important to put lots of text onto a site, and keep updating it with more, in order to persuade search engines that the site is a live, going concern which ought to have a decent ranking. Also, it is fair to say that, after decades involved in the arts, it is easy to forget how esoteric your knowledge and practice can be. What seems obvious to the artist can be far from obvious – or even incomprehensible – to others. So, it is only fair to give people a route in to what you are doing, though maybe it is also important to not say too much; to recognise that I only make the work visible; I don't control what it means. As said below, in the end, that is a matter for the viewer.

So, to update with latest thoughts on what I am doing: for various reasons, photography has been probably the dominant medium for me for the last year or so, though painting has of course not vanished and I have just loaded some new works onto the site at the time of writing. The connecting concerns explored in both media are space and surfaces. In painting, these concerns take the form of experiments with, at one pole, tentative depictions of space, and at the other, the refusal of that through the use of raised and textured surfaces. In the photography these interests have tended to be manifested in observations about how we used space culturally, whilst that too has been the object of experimentation in the ‘cancelled perspective’ photographs and others where no camera as been involved. See http://www.stephenrileyart.com/section710224_279617.html

Having said the above, perhaps the most important things happen when those thoughts take a back seat, and the mind, in the creative processes in the studio, sets off and does things without an immediate explanation to itself of what it is doing it. The exploration is in front of the understanding, which catches up later. It is in these moments that the work moves on into new ideas and it is this process which is hardest to explain.


May 2013: As, I think, a lot of artists would say, what one’s work is about is something that might be explained differently on different days. That is not to say that disingenuousness abounds, but that art is seldom one-dimensional and it can be considered from more than one perspective, and that, sometimes, some ideas seem more dominant than others. These ideas then might recede and others might hold precedence.

With this in mind, I want to say the following: another aspect of my work that came to mind recently, which I have long known but not thought much about for some time, is that it often involves extensive reworking. It seems to be an aspect of my personality, that I start with imprecise activity that has no clearly defined outcome, and then work into what emerges with ever greater intensity, obsession and, sometimes, precision (but not always – sometimes the idea of a visible repair is quite appealing). I felt this was a failing at first, but, with time, I have accepted it as part of what I am and what I do. I enjoy the idea of rescuing what goes wrong, or indeed willfully creating something that has a destructive element and then rescuing it. Hence the combination of loosely splashed paint or broken surfaces with obsessively precise marks added later, or creating work out of abandoned earlier efforts.

What does this all mean? To an extent it makes the work ‘process art’, but not entirely, because the process is partly contrived and what comes next is thoughtfully considered. It makes the first part of making, to an extent, intuitive abstraction, but not entirely, for the reasons in the last sentence. Perhaps it is best thought of as codified reference to the human condition: on the one hand, a desire for freedom and abandon; on the other, one for the safety of rationality and control. Perhaps, then, since these things cannot be reconciled and the tension between them is endless, the work might be considered an open-ended exploration of that tension.


April 2013: On completion of my PhD in 2002, my work underwent a change of direction. The PhD work had been, arguably, cerebral and, to an extent, political, in that it was concerned with the ways in which power is quietly exercised and disputed through image-making and how art is implicated in that. After five years of working on that project, I felt a need for something else; something that exercised more the right side of the brain; had more to do with an engagement with materials and the making process, and less to do with commentary. The earlier interest continues within the non-commercial part of my photography [this appears neither on this website (which is devoted to painting) nor on my photography website (which is concerned with more accessible/commercial photography) at present. If anyone would like to know more about this work, please get in touch.]

Photography aside, the work from 2002 has therefore tended to be concerned partly with materials – what the various painting media can do – and formal and art-historical issues: relationships between the geometric and the formless; between intuitive abstraction and carefully considered choices, for example.

Another key issue is space and, along with that, architecture, expressed by explorations of relationship between surfaces and spatial representation, and sometimes triggered by things seen in the world at large or in the very particular space of TV. However, the trigger for a piece of work is just as likely to be its predecessor.

Within this work, any ‘meaning’ is more or less incidental. What I am trying to do is explore what can be created with what I have, see and know. However, as work develops, it is sometimes the case that the path it follows is influenced by sub/semi-conscious thoughts about things seen or how the world is, and, within this, entropy is a recurrent theme.


April 2012: I am interested in notions of space, particularly the environment as a place filled with semiotic messages that compete for attention. The places we can touch are shaped by history, corporate activity and the interventions of individuals seeking a forum for self-expression. Even the places we cannot touch have meanings imposed on them through speculation, images and poetic interpretation.

Painting is at one pole of this exploration and is where it is at its most abstract. I also use other media, including text and photography. The paintings are usually process-based and shift between pure abstraction and allusions to environmental textures, colours and atmospheres, sampled and explored within a geometric shape. That shape is quite often a circle, for its neutral, balanced qualities.

The physical and cultural environments that art itself occupies are also significant in this, and important but peripheral materials such as gesso, varnish and non-art media are often foregrounded in the work.

The geometric qualities of the surfaces and motifs are often in tension with the tactile, irregular qualities of the paint and, for me, this suggests a kind of poetic reference to the endless negotiation in human existence between order and chaos or restriction and liberation.

As with the environment itself, each painting is a site of production, erosion, removal and reworking. Many are rejected and recycled. Survivors come to a stage where the endeavour has reached some form of balance and point of closure, rather than a series of conclusive implications. In something so abstract it must remain for others to determine what the work means for them. For me, it depends on the specific work. All or some of the above may be implicit.