Friday, January 8, 2010

DAMIAN STAMER: Surface Tensions and Surface Possibilities

When you are in front of a Damian Stamer painting, you enter more than a few visual experiences at once: you are in a fast-moving vehicle; you are on an ocean, you are in a house, or in the sky. You are among landscapes that you recognize, but only vaguely. Memories are transitory and hold only for an instant before becoming something distant. You see twins and you see doubles. Solid ground slides into transparent air, and surfaces are mercurial phantasms: you are never quite able to stand on them, yet they always compel you to test or trust them. The line and the curve cohabit here, if tenuously. Circle leads to square; rectangle to triangle. Framing devices capture our sense of graphic ground and completely pull us in another direction from where we wanted to concentrate our looking. These paintings are worlds of fractal, ever-changing visual energy. And we are completely at ease in the act of contemplation as we wend our way through their beautiful surface tensions and surface possibilities.
When I first entered the group show at Brenda Taylor Gallery ("In The Galleries" at right) in Chelsea this past spring, and faced Stamer's extraordinary painting, "Szolnok" (below, left), I actually averted my eyes -- because I didn't want to take it in just yet. I could tell in an instant that this was a painting I wanted to luxuriate in by the act of looking. I went to all the other paintings first, and then went back to it at the very last. I was mesmerized. The world of the image is a dreamscape; half abstraction and half reality. Small points of reference -- the perfect green apple, the windows and doors of the house, an area in the back -- a photographic memory shadow -- my eyes were filled to the brim. The color is a wall of almost antique mauves and taupe, with jeweled lights of pink, green, and deep indian red. The application of the paint was sensual and dynamic; determined and also questioning. I could see Stamer thinking the painting into being, mind to brush. It was the work of someone who loved to paint; not just pictures, but ideas, of visual construction and juxtapositions of meaning. The work was informed by a very personal, almost diaristic quality. And what we are captivated most about diaries are their aspects of privacy and secrets.
Yet this was a completely open image -- it engages the viewer, draws them to lookand welcomes their perusal. The "hieroglyphics" here were as captivating to decode as the painting itself is a maze in which to exercise one's visual detective work. Having the chance to see the work in the context of the painter's other canvases, I could see that Stamer's worlds articulate a simple belief that a painting should always let the viewer enjoy a good time -- as well as have something interesting to contemplate. In speaking with the artist, I was engaged by his simple honesty and quiet intelligence when he spoke of his work -- and the real joy he takes in painting -- and in talking about painting.
When I had the chance later to see more of his work, I was struck by the same elements of beauty and mystery -- and story -- that had engaged me so immediately as "Skolnok". In images such as "Loch Lyon" (above, bottom), one is completely pulled into the frame of the painting's mist-shrouded ocean; one wants to walk on it. Or, as in "Alma" (top, left), I was tantalized as much by its waterfalls of almost melancholy color as I was by its wandering planes of geometry.
Educated and raised in the States, early in his development Stamer studied in Germany. This European sojourn enabled him the freedom and colleagueship of a less stringently academic concentration of study as well as introduced him to painters who, like him, were intent on pursuing a personal exploration of painting. Though no less vigorous in output, his time in Germany let him open up his thinking as well as his technique. Through interaction with a group of painters who later became close friends, Stamer was able to concentrate on finding out what it was he wanted to say and how he wanted to present this unique visual journal. For Stamer, every painting is a new possibility; a new surface of waiting questions which only in the act of painting will there be answers.
Your images have been inspired by a range of ideas: political satire, the concepts of doubles and twins, art history, travel and time, architectural space and construction. In some of your recent paintings, you can see at least one of all of these things and they tend to present a sort of "journal" of your graphic thinking. How have these images and subjects developed for you?
"Journal” is a very appropriate description. In terms of the development of these subjects, they have become my visual vocabulary with which I record my ideas. They are also personal and pertain to my identity—as a twin, a lover of art history, and a traveler. Political identity and awareness becomes even more important when I represent the United States abroad. Creating architectural spaces arises from my love of using simple geometric forms to delineate and define space in a dynamic way.
