Opinions, Opinions... - An Interview by Simone Labuschagne
|Shed and Water, oil on board, 20"x 24" Steven Rhude, Gallery 78|
Updated April17th , 2023
I thought I'd have a little bit of fun and interview Steven since he's so opinionated anyways. We are always discussing art together, so we went about it like this. In this post, I would write a question down and Steven would respond that same day. After a few weeks, the following interview is the result.
SL: So you call yourself a Realist - what is Realism to you?
SR: It's complicated. But I used to think a long time ago that Realism was just this thing where you held a mirror up to nature and copied it. I still hear that definition used in public gallery talks now and then. But we're all children when we start, and the mirror is a convenient reason, but limited in scope. Later, I then realised that nature had depth, a greater kind of depth than just perspective. So that in painting a landscape for example, I moved through it and it moved through me via the mind and the senses - just like going out for a walk in a field. Then it became a frame of reference to assist me in grappling with existence, society and purpose. It could be dissembled and encoded. And I realised I was not alone. Painters who are friends, and other painters past and present have, and are contributing their own unique chapter to this idea of depth, and so slowly realism starts to flow as an experience for me, one worthy of sustained attention through the expression of painting.
So the template we have used to define Realism is constantly changing. Painters today are aware of this. Maybe the term "Realism" is just becoming thread worn. I couldn't say for sure. High, magic, photo, mystical, poetic, and social Realism - the list is substantial. We have this history of pictorial representation. It's a long one in the west. All our screens and monitors today are derived from the same frame of reference; the same one that inspired the use of the wall or canvas for the painting of images centuries ago. Some call it memory.
SL: Like who?
SR: Well, Molinari for one.
SL :Why bring him up, wasn't he an abstract painter?
SR: He was. But that didn't stop his pursuit of depth through the exploration of colour. Rothko had a similar objective. Said he wanted to create a "place". That says a lot about the landscape of the mind to me. Which entails depth and was his personal internal geography. Maybe the two forms of expression, you know - realism and abstraction, relate more than we think.
SL: What do you mean Landscape of the mind?
SR: It's an interior space with depth. For Rothko it was eventually compressed into those fuzzy rectangular shapes - placed one over another. Elemental and reminiscent of land/sea and sky.They're used as a starting point for the viewer. We all have that space. We all need to eventually externalise our thought some how. Words or images, doesn't really matter. But visual language is symbolic and can lead us back into the archaeology of memory.
SL: OK, speaking of places, so then, why Nova Scotia and why do you paint? I mean it may seem like a rhetorical question but I’m still curious to see how you would answer it.
SR: I paint because it is a vehicle of expression with purpose. Plain and simple. I think purpose is important. This idea that one is born to paint or simply can't exist without painting doesn't resonate with me. I don't paint because I wish to be a professional thought provoker, like many postmodernist practitioners. It is hard for artists let alone the public to take the time to weed through this kind of art.
I'm not interested in the ready made junkyard or an esoteric discourse only a few will ever experience. Art is pluralistic and this stuff will always be around and mutating. But there's so much variety out there now that art movements have fractured into unrecognisability.
However, painting has only survived this long because it has purpose and there are many who do it well. Sometimes when a region or particular form of expression is ignored, it rises up and produces significant work. I'm not just defending unfashionable realism. The Plasticiens, the Painters Eleven, the Beaver Hall Group etc, are all testimony to this assertion. They over came their obstacles and Canadian art as a whole is the better for it.
SL: So what's your purpose then?
SR: Place, and everything it means to me, to us. Not just the external place, the one with geographical boundaries, but the memory of place as well. Like the idea of a 'local' geography, and how people so familiar with place develop paths and routes of their own, say across fields or to a beach for example. They rely on memory. They have inscribed their own relationship into place over time. The type of thing not found on any standard map. It stands to reason that as a place becomes less populated and less unique in its identity, then these things become more ephemeral.
SL: What about the IT generation, will they discover place through painting?
SR: Probably not. Theirs is a virtual place - there's a difference. It's changed how they experience and see space. But that's no reason to stop painting. Their children might. They may get tiered of the toys and monitor goo, and eventually return to craft and thought - maybe see that painting still conducts power for the exchange of ideas and emotion - or that the idea of a static image has a capacity to stimulate a relived experience. Painting doesn't come to us. We have to go to it. We'll see.
SL: I read where Hopper said if you could say it in words why paint it. Or something like that. You write a lot about art - regionalism. Do you think painting is painting and language is language and the two shouldn't mix?
