top of page

Highlight, acknowledge and encourage action

We talked to Stephen Chambers, one of the UK's most important painters, whom we featured on the cover of our summer issue in 2018, at Ida Blue in the village of Adatepe in Çanakkale on the eve of his new projects planned to be realized in Turkey. In the mystical atmosphere of Mount Ida, we spoke about his recent works and discussed being an artist in an age of catastrophes. Chambers says that the only obligation not only of today's artists but of all human beings is to "highlight, acknowledge and encourage action"

Interview: Merve Akar Akgün

Stephen Chambers
Stephen Chambers

You continue to produce with a practice full of influences from Early Renaissance painting, intersecting with maps, sci-fi books, dance and even gastronomy, open to innovation and collaboration. The themes of migration and geography are the most dominant elements of your work. For Art Unlimited’s 2018 summer issue, in your interview you said, "I have a great interest in the movement of people across the globe and migration." Has there been any change in your focus on the subject?

Like many artists I have become concerned with the enormity go our crisis of the damage being done to our environment. I have been making work around nature but it’s such a huge subject and it's very difficult to do justice to when you reduce it into a two-dimensional image form. I have recently been making images using fire. I have been making images of trees with 24ct gold and burning. I like gold because it's ephemeral and permanent. Being ephemeral and permanent is kind of a contradiction of course. Gold is celestial: Heavenly and enduring. Fire on the other hand is unpredictable. I like that contrast. So, I made a series of big, gilded images of large trees. Parts of the image were made by burning the paper. The gold being a valuable materiel, the fire adding destruction. I tried to burn it originally with a magnifying glass to use the power of the sun as I was originally making them for an exhibition about our climate catastrophe. I wished to use natural, solar power. But if you live in Northern Europe, the power of the sun is not strong enough. So, I ended up using more industrial methods of burning paper, a blow torch.

When temperature changes populations are forced to move. This has been a concern with much recent work... Reasons of movement are frequently related with poverty. Poverty caused by insufficient money is one thing, when populations begin to move as water resources fail, we have a completely different level of urgency. Art, to do justice to this issue is of course impossible, but we all have a duty to highlight, acknowledge and to encourage action.

Left: Stephen Chambers, Portrait of Licorice McKechnie, Outliers series, 58*48 cm, oil on panel, 2019 Mid: Stephen Chambers, Portrait of James Baldwin, Outliers series, 58*48 cm, oil on panel, 2019

Right: Stephen Chambers, Portrait of Agatha Roman, Outliers series,, 62*52 cm, oil on panel, 2019

Yes, and creating a consciousness, obviously. But it's also discussable.

Yes, when I first started making work for the exhibition, I thought I would make images of burning trees. But I could see that these images I was making were just not strong enough, and way to illustrative. I wanted to arrive through a separate route. To invite people looking at them to fill in the gaps and ask questions.

You studied at the St. Martin's School of Art and the Chelsea School of Art in London during the 1980s. How has your academic background influenced your artistic style and approach?

I come from a very much two-dimensional background. I was taught painting at a painting school where the language of picture making was less elastic than it is perhaps now. I probably come from an era where there was a greater knowledge of historical art. I was talking to a gallery dealer in London about the artists that he works with, he described working with ‘historical artists’ and ‘non-historical artists. He meant, of course, those that reference history and those that don’t. I’m not saying either is better or worse than the other, and neither was he. But I think there are artists that reference their predecessors and artists that don't. And I am of the former camp. I love art and I look at a lot within the area of the things that move me. I probably told this to you before, but I was a recalcitrant schoolboy, and I didn't pay much attention to school. So, when I went to art school, I thought it was time to do some work. I think it was a good education because it encourages questioning. I realized then that I like making things; I think through making. I like ideas and I like making things. I like bringing those two together.

Stephen Chambers, Exhibition wien from The Big Country and Other Stories, Pera Museum, Istanbul, 2014

The Big Country series met the Istanbul audience in the exhibition titled The Big Country and Other Stories, that was organized at the Pera Museum in Istanbul in 2014. The Big Country can be described as one of the largest printmaking series ever made with its 15 episodes and 78 units. I think the Istanbul audience's approach to your practice also coincides with this period, am I right? What followed this series in your production chronology?