The surfaces that you paint involve a great depth of paint application and the methods with which you apply it -- sometimes very thickly, sometimes almost transparently. This lends many levels of energy to how the eye moves across your canvases. How do you construct your paintings, in light of these choices?
Sometimes, I utilize the principle that impasto and thicker paint advances towards the viewer, while thinner layers recede. This helps me construct a greater pictorial depth. However, I often break this rule in favor of a more intuitive application process. Whether thick or thin, I try to invent and utilize a wide range of mark-making techniques that lead the viewer’s eye through the painting.
Imagery is playing hide-and-seek in your paintings; this is beautiful and mysterious -- the viewer comes upon objects as a surprise, and then upon more concentrated looking there is a sense of mystery and memory at the same time. Why is this an important aspect of your ideas?
This hide-and-seek effect stems from my painting process. I enjoy adding images and then painting over them, so that only a remnant or essence of their original identity remains. This is why I find old billboards so aesthetically pleasing—when newer posters peel away to reveal the layers and memories of statements past. I want to create a similar documentation of passing time, so that elements disclose themselves slowly. The goal is to make an image that viewers can come back to time and time again, and still discover something new and exciting.
Architecture is a foundation for many of your works -- whether of actual architectural subjects or the concept of the architecture of the pictorial plane itself, and how you manipulate the image to visualize these constructions. How did architecture become your visual groundwork?
I have admired the work of Neo Rauch for many years, and have always been intrigued by his representations of aging East German socialist architecture. When I am not using actual buildings to set a scene, I frequently use geometric forms to divide and create space within the work. These architectonic constructions provide a framework and “living space” for still-life objects and abstractions to inhabit.
Your color is completely unique -- there is almost an antique quality to the tones -- even the very bright pastel colors -- it is personal, and imagined with a very sure sense of what these colors do next to each other. How has your color developed to this personal level? Why is it important in the work?
I have definitely made a conscious effort to increase the complexity of my color palette. I like to combine tints and tones that are one step away from color harmony, and then devise a strategy to make them work within the piece. I have developed an affinity for the pastel range, but every painting is unique. Each work requires new color combinations, and trying to crack the color code is an exciting challenge. I construct my paintings with many diverse styles and techniques. Marrying different styles can be difficult, so I often use color as a tool to bring unity and harmony to the painting as a whole.
What inspired some of the early figurative work -- especially the twin portraits, and the political satire?
The International World Leader Beer Pong Tournament paintings as well as the first twin portraits were completed while I was studying overseas in Germany. When outside of the United States, I was constantly confronted with questions about U.S. politics and foreign policy. After explaining many times that not all Americans agreed with our foreign actions, especially the Iraq War, I decided to make a painting about George Bush and other political leaders. At the same time I was interested in exploring painting’s unique ability to create imaginary situations and scenarios. This uniqueness is now rivaled by Photoshop and computer animations, but there is still a visual world that can only be created by paint. So I constructed an imaginary tournament, reminiscent of collegiate fraternal debauchery, which depicted Ahmadinejad, Bush, Blair, Merkel, and Putin meeting in a much more informal way than usual.
The paintings partly proposed the question, “what would happen if we could all just come together and figure things out over a friendly game of beer pong”. This naïve proposal was half serious and half poking fun at American cultural insensitivity. Ahmadinejad wouldn’t even drink alcohol, and I was painting Bush as a wild fraternity boy who didn’t really understand the gravity of the meeting or the players. This proposal, however, did have a foundation in my personal experience at the time. I was meeting new friends in Germany, and we often got to know each other over a few beers. There is something both beautiful and magical about creating an exchange of ideas across languages and cultures, and the joy of these interactions contributed to the concept of the painting. Idealistic, satirical, political, and fantastic, I am still wrestling with the paintings’ possible meanings and implications. I enjoy the fact that this imaginary scenario is open to so many interpretations.
A single apple, boat, or glass takes on more than simple meaning in your paintings. They become signatures in a way. How do you choose these objects and why do they have such particular attraction for you?
