As a fourth-generation descendent of an Australian pioneer and opaler, Karen Stephens reflects on and investigates the similarities between the life of the painter and the opaler in her newest collection of works. As a continued exploration into perception, horizon and Australian landscape painting, the outcomes of Karen’s works are realised through contemporary painting and collaged methods to manufacture surfaces that mirror repetition, failure, hope and sudden fortune.
Writer and curator, Kevin Wilson, has written the below essay on ‘Fishing for Landscape’
In Fishing for Landscape Stephen’s likens her painting to the act of opal mining. They are both solitary professions and both search for something mysterious, perfect and valuable. It is not surprising then that Stephens is a fourth-generation descendant of the Opaler George Cragg, who founded Opalton, located around 100km west of Winton, Queensland in 1888. Whilst the Opaler subtracts rock in a dark cavern to find the glittering coloured light of the opal; the painter adds paint in the daylight to a white surface to find the essence of landscape. But Stephens unique surfaces are not traditional surfaces and her landscapes are not representative landscapes. Like the late Sid Nolan’s early slate paintings, the substrate and paint join forces to create a powerful emotional rawness.
The substrates of her abstracted landscapes are as constructed and layered as the paint which is applied to them. Whilst we may see the texture of the handmade paper under the completed artwork what is unseen on the back of the artwork is emblematic of a working representational process that allows elements to exist together. The paper substrate is not pulped but made from the laborious layering of random newspaper and magazine cuttings, particularly large blocked text headings that resonate with the artist. As the paper builds, text and images sink into the depth but don’t totally disappear, whilst others remain on the surface. Stephens construction of these substrates is a daily repetitive action of forming something – what she calls small actions every day. The tearing up and rebuilding scrambles time and text to undermine any notion of linear time or narrative. What is left is a kind of textual inner landscape that is a precursor to the next part of the artist’s journey.
That journey involves regular plein air excursions into the landscape and a process of engaging a range of potent ingredients - location, family history, cinematic capture and the landscape of her own mind - to construct each work. The ingredients are never left to settle or be combined into something totally new – they remain in dynamic interaction, a kind of painterly theatre. Her surfaces literally perform rather than represent – they reveal, and they hide; they provide clues in their assertive line and form and washes of colour. All the while a darkness or murky depth pervades the works that suggests much more that is not known but which also acts as a kind of backdrop to the activity on the surface.
One would imagine, that living and working in the landscape in and around Winton in Western Queensland, that the painter’s vision would be dominated by wide horizon lines and vast swathes of sky and flat earth. Many painters before Stephens have wrestled with this kind of overwhelming abstraction and the dynamics of framing it. The western tradition of painting places the artist outside of the landscape as a kind of coloniser. Stephens’s frame of reference is much more focused on the small zone in front of her. Whilst she does look at detail, with recurring natural patterning of grasses and other plant and rock forms and even the pattern of flocks of birds on power wires found in her works, there is a more overriding structuring of space taking place. It is no longer about capturing the landscape but actually being inside it. ..in a place where the body slips away, and the act of painting is about the pure experience of being in that place.
She revels in running the ridge between representation and immersion. Her search for motif and structure in the landscape is also a search for motif and structure in painting. Inevitably the motifs become Stephens’s own ‘painting’ verbs – mining, projecting and fishing. The artist and viewer are one in the act of interpretation. The explorative act transforms the literal landscape into a psychological one. There aren’t any fish in the exhibition Fishing for landscape, nor are there any landscapes, that is at least, landscapes that could be optically identified. Sometimes words in the paintings highlight the artist’s conception of her activity and body in a transformative way as human and fish combine at the head in Headless Fish or where the human head is replaced by a projector in Projector Head. Other works in this dark and minimal group textually allude to an even greater darkness – a cinematic theatre where any flicker or eye of light is highlighted. The work Fishing for Landscape, which is also the title of the exhibition is as much about the visible capture as locating the site of the search.
Stephens paintings are essentially about a subterranean landscape – a space with no horizon, light or reference points. She is inside the landscape – not creating a representative landscape but a sensed landscape. Her boundary is not the horizon but the line between the depth of her inner world and the prosaic unyielding ground beneath her feet. Like the miner who searches in the dark, she seeks to uncover something mysterious and unique - never ending compositions of layered translucent colour like glittering structures inside a rock.
As a viewer we are led to experience Stephens’s paintings in the same way the artist experiences the landscape. For instance, the title of the work My eyes caught some pieces of blue not only foregrounds and elevates the artist’s own act of looking and its parallel to fishing but is a type of directional sign for the viewer to also look for those pieces of blue. And in doing so the mind wanders around the darkness, not just searching for blue but also shapes and structures. The very act of moving the eyes around the work is like the intense act of watching the water when fishing as one waits for a fish flash to emerge.
We naturally look at paintings on a wall at eye height in the same way that we look out at a landscape. Stephens’s paintings create a sense of uneasiness as they draw the eye down as if they were displayed flat on a table. We are pulled into the darkness that she is exploring. This act of drawing down again emphasises Stephens’s desire to align her work with that of the miner. In Piranha she bites into the darkness – a greedy eye hungry for painterly motifs like the opaler hungry to find opal. In Chamber she delves deeper to isolate a small window of interest in the landscape focusing directly on what is in front of her and blind to the periphery. ‘Just an Eye’ refers to the dominance of vision that is essential to the miner and the painter. Like sitting in a picture theatre, the eye eventually forgets the body and its surroundings when preoccupied with the screen. The artist’s greedy eye is a passionate strategy that forces us as viewers to ditch our own expectations and to mine our own minds.
Rather than a recognition of or a shared consensus type vision of what the landscape looks like Stephens’ work produces a disruption of what our senses are used to, that provides the opportunity for change and innovation i.e. for us to see the world differently. Stephens’s painting essentially allows us to free fall inside her mental landscape, but also to know that the painting itself is its own landscape.