Outside Inspiration: Stephen Maine
To thrive, the arts need deep thinkers. While some individuals fall to the simple opinion that all art is subjective and so all opinions are valid, the reality of art practices and art writing trump that simple opinion time and time again. This is because, like all worthy endeavors, art takes hard work, and it requires deep study to learn from and appreciate the artists, scholars, and writers that came before you. How can you truly appreciate the nuances and character development in a novel if it is the first novel you ever read? Similarly, your informed appreciation for the fine arts require a base.
Stephen Maine is one such deep thinker. He is an artist, critic, curator, and teacher in Brooklyn, New York. He writes eloquent and insightful exhibition reviews and art book reviews that provide for a more substantive appreciation for the works, in contrast to terse pieces that merely give the bullet points. He also creates engaging paintings that explore the process of image making and installation, and the challenge of capturing the ephemeral nature of certain beautiful moments. For example, his paintings from his Smoke series show faded colors that result in colors coming in and out of focus, and paintings from his Mesh series capture the surrounding environment in terms of light and movement (imagery that changes as the viewer moves or as light hits it).
So here are some deep thoughts by Stephen Maine.
Thedetroiter: When did you start creating art? When did you decide to become an artist?
Stephen: I was a lucky kid, having parents who never told me to put aside the crayons already, and get serious! I believe that most people begin life as an artist, and over time it gets ground out of them. They lose their visual curiosity and sense of play, and learn to distrust the pleasure images give them. Fortunately, I never grew up.
Thedetroiter: How would you describe your style?
Stephen: “Conceptual abstraction,” though it is a broad designation, is a place to begin in describing my work. I think that means some important decisions–such as those to do with chroma, in my case–are made in advance. (That is opposed to the Action Painting model I started with, in which decisions are made in the moment, in the act, in response to the trace of previous decisions embodied on the canvas.) My work is both materials-oriented and color-centric, but for that the work is a bit chilly. I am puzzled by the fact that, after literally decades of working abstractly, I have recently become interested in “images,” generically–what they are, why they are, why we crave them.
Thedetroiter: What or who inspires you?
Stephen: Eventually I have become immune to inspiration. Now the prospect of doing the work itself carries me along. In my city, at this moment, it is wonderful just to be able to go to a nice, moderately roomy studio with adequate cross-ventilation and good coffee at the corner deli.
Thedetroiter: Does beauty play a role in your art?
Stephen: Not particularly. I want to make things that are interesting to look at–intellectually engaging and in dialogue with painting’s history. It’s fine if they are beautiful, but that is not a goal.
Thedetroiter: What is your process?
Stephen:For the Mesh Paintings, I pin the fabric, plastic, mesh and other stuff I use directly to the wall. The process is collage, using T-pins instead of glue and yardgoods instead of paper. I stop working on a particular piece when I have found a configuration in which pictorial space is interestingly at odds with sculptural space, and compositional considerations further complicate both. The optical blending of hues I get from layering, for example, is very much a painting concern, but I also have to contend with cast shadows, which slide the work toward the realm of sculpture. The Smoke Paintings are relatively straightforward. They are acrylic on smallish plywood or MDF panels. The palette usually involves just three or four hues, which are confined to two elements: a ground color, and on top of that a field of small dots that functions like a photographic half-tone. There is no image but there might be an “image.”
Thedetroiter: How has your art career changed over the past five years?
Stephen: A few years ago I started to write exhibition reviews and book reviews, to curate shows, and to teach -in that order, one activity leading organically to the next. It all happened fast! This broadening of my art related activities seemed almost to creep up on me.
Thedetroiter: Why do you write about art?
Stephen:As an artist, I am dissatisfied with most of the criticism I read. Too many critics approach art work as a kind of socio-economic artifact, some symptom of a cultural condition, rather than the product of studio toil. The former approach is appropriate in some cases, as when the artist presumes to address the culture at large, but that is the least interesting kind of art out there.
Thedetroiter: Does writing about art influence your art making process?
Stephen: No. I can compartmentalize effectively. I am able to immerse myself in work quite unlike my own and write about it with no inadvertent osmosis happening. I can admire what I lack without wishing I didn’t lack it, without trying to acquire it.
Thedetroiter: Does teaching influence your art making process?
Stephen: Not that I am aware of, though I allow for the possibility that my pedagogical emphasis on drawing as a studio tool has rejuvenated my own approach to drawing. I believe I would now be drawing more than ever even if I hadn’t, a few years ago, started leaning on my students to draw as a way to push their ideas forward into uncharted waters. But of course that is not possible to say.
Thedetroiter: Why have you taken on curatorial projects?
Stephen: I like to experience first-hand the alchemy of recombination. You might think you have a pretty good idea of how a number of far-flung works will look, what effect they will have on each other visually and conceptually, when assembled in the same space, but you never really do. You just can’t foresee everything that will happen–not even, sometimes, the most obvious things. There are always surprises.
Thedetroiter: What do you look for when viewing new artwork?
Stephen: Surprises! Humor, smarts, the stamp of the artist’s personality. I like to see work that is grounded by an awareness of its context, but not burdened or encumbered by it.
Thedetroiter: Do you have any mentors?
Stephen:As an artist, no. As a writer, I have had the good fortune to work with some insightful, generous editors who have poked and prodded me, who have not allowed me to fudge the details: Janet Koplos and Nancy Princenthal, when they were at Art in America; Walter Robinson at artnet. Some editors would rather cut a troublesome passage than try to fix it; Janet, Nancy and Walter are fixers, not cutters.
Thedetroiter: How do you define success?
Thedetroiter: How can Detroit attract artists/ writers like you?
Stephen: I don’t know much about Detroit, but I had a look at Kansas City a little while ago, in preparation for writing about contemporary art there. It’s a fascinating case study because while there isn’t much of a collector base or commercial gallery system, the scene is dynamic, with a lot of artists doing interesting things. Many of them went through the Art Institute and decided to stay in town, in part because the level of private philanthropy there affords some terrific opportunities.
Area museums and not-for-profit galleries are serious about supporting and promoting Kansas City artists. And the Star budgets a fair amount of space for coverage of new, challenging work.
Can Detroit learn from Kansas City? Ambitious artists will look for an environment in which they can devote sufficient time to their work, receive institutional support, and be a part of the critical conversation.