I choose the objects for what they will add to the painting, often a contrast and pop. For example, a yellow-green apple creates a dynamic complementary relationship with the violet background. The fact that it is realistically painted further heightens this contrast with the abstraction behind. I would agree that these objects take on additional meaning. When painting a very detailed still life, or even something from a photographic source, I create a relationship with the object. After spending a long time studying every shadow, highlight, curve, and edge, I feel like I have gotten to know this inanimate object in a more personal way. Perhaps this deeper personal connection is why they can be viewed somewhat like signatures.
How did your study in Europe change and develop your visual ideas? What is different about the experience of studying in Europe that helped you most in going forward with your work as an artist?
With the support of a Rotary Foundation grant, I was given the opportunity to study for a year at the Stuttgart State Academy of Fine Art and Design under the tutelage of Professor Holger Bunk. This experience proved to be one of the best years of artistic growth of my life. It is a common cliché that one learns from his or her peers just as much as from a professor. This was definitely the case in Stuttgart. I shared a studio space with artists who were talented, driven, and open to the discussion and exchange of ideas. In the academic tradition of former West Germany, students are given studio space and time to develop with almost no assignment-based work. Therefore, students have the tools to nurture their artistic style and voice.
A possible downside of this educational model is that students are not required to master technical skills. So I was fortunate to have honed my technical skills in the United States, and was given the freedom to take this skill set to a higher conceptual level. The paintings I made that year are the foundation of my work up to this point. I still have a very close relationship with the classmates I met that year, most of whom are now working artists in Berlin. We formed a group called “The Wolf-Gang”, after the name of one of the founding members, Wolfgang Flad. This support group has been instrumental in giving advice to navigate the art world, and I hope to one day create a group exhibition that documents our combined artistic growth as friends and colleagues.
I find that when I look at your paintings, I really do look at them a long time. They compel....contemplation. They seem to alway be moving: paint is dripping or slashing, falling; objects hurtle through space or come to rest on a plane that then falls away only to be taken up by another perspective suddenly in front of you. The dynamics of your paintings are never without this sense of motion and stillness at the same points. They never completely come to rest.
Your contemplation of my work is definitely taken as a compliment. As I touched on when discussing the hide-and-seek quality of my work, I want to create imagery that viewers can repeatedly look upon. I construct spaces with objects in flux, an abstracted visual world that allows the viewer to travel in and out of nooks and crannies and into wide open spaces. These spaces possess an intentional ambiguity, in order to facilitate a number of possible journeys and experiences for the eye. Movement is an important element of this construction because it jumpstarts or incites the viewer’s entrance into the image. I also use motion to describe the dimension of time. Speed-infused passages collide with still life objects in order to simultaneously compress and expand the viewer’s perception of time within the image.
Is painting at all or in any sense, autobiography for you?
During my first year living in rural Germany and traveling throughout Europe, I kept a sketchbook and journal. I filled these pages with ticket stubs, advertisements, magazine clippings, and drawings. Before I embarked on this experience, I had the chance to read "The Journey is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Elden". I was struck by the fact that every journal page was an artwork in itself. I tried to emulate this mastery of composition by making every page of my journal a visual record that could stand on its own. I enjoyed the challenge of piecing together diverse visual elements in a way that connected them harmoniously. The finished results were images that recorded my experiences on a 2-dimensional surface, almost like an autobiography. Now, I have transferred this principle to oil on canvas. So yes, my current work is very much an autobiography that pieces together memories of travel, personal aesthetic vision, and everyday objects.
What do you wish to do next, in terms of your work and career? How does being a painter in New York affect/effect your needs or goals? How does it not?
My next goal is to have a solo exhibition in New York. I think it is important to show a number of works together so that the continuity of my artistic vision and exploration can be observed in its entirety. Another goal is to continue meeting more artists and immerse myself within an artistic community of friends. I consider this support network extremely necessary. Living in New York makes my goals more tangible because there are so many artistic opportunities here. That said, I would want to share my work wherever I was living, and this desire is not specific to New York. My simple long-term goal is to continue creating art as long as possible. Many artists never retire because they are doing what they love. I hope to never have a retirement party.
Your figure work shows that you are a very fine portraitist too; have you ever explored portraiture as a single subject?
