Nick Scammell in conversation with Alexander Stavrou
Alexander Stavrou speaks about his recent work in Substance Bundle at The Koppel Project Central. Nick Scammell asks him about what drives his paintings and the role of chance within his work as well as exploring repetition in his installations.
Shred II (2020)
Oil on paper
Nick Scammell: Do you consider yourself a painter or a multimedia artist? And do you think the distinction is useful?
Alexander Stavrou: I find it useful to be aware of yourself as somebody who thinks and makes things simultaneously in general rather than any particular discipline or specialisation. The routes I take when working may bare more painterly traces than any other discipline - as it is something I feel most at home doing. If I was to reduce the issue further, I perhaps am somebody who makes sense and expresses himself through the act of making marks with a medium in the context it creates for itself. I try to be materially sensitive to what I’m using - be it paint or digital processes. While this is the case I do not make work with the distinction of either ‘painter’ or ‘multimedia artist’ in mind. The most important thing for me is to make something that feels like it has to be made, regardless of my preferences, the dogma of any particulate discipline or amalgamation of disciplines. I don't know what the exact thing I make will be, or through which media it will live - I try to stay attentive to what I think or feel the work and my practice need in that moment.
NS: You’ve mentioned that you feel you make things that have to be made - how is this made known to you?
AS: It is not a thing that appears the same way every time, however there will be some sensory similarities. I don’t necessarily consciously choose one particular thing - more often than not it makes itself known through the process of making, and the superfluous things hopefully start to fall away. What ever feels necessary unfolds and it could be for a range of reasons - but what strikes me is a sense of urgency and emergence. Every part of a painting or other aspects of the working process become active, transformative and available.
NS: What drives your painting? And to what extent is your work process driven?
AS: I think it’s a combination between an urge for making marks and curiosity. They may not themselves be entirely distinct. While making marks feels like a relatively instinctive and primal urge, my works are also essentially guided by curiosity - and how information (whatever that may be) is expressed and translated visually. Rather than seeking complete answers of any kind, I often find a finished piece concludes with another question which becomes investigated in a new work. The main reason why a lot of my practice is taken up by painting as opposed to other forms of mark-making is due to the flexibility and potential I sense within the realms of using paint - specifically oil. For me its important to respect paint’s autonomy and the chaos which I consider inherently to be part of it. It can of course become ordered and arranged in various orchestrations which you could argue become a kind of language. For me, making a painting is to delve into an unknown - the uncertainty that comes with this is another shape-shifting aspect which drives the way and what I paint.
Oil on thread and wooden frame
NS: What role does chance play in your work? Does it govern the balance between equilibrium and chaos?
AS: It's both interesting and puzzling, to think of what occurs due to chance. If paint’s autonomy is the element of chance, and my decisions or actions are a type of intervention, there’s a tussle between the two. I don't think these aspects are as distinct as that in reality, because there are many things I think I do which are in fact a sensory response to what the painting is doing itself. In light of me equating chance to paint’s autonomy, more than anything, I think its (chance within painting) role is to be uncertain and mysterious, keeping the painter on his or her toes.
I don’t think I view chance as being a governing source exactly but perhaps more of a source of potential. Also, rather than a balance between equilibrium and chaos, for me, the act of painting (which chance is a part of) appears to deal more directly with the balance between order and chaos. This might not be a governing source as per say though either - maybe more of a non-hierarchal occurrence. For me its mysterious, uncertain and natural.
I’m not sure if any one thing governs the balance between equilibrium and chaos, everything plays its part. Sometimes there’s a stagnant quality to an equilibrium where there is no more potential for change and sometimes the chaos of something is so overwhelming and absolute that again, no considerable change or difference can occur.
NS: Earlier, you mentioned that for you a finished piece concludes with a question which becomes involved in a new work - would you consider yourself an artist who works in series?
AS: I guess you could say that for parts of my practice such as my Grey Paintings as well as the Counterparts, but I understand them as a strand of enquiry rather than a series per se. However they do not necessarily follow a linear progression - they hop about along a trajectory of some sort. Sometimes a more recent work steps backwards on the line of trajectory and revisits something in a slightly different light; other times the trajectory has a fork and you could say the emerging strands begin to part.
There’s also a similarity to painting, one mark affects the other, so does a work. I’m often working on a few different pieces at the same time which can feel as if being tugged in separate directions at times. Sometimes this tension feels necessary, allowing me to have an alternative relationship with which ever I am working on in that moment. I hope that the way I work is adaptable and flexible.