Firstly, I described it as the biggest print in the world, but people keep sending me pictures of bigger ones. When I initially began saying I wanted to make a big print, my printers would think I meant something about two meters. So, I ended up calling it the biggest print in the world, just to emphasize that I wished it to be enormous. I showed this in Istanbul in 2014.

Returning to your question, I was subsequently asked to do an exhibition for the Biennale in Venice, 2017. That became an exhibition of 101 paintings collectively this work is called The Court of Redonda. 101 portraits of individuals. It stemmed from a conversation with the Spanish writer Javier Marias. He had imagined a society that was run by people that create things: artists, writers, musicians, singers etc. It was discussing, and imaging different way that a society might operate. Fanciful of course, but also questioning how people have been governed and how communities work. It was not about offering and answer, but it was about starting a discussion.

I continue painting people. People are what interest me most. I have an ongoing project titled The Outliers. Unlike The Court of Redonda, The Outliers are paintings of real people. People that “cut their own furrow” unencumbered by conventions, assumptions, and expectations. People I admire. Not usually celebrities or household names, but people who have made, or do make, a positive difference. It is my way of paying respect.

Stephen Chambers

How do you make something so complicated, so uncomplicated?

Flippantly I could say that I leave out all the bits that I don’t understand. More seriously perhaps I would say that if I am making a painting about a person then I am interested in what is going on in the head, more than what is going on in the background. So, I leave those bits out of the painting.

Stephen Chambers, Policeman of Paradise, The Court of Redonda series

So, this reduction is sort of a way to look out for a core, for a substance?

If there is one person in the painting, a single figure, by the time there is someone looking at it there are two, the figure described in paint, and the viewer. Quite often I put paintings behind glass. I glaze them using low reflection glass, but there's always some reflection. I like the idea that in the glass there is a slight reflection of the person viewing the paint. As if a dialogue is being forced. Viewing a painting is an intimate experience, even in a crowded room.

For several years now paintings have been small, though now I am returning to making them bigger. Though, even as their size has changed the paintings continue to have solitary figures. I look to find out as much about the person in the painting, whilst trying to restrict the amount of narrative to a minimum. So, in answer to your question, yes, I try to remove as many of the distractions as I can. As you correctly say; to look for the core.

Have you found the source of your deep love for Indian miniature paintings?

The important word is “miniature”, If they are small, they are also enormous in visual stimuli. To condense so much information into such a small format area is divided. Divided by pattern, color, horizontals, and verticals. Also, and importantly by color. Frequently you could read these painting as paintings containing other paintings. Clean, poetic, dramatic color allows the information to be succinct. Their size and the amount of imagery they contain is almost contradictory. Yes, they are hugely important to how I think about delivering information. And, yes, I do love them.

Stephen Chambers

You are a member of the Royal Academy of Arts since 2005. As a royal academic, how do you support this independent organization? What does it mean for you to be part of this ecosystem?

I think when I first became a member and I was of course a younger artist and being elected by other artists was very much a mark of an acknowledgment from my peers, I guess that felt exciting. Now I have less involvement than I once did, except that I am the chair of the Exhibitions Committee. It is a curious way of observing cultural history being made, in London at least. Occasionally exhibitions resonate for years. Watching them being developed feels like witnessing fingerprints being left on what become the reference points of generations. There are two hearts of the Royal Academy, the exhibitions program, and the schools. They're both very important. I'm not an obvious chair, I generally avoid committees, I don't get involved in administration. There are exhibitions that people remember and still talk about from long time in the past and I like the idea of that in a very minor way. I don't want to claim too much of my significance because as I'm sure you know; chairing meetings just makes sure that everybody can say what they want to say and fights with one another so it's a kind of crowd control. But I'm always candid about, I'm always very honest about what I think about proposals. When I was asked to do it, I told the curators “You want to ask me because I will always tell you the truth?” and they said “Yes”, and I do. Sometimes they give me proposals and I say, “Great idea but no one will come” and other times “Are you kidding?” We meet four times a year. I now live in Berlin, but I’ll travel back to London to do this.

The installation photograph from Stephen Chambers' exhibition The Court of Redonda at the Heong Gallery.

Before the pandemic?

Yes, I left the UK before the pandemic and just as Britain was leaving the EU. Britain’s decision to leave for UK was not a surprise to me, though it was a massive disappointment. I had been vocal in saying the if the UK left the EU, I would leave the UK. So, I did.