SR: Hopper was a sharp puritan. He knew to write about his art was to sweat blood. He didn't like doing it. Yet, his thoughts on art ... those artistic statements of his are amazing and so insightful I couldn't imagine understanding his art without them. We're to far gone now. We can't go back to Plato's Republic and shut out the artist politically like he wanted. Didn't work. Artists write and speak out about art. Interpret art. Picasso did it in a big way. He read a newspaper account of the Guernica massacre and the rest is visual history. If you love painting and study art history - at least western art, you know there is a curtain in front of the painted image. The artists experience has been encoded and sometimes words are part of the equation. They don't have to be, but language and metaphor are inseparable just like visual expression and metaphor are. With Rembrandt, one lead to the other. You know, text to painting. That was just part of his code, his memory, and collectively our relived experience.
|Battery Shed on a Road, oil on canvas, 32"x42", Steven Rhude, Emma Butler Gallery|
SL: You don’t use the city as a subject much. I mean you have on occasion but what I see is mostly rural imagery over the twenty two years we’ve lived in the Maritimes. So in your painting I see a pattern of roads and blockage... objects that impede the viewers progress. I know where you find the material because I’m usually with you on our road trips, but these real life situations just end up being made up on your canvas, and seem so different from the reality of what we experienced. Why do you do this?
SR: Well, for the love and passion for the painted landscape and that whole tradition. All landscape is a fabrication of some sort or another, with mans influence over it playing a vital role. The very word landscape is a construction. I intentionally work within that tradition. However, I admit there is something askew about my subjects. People may think I'm joking. But perhaps I'm not. I always get a sense when driving through Nova Scotia that there is a secret on the edge of disclosure. Hidden inside coastal houses, or like when you approach a group of strangers and they clam up. You sense they're keeping something from you. Protecting something. That's what I love about the Maritimes. It's like reading Robert Penn Warren. You just know the stories go deeper than clapboard. Politics, community, and money - it always seems culture comes up last in life's lessons. So I always had this desire of taking that which we consider familiar or banal, and then reinscribing it with something else... like an impediment to standard progress. The road is the most tangible metaphor I can think of for this. You know we have rules in society, rules of the road so to speak. Traffic lights, passing lanes and so on. Between the rules there are no directions for us, other than to keep moving. We just exist. So when an object like a house or a boat suddenly appears in our way, we feel impeded for no sensible reason. it's a way of staging a disorientating encounter. We may even want to smash our way through it rather than stop and consider why it is there, or why it exists, or why it is still important.
SL: As artists’ have in past centuries, you use objects as icons. To the viewer these objects could seem like trite tourist symbols, or working class symbols: bouys, roads, fish boxes, sheds, dories.
Why do you keep repeating these icons in your paintings?
I've learned over the years not to be spoon fed. Strip away the superficial associations that cling to certain objects like a weathered fishing shack or a fish box, and new worlds appear. Objects have always embodied certain qualities for me. Morandi's bottles are not just bottles. So why should a fishing buoy just be a fishing buoy? There is whole world of icons outside our traditional Judeo - Christian appreciation. Call em secular icons, or whatever. But they exist and have etched their way into our culture as Maritimers. And they will go on existing in our lexicon of symbols no matter how they may be branded by marketeers. What may be seen as repetition could also be seen as diversity - yet subtle with respect to a salient range of objects depicted. To put it simply, the table top in still life painting is a stage, the objects are actors, and the composition conveys performance. Objects in a landscape can be seen the same way if so desired. I didn't write the play. I'm just a witness to it. If the story repeats itself, perhaps it is because I haven't understood it completely or it doesn't have an ending I'm content with - if there even is one. So I keep going back to the scene of the crime so to speak.
SL: Your palette, in general is inclusive of primary colours. How have you developed your palette and why are these colour schemes so important to your work?
The landscape is cluttered with material and colours that are discordant. When we look at a landscape we generally see organic shapes interacting as a result of the effects of nature and light. The shape of a house... say it's rectangular, is man made and intervenes with the surrounding environs. It is discordant by its very shape and presence in a world where natural shape is more organic and elusive. This is why we love trees around our houses. Not just for shade or a wind break - but because we love the interaction of shapes. We are aesthetic by nature.
Colours, especially the pure primaries execute a similar effect. I recall driving by a farmer's field outside of Truro with a billboard in it, with the primaries on it. It seemed perfectly placed to me in a modernist sense. Growing up in Scarborough all I remember is concrete grey and the variations of reflective glass. Shopping malls and small manufacturing complexes that are as common now in Burnside as they are outside of Paris. So, for me, with colour, you just go back to basics and blow the lid off the subject with it.
|Last Dogs Hung, oil on canvas, 36"x48" Steven Rhude, TD Canada Trust Collection|
SL: I have heard it said that some people just ‘get’ your work and it leaves others cold. To those it may leave cold give me a reason that they should engage with your work and think about the message that you are conveying through your images?
SR: I've seen people stand in front of Rembrandt's Bathsheba and move on in two seconds. I'm not sure what they were thinking at the time, or if they ever considered how transcendent this work is. So if people have trouble engaging with say a 17th century Dutch master piece, I'm not sure what to do about getting them to understand my own imagery. If you get my paintings great. It just so happens many of those people are Maritimers or people who have visited this region of the country. However, if they don't get them, perhaps the first thing they might need is a chair. Looking at a painting requires time, openness, and study. So if they're going to get my work, the identity (content) of small communities should enter into their consciousness, just as the aesthetics of the work should.