The Counterparts may sometimes respond to something in a painting, in this sense they are more of a anti-strand, hopping in and out of actuality. So to answer your question, I guess I’d say ‘no’ if I am considering a series to be constructed from works that progress in a linear fashion, I appear to think and act in a way which is perhaps more non-linear. This is where the installations come into play; works which were made in the studio now come into a grouped kind of existence where individual pieces might become contextualised by more or less prominent nuances with others.
NS: What led you to want to expand from still to moving image? And were there any other artists you had in mind as you did so?
AS: The moving images have been occurring alongside the paintings for a little while now. I view them as massless counterparts to my paintings which could be considered more as a palpable object which harbours mass. So in this sense the Counterparts’ lack of mass, heightened focus on the pictorial, and motion help me decipher what I am doing in my paintings. Both my interests and practice appear to take me towards a threshold between two different things. I guess part of me is drawn to working in the liminal space between what might generally be considered two seemingly separate entities - and why this may be assumed. Liminality seems to be where I find out and expose most about something. Things also can end up being a lot more similar than what they first appear. Also, the agency that context provides to a subject can be overlooked at first. With time and engagement, this may reveal itself, and then as a maker, it feels as if you are exposed to a whole new world.
The first opportunity I had to show some Counterparts with paintings was during The Hive Residency, 2018 with an installation called Counterparts at Play. At the time, I remember reading texts by Byung-Chul Han and Rudolf Arnheim. I became more sensitive to the act of bringing what may seem opposing things together, and how this relates to an idea of an equilibrium. I didn't necessarily seek out a perfect harmony or a strict balance of any kind; instead the idea of purity and separateness became challenged.
NS: How important is scale and repetition, in your work?
AS: They definitely play their part, especially in the installations. I think that they may even begin to blur into the same thing at times too. While the size of the painting or animation may be domestic in physical size, their collective area can begin to grow when seen as an installation. It's possible to stand in front of either a single painting or a digital film and begin a one-on-one dialogue with it - but when you look to the other works within the installation, you might find yourself stepping back to fit them within a single view. Then the dialogue changes, you're not facing one entity, your confronted by a parade of them which seem like they are in a dialogue with each other. I’m interested in to what extent fractures constitute a whole and to what extent these fractures are wholes in their own right. In this sense the individual work, be it a painting or digital film, is a fracture of the whole, being the installation. The differences in size and quantity between the ‘fractures’ and the ‘whole’ is certainly a contributing factor. In this sense both physical size and quantity are different manifestations of scale.
I think that repetition may seem more overtly active in the installation as a result of the Counterparts’ temporal loops. This is made even more evident by the fact the paintings cannot animate themselves in such a way. Each Counterpart has its own rhythm as it loops in time, which I see almost like a breath or pendulum. Each loop is consistent, regular, stable and infinite - possibly even self-containing. As a group, their rhythms are not in unison. If you happen to stand there long enough, these discrepancies become more apparent as their jagged movements may feel more like noise than a steady breath. This somewhat entropic kind of noise feels at least to me, akin to the kind of swarm resulting from the distribution of information in today’s socially digital culture. In this sense, an overpowering sense of noise is part of an entropic process which in extreme cases leads to things becoming homogenised into the same.
NS: What do you want to do next?!
AS: There’s a lot more to do. I'm going to continue both painting, making digital films and seeing how and what I can learn from the dialogue between them, but what that will be exactly, I cannot say. I’ve been busy making more digital films and of course sketching, which is often how they start, as well as painting in the studio. It feels as if it all stems from what happens in the studio, I often find it very difficult to put into words what it is that is actually happening, or will happen. If anything, I feel as if I’m in process of developing a nonverbal language, perhaps one via the materiality of painting and another in the digital films. I intend to explicate this relationship, how it will happen, hopefully time will tell!
Interviewed by Nick Scammell
Having curated and exhibited with the Goldsmiths-affiliated collective Crossing Lines, Nick Scammell completed his MA Photography at LCC in 2014. He was short-listed for the Photoworks OPEN14, and invited to exhibit in This New Feeling at Central Saint Martins in 2015. NYZ, a collaborative work, was profiled in the first Photoworks Annual. That same year, Nick co-founded AFTER, a mobile curatorial project which showcased recently-graduated artists through exhibitions and digital residencies. From 2018 to 2019, Scammell co-directed Offshoot, a gallery and studio space, as well as overseeing its mentorship programme. Currently fascinated by art made on tabletops (@tabletop_travels), he lives and works in London.