It's very inspiring for us how the Royal Academy of Arts functions, how artists participate and how it's independent. It’s a proper example.

It's very unusual. It is an institution that is run for artists, by artists. I became a member in 2005, and it's changed a lot since then. It's become increasingly contemporary. It's an exciting place. There are good exhibitions and good debates going on. In some ways the term Royal gives it some sort of historical unevenness, but it feels more contemporary now than it ever has, at least in recent times.

It also matches with the UK.

Yes, Britain is a contradictory country.

Left: Stephen Chambers, Devil of the Best Tunes, The Court of Redonda series Mid: Stephen Chambers, Portrait of Seamus Heaney, Outliers series, 58*48 cm, oil on panel, 2019

Right: Stephen Chambers, Portrait of Keir Hardie, Outliers series, 58*48 cm, oil on panel, 2019

“Art keeps you awake” you say, what does it mean for your life? Can you elaborate this statement?

Much of making art is tediously dull; lots of process, much repetition. But, but but… it also includes invention, make-believe, breaking the rules, and as daft as it may sound, building your own universe and that’s energizing.

Stephen Chambers, From the series Stealing Shadows

How is life in Berlin?

When I went, I didn't know whether I would go full time. And then the pandemic came, and I knew I had to either stay in Berlin or return to the UK. I looked to the health service in Germany and the health service in the UK and thought I'd stay in Germany. I'd already started working there and I thought that I could come and go between London and Berlin easily. I found that quite difficult. Once I start working, I become quite protective of the space I'm working in and the invasion of stopping and starting. So, I had started working in Berlin and I was working well and productively. I didn't want to interrupt that. I know the pandemic changed everything for nearly everybody but for me, going between my home and my studio, this is quite normal. I work on my own, so it didn’t really make much difference. Just the cafes were closed. I think the British by nature are disobedient compared with the Germans. The German people stick to the rules and in Britain, they obey the rules reluctantly. I have friends now in Berlin. Quality over quantity.

“Print making imposter” you call yourself and “printers are like your technical hands” you say. This sounds very much like the discussions on AI today. I wonder do you make use of AI in your work? In general?

We all have been using AI on one level, or another for years. Every time you use social media you are engaging with AI. I don’t use it directly in my work, but for research, it’s impossible to escape. Anyone who says they are disconnected from AI is naive. As soon as we are familiar with an invention, it becomes the norm. So, we notice only what has just arrived. It is not only super complicated. Much Artificial Intelligence is banal, and of course, much is useful to one party, not the other. Try ringing a call center. The robot saves the businesses a fortune whilst driving to caller insane.

Installation photograph of Stephen Chambers's exhibition at the Venice Biennale

That's an interesting point, because in academics there's always a warning that this should be used as an assistance. Not as a supplement or as a substitute for human intelligence or curiosity. So there should really be a tool that you can manipulate and make use of and always fact check, because it's making things up.

I have a friend in the UK who runs a large data company, a company where if you are starting a business, or if you are already a big business, and you want to know the data, for example, about toothpaste manufacturing in Belgium, you go to these people and buy this information, they just have an extensive network. Information, as we know, is power. Power involves secrets. He tells me that they print a lot of documents and a lot of books, specialist publications. They intentionally put mistakes into these books, and they do it so they can tell when they're being plagiarized, as people are simply cutting and pasting. So, in that case it's building in errors in order to identify, which I thought was interesting. This is a big company deploying, I have no doubt a great deal of Artificial Intelligence. In their solution to identify when their information is being stolen, they deploy RI: Real Intelligence.

Do you have any exhibitions coming?

I am about to take part in an exhibition called Poetics and Magic at the Italian Institute. An exhibition based on the writings of the Italian anthropologist Anita Seppilli. Her belief that poetry originated from magic and that poems such a Homer’s The Iliad contain traces of ancient rituals and magical beliefs. I will be showing work which I made in response to William Blake’s Gates of Paradise. Currently, and alongside this will be two books, one on my prints, the other on my paintings.

Stephen Chambers, Detail from The Big Country installation, Oceania, 2014

And who publishes?

Published by a publication house in the UK called Ben Editions and it's taken a while to get to this point, but it’s about to appear.

It's big news. Congratulations.

Thank you. Books a type of punctuation. Tomorrow work will be made which misses this publication’s deadline!


bottom of page