I have done portraiture, almost exclusively self-portraiture or familial portraiture, but I always felt the need to incorporate other elements of abstraction and still life. I can envision reinvestigating the figure and portraits, but only within the ambiguous spaces which I am currently creating. I am not interested in a traditional headshot or close-up.
Your paintings seem to "dream" their way to a path between abstraction and naturalistic ideas. Have you ever completely explored abstraction for any length of time?
I have always been interested in this interplay between the non-objective and naturalistic. However, I’ve never fully explored abstraction because, in my case, it too often flattens out, and lacks some of the elements of depth and contrast that I strive to create. This is not to say that all non-objective work is flat. For example, Pollock’s “Lavender Mist” is one of my favorite paintings and possesses an immense depth. That said, I just keep coming back to the desire to combine the opposites of abstraction, or non-objective marks, and naturalism. It is this combination and juxtaposition of seemingly dichotomous styles that excites me.
Your paintings have a beautiful sense of the presence of the human, but not its actuality. Objects take on the imprint of this presence: the motion of trees seen at high speed as a car passes by -- we become the passengers in the car as well as the viewer outside of the ride; a stairway goes somewhere and we can walk up it, or think about who has; a house has the essence of being lived in -- how do you achieve this idea of absence and presence in the same canvas?
I’ve never consciously considered this presence while painting, but I think it stems from the fact that these objects and scenes originate from my personal experience. The house in Szolnok was modeled after my friend’s studio in Hungary. I viewed the landscape speeding past my train window and recreated this scene on the canvas. I handled, observed, and sometimes later ate the still lives inserted into these paintings. Perhaps there is a presence because I have personally interacted with these subjects, and that they are in a way universal. Another aspect of this human presence originates from my construction of space.
However fantastical and abstracted, there exists a visual world in which someone or something could live. Instead of a house on a flattened picture plane, the house rests in an environment. Even the strokes of color or geometric forms are applied in such a way as one can imagine moving around them. The abstraction is grounded by the physical laws of the natural world, and therefore lends itself to the possibility that someone has traversed these mysterious surroundings.
To what do you attribute your development most -- whether experiences of education, travel, or relationships you have built as an artist?
I would say a combination of all three. Some of my greatest artistic growth has occurred when studying abroad in Germany and Hungary. Education played a role in this growth, but it was supplemented by traveling to a new environment and developing intercultural relationships. These experiences have also contributed to my growth independently of one another, such as the advice of a professor at Arizona State, traveling alone in Croatia, or having a discussion about art with a fellow artist. That said, there have been many occasions where I have made artistic discoveries while painting alone at home without educational instruction.
Why do you paint? What is your particular impetus for what you do every day?
Painting fulfills two universal needs. The first is a desire to share my ideas and experiences with the world through a visual language. I ask myself what I have to say and how I want to say it. As an artist, the work I create plays a role in my identity. The second is a more personal and introspective need to paint. Painting is a passion that challenges me and gives me joy. When I am unable to paint for an extended period of time it affects me emotionally. Mixing colors and applying them to canvas is almost a necessity of my well-being.
Your paintings contain symbols of duality and mirroring -- the twin images -- your brother, the boxes, the apples, the idea that two alike things can have completely separate essences and identities -- can you speak about this subject and why they lend such personal energy to the work.
I often contemplate how two essentially genetic clones, almost indistinguishable on a physical level, have grown into such separate people and personalities. Aside from the psychological investigation of Nature vs. Nurture, what makes twins unique? Why am I an artist and my brother a banker? I paint multiples to pose this same question to the viewer. How can two seemingly identical apples or objects convey their own idiosyncrasies? Through the duality of these presentations, I invite the viewer to consider questions that are at the core of my personal identity. I find a visual power in painting pairs. Other artists’ usage of multiples also intrigues and excites me. Even in Warhol’s screen-prints in which he removes the artist’s hand in favor of the mechanistic, I appreciate the small mis-registrations and slight differences which make each multiple image unique.
Images, top to bottom: "Jaded"; "Alma"; "Szolnok"; "Loch Lyon"; "Bjelovar". ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT DAMIAN STAMER, 2009. REPRODUCED WITH KIND COURTESY OF THE ARTIST.

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