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Tower, Stephen Pierce, 2009

Stephen Peirce

Metamorphosis, genesis and apocalypse in the gooey, undulating universe of Stephen Peirce

The viscous, undulating otherworldly forms that populate the recent works of British painter Stephen Peirce pulsate with ambiguous meditations on mortality, genesis and apocalypse, managing to evoke a sense of familiarity in the viewer while presenting them with something utterly alien. We caught up with him at the Sartorial Gallery, where he is currently exhibiting as part of a group show with Marcus Freeman and James Howard, to find out which part of his psyche these bizarre inner worlds have sprung from…

Dazed Digital: What is going on in these landscapes... if it is appropriate to call them that?
Stephen Peirce:
 I hesitate to call it landscape; I think it’s more of a terrain. I am painting worlds that have ambiguous scale, so you are not really sure whether you are looking at something very small in close-up or something very large and expansive. For the beginning of these paintings I create thumb-sized sculptures, which I photograph in a very theatrical way with coloured gels and so on. What you end up with is an alien environment with familiar elements, although you can’t pinpoint exactly what they are. The paintings are kind of an exploration of a place inspired by the likes of Ballard and Tartovsky. I love the dirty cinematography of Stalker and I hope that comes through in their oppressive quality.

DD: There are human organs mixed together with what seems to be the detritus of society, is that a comment on mortality and the inner workings of the human body?
 I think it is. As I get older I become much more aware of my own mortality and there are certain things in these paintings that have personal resonance. I have had a couple of bouts of invasive surgery in the last few years and that’s impinged on the work. There is certainly a preoccupation with the organic – with diseases and things that are invasive and growing. It’s something mid-way between the organic and the man-made, with wiring and circulatory systems and things like that in there, too. I kind of wanted to further extend the ambiguity – is this in a state of decay or is this something that is just emerging? Is this primordial goo that these objects are evolving from? When I am painting them I have little stories in my head about where the objects are going, or where the puddles of oily stuff are draining away to.

DD: They remind me a little of the early Yes covers and the prog-rock era…
 Yes… Roger Dean’s work. They aren’t direct influences but these things from childhood have a way of filtering though. I’m from the generation of Close Encounters and Blade Runner – those kind of fantasy things were within my realm of consciousness, and as an artist you soak it all up.

DD: Does this new work represent a plateau for you as an artist? It's very different from your early photo-realist work...
 I think the origins of this work emerged four of five years ago. I don’t think I had the strong intention to get to this point, but there was the sense that I wanted to introduce this landscape element and create a space for these objects or growths to live in.

DD: And where do these little creatures and objects come from?
 They were largely were inspired by African fetish objects – little wooden effigies that are bound and so on. Some of the sculptural objects here are directly inspired by an American outsider artist from the 1930s who made these small, vaguely humanoid looking objects carved from stone that had this kind of monumental feel about them, as though they were from some kind of lost civilisation. That’s why I’ve put these sideways references to ancient Greece in there…

DD: So it's like a futuristic Pompeii?
 Exactly. You’re hitting on the researches I do. I research places like Prypiat and the villages around Chernobyl, where there is this kind of absence of human civilisation

DD: What do you think about environmentalists saying we need more nuclear energy?
 I haven’t really thought about it, but I guess once fossil fuels run out then what are we going to do? Can we go back to living like we did in the 15th century? I don’t know where we go from here really and it’s a frightening prospect. I do feel like life is a bit of a rollercoaster; it’s just accelerating – things like the climate are in the news every day now. In the 80s we had our worries about nuclear apocalypse. Now, with Iraq having gone on for nearly 20 years, we’re kind of numbed to idea of war and destruction because we are aware of it on a daily basis. I feel like we are kind of being propelled into some kind of oblivion, and it’s within a very short timespan in the scheme of human life on the planet

DD: On a macrocosmic scale I suppose you could relate the whole of the human species to the existence of one person that eventually dies...
 Yeah… there will be some sort of renewal though. Something will evolve out of it, and the beauty of being a painter is that you can speculate on these things, you don’t have to be stuck with day-to-day reality.

Stephen Peirce exhibits at The Sartorial Gallery until September 25