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Forced Collaborations - An interview with artist Paul Stephenson

6 August 2016 Stephanie Brandhuber

London-based artist Paul Stephenson introduced his three newest bodies of work, ‘Watermark Paintings’, ‘Internet Paintings’, and ‘Reflection Paintings’ to a buzzing and eclectic crowd this week at StolenSpace Gallery just off of Brick Lane. These three collections make up Stephenson’s new exhibition called Forced Collaborations, which explores our relationship with art in the digital age.

In his previous works, Stephenson used a process called “sous rature” which literally means “under erasure.” In its original usage, sous rature was used as a philosophical device, especially by Heidegger and Derrida, which entailed crossing out a word within a text, but allowing it to remain legible. The thinking behind this process was that words can never truly express an emotion or a thought, but unfortunately have to be used because the constraints of our language offer nothing better. Therefore, these philosophers came up with the idea to strike a line through a word to show a general feeling they were trying to convey while also acknowledging that it was inadequate as a signifier.
 
Paul Stephenson then took this philosophical device and decided to translate it into art. The artist explains his process like this: “With the paintings that are sous rature paintings, I’m erasing the subject of the painting but leaving the shape of that subject visible. So, you can still understand that it was a painting of a horse or a person, but you can no longer see it. It’s about the inadequacy of the painting to do the job.”


Watermarked Painting #436544659 (Shutterstock meta). Originally painted by Thomas Bond Walker, 1901 (Ink on Oil on Canvas, 2016).

His newest exhibition Forced Collaboration was inspired by this process of sous rature: “I was taking paintings that were painted by other people and taking bits away from them, and in doing so, I was sort of adding something by removing. The natural progression then was to begin to add things instead of remove them.” Describing the style and process of his latest group of works, the artist explains: “I work on top of paintings that other people have painted. That’s why the title of the show is Forced Collaborations. Often these paintings are from the 19th Century, so the person who painted them isn’t around anymore. So, I’m collaborating with them, kind of, without their consent.”
 
StolenSpace Gallery, where Stephenson’s work is being show, is known for showcasing emerging artists in urban, underground, and street art and Stephenson feels his works are right at home in this chic hub of urban art. Having studied art in the UK and New York, Stephenson’s work emerged from a love of graffiti, inspired by the street art in both these concrete jungles. When asked what the links between his art and graffiti are, the artist explained the way he sees this relationship: “By painting on top of something that wasn’t intended for that purpose, that’s kind of the definition of graffiti. It’s about the surface rather than what you paint.”
 
Stephenson’s work in his newest collection explores the relationship between art and the digital world we live in, and he is fascinated by the way art is evolving in this manner: “For me, the palette that was provided by the Internet and by Google images was a really important source of just taking things.” The way such a massive array of images is so readily available for us to take and alter simply by clicking a button is, for Stephenson, an incredible source of inspiration.

 
Lady of Shalott (Google Cultural Institute). After Waterhouse (Oil on Canvas, 2016)

The ideas behind Forced Collaborations are deeply conceptual and grounded in notions of the meta nature of art when it becomes digitalised. Stephenson believes his collection of works reflects the double nature that paintings have when they are captured via another medium, for example when they are uploaded onto the Internet, or when we take a picture of a painting in a gallery and the gallery’s lights are reflected in our photograph of the original work.

Because of the philosophical nature of Stephenson’s work, it is best appreciated when seen in person. Looking at the various bodies of work that make up the collection, it becomes apparent that the artist is attempting to make a comment on the way we visually process images depending on their setting and context. That is why certain of Stephenson’s pieces show well-known works that have been re-created to look distorted or which have been altered in some way, so as to instigate a dialogue about what “real” actually means in terms of art and images of art.
 
If all this philosophical and meta talk has left you scratching your head, then go visit StolenSpace for yourself where you can do some contemplating of your own. If you’re lucky, you’ll not only achieve artistic enlightenment, but you might also have time to grab a delicious beigel from Beigel Bake on Brick Lane too. Now there’s some food for thought.

Forced Collaboration is showing at Stolen space Gallery between Augsust 5th-28th at StolenSpace Gallery, 17 Osborne Street, London E1 6TD.
 
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