Today people often need to live in more than one place in a life time, work at more than one career in a life time. Growing up in one place and remaining 'local' is becoming less and less a reality. So the idea of community is changing and the traditional forms of sustainability have changed with it. With some people, there is a last one out turn off the light attitude regarding rural life. They would probably never connect with my imagery. In most small Nova Scotia communities, learning to leave - to quote Michael Corbett, has been a big factor. We educate people to leave, not stay. That says a lot about the road we're on.
SL: What do you think is the most challenging part of being a Canadian Social Realist? I am using this term loosely to give you work historical boundaries. Would you give it another label or would you prefer no label at all?
SR: Not my job to create the label. But if the long term context of my work is probing the regional conditions of ... say Nova Scotia, and using Realism to do it, then I'm OK with the social part too. I know painters who disdain any kind of reference to social conditions or politics in painting. That's fine, but it's too limiting for me. And anyway, historically speaking, Canada has a fine history of Social Realism. For example I love the depression era drawings of Louis Muhlstock, as well as the drawings of Jack Nichols. Eric Freifeld's humanism, John Alfsen's circus imagery, and Christine Plug's isolationism are still compelling for me. It doesn't get any stronger than that. But it's not the kind of art that makes people go out and march in the streets, so, more often than not the message can be most subtle. But you know we spent twelve years near Canso and witnessed that town struggle to rebuild itself after the fall. It was hard to ignore it. So, I had to find a way to stage my feelings about the isolation of this and other communities. Most of the time I chose to use objects and landscape instead of people. This experience has had a lasting impression on me. You to for that matter. We've had many talks about it and how to incorporate regionalism into art in a contemporary way, using painting, using Realism. I suppose that's the most challenging part for me.
SL: I'm thinking about this years Sobey's Award. Do you think contemporary curators in general care about painting or for that matter has it just fallen off the radar screen with the establishment?
SR: Painting has become very specialized today, so it's still contemporary if that's what your asking. For years the question was - is painting dead? Since it won't die, now it is - does anyone care about painting? I think it's great if there is money out there supporting the visual arts like the Sobey's award... especially for younger artists whose work distinguishes their region in Canada, but I've found in general, I don't relate all that much to what is being profiled. I'm probably showing my age, but there is too much hype for me. So when I do see something I like, it is usually by chance. The question is what are the curators and adjudicators looking for out there? Painting and its relevance is now part of a new model being pursued. There is so much other material to consider. The pendulum swung towards installation, performance art, video (talking heads), and the use of fabrication or ready mades, a long time ago. But where curators and institutions are concerned, I see them now as addressing social needs and longstanding economic and ethnic inequalities, as well as the forms in which those inequalities are encoded in museum collections. So the themes of painting for instance, that historically are part of the western cannon, are now being reassessed by artists, like Kent Monkman for example, in an attempt to uncover colonial injustices. The fact that he is a painter using western pictorial techniques adds to the interest.
|Buoy and Manhole, oil on panel, 20"x 24", Steven Rhude, private collection|
SL: So in a world of flash images and five second sound bites how is realism and painting in general still relevant to the modern viewer?
SR: Well... flash images and five second sound bites are about it for now. I mean they represent to me, like a lot of post modernism, the depreciation of reality. Art hitting the wall so to speak. Screaming ones brains out in the void doesn't cut it any more. Installations with cigarette butts, or cows in formaldehyde are not just ugly, they are an unhealthy ugly. Reflective of a rudderless vision. No, more a rudderless nightmare. So it stands to reason that the the modern viewer out there should be looking for the opposite - like art with depth of meaning. This doesn't mean a painter should avoid tragedy as a subject, but the painter should be as faithful as possible to its meaning. And then transcribe it. I recently saw the Robert Pope show at the AGNS. Beautiful drawings and paintings encompassing the difficult subject of cancer, his cancer. Here's an artist who appreciated reality. To me his drawings and paintings are most relevant today. He did it all, incorporating myth, tragedy, conceptualism, and a simplification of form that resonates aesthetically for the viewer. The work is encoded with symbols. Art like this can't be captured in a sound bite.
SL: We are told that the urban existence is really the only one and that most of our population will be living in large city centres in the future. Apart from the logistical and practical problems that this creates like who will grow food and how to deal with urban overcrowding, how is rural Canada still relevant to the 21st century art scene?
SR: Let's go back to where we started ... with the landscape. So then the players caught up in the tension that exists with the decline of the rural community come into play. Just as we can't fish and ignore the erosion of nature, we can't make art and ignore the subject of rural Canada. Regional artists mirror this fact through their work, but then, well you see some even attempt to fabricate its destruction in a weird, post apocalyptic way.
Other artists document the landscape faithfully in paint, and others still yet, tap into the whole precariousness of it all, responsibly, and with new media. Art scenes come and go, but the landscape... that is our generally changing concept of it remains .. for what it is and in all its elusiveness. That should make rural Canada relevant to artists, at least to me it does.
Simone Labuschagne, Wolfville, NS