4. juni - 8. mai 2011

Steve Joy (b. 1952) is an abstract painter. In other words, he does not want to faithfully reproduce our everyday visual surroundings. Abstract painting is a phenomenon that is more than a century old and, for an artist of Joy’s generation, it is an idiom that the artist uses as a starting point when expressing something through paint. Joy works within a geometric tradition, which is like a lot of other art and culture with naturalistic and dream-like visions that he is in dialogue with.

Steve Joy (b. 1952) is an abstract painter. In other words, he does not want to faithfully reproduce our everyday visual surroundings. Abstract painting is a phenomenon that is more than a century old and, for an artist of Joy’s generation, it is an idiom that the artist uses as a starting point when expressing something through paint. Joy works within a geometric tradition, which is like a lot of other art and culture with naturalistic and dream-like visions that he is in dialogue with. As André Malraux said, one does not become a composer by walking in the forest and listening to birdsong, but from going to concerts and listening to music.

For Steve Joy, there is something natural about abstract painting. He is building upon the grammar of artists such as Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and Barnett Newman (1905-1970), and that of contemporary artists such as Sean Scully (b. 1945). Behind the geometric patterns, the stripes and squares, are natural phenomena, though they are strongly abstracted or conventionalised. A prerequisite for painting in this way is that the artist has first studied modern art – visited galleries and museums and looked at art – and learned an idiom. The same also applies to the audience, because looking at modern art requires an effort, one like that involved in learning another language. Learning to observe modern art may well be easier than learning Greek, but it also presupposes that you don’t look for things you don’t want to find, such as realistic portrayals of human bodies, flower arrangements, mountain landscapes or allegories of moral values. To be “fluent” in modern painting it is necessary to see a lot of it and to be familiar with developments before it became the valued tradition that it is today.

The idiom that Joy works in was coded in the 1910s, and further developed in the 1950s and 1960s. Abstract painting, as found in New York in the 1950s, introduced a new way of looking at art. In addition to regarding the illusion of a visual world presented by the image, the actual physical surface of the painting and its materials became an important part of the experience. Abstract painting has a tendency to be fairly flat, visually. The image is pushed towards the viewer and ends up as signs on the painted surface, which means that the picture influences the physical room in which the viewer is located. In other words, modern painting has a structure that consists of three parts: the room in which the viewer stands before the picture, the picture itself as a physical presence and painted surface, and the virtual room that can be visually experienced inside and behind the painted surface.

It is this painted surface that is the painter’s space, one where he can create his patterns, ornamentation and abstract pictures. The geometric idiom used by Steve Joy provides him with the opportunity to create movement, rhythm and offsets, both up and down and forwards and backwards across the picture. He only uses vertical and horizontal boundaries, a part of the idiom that aims to emphasise flatness and thus reflect and play with the rectangular shapes of this format. In addition to this, he paints quadratic fields that visually (or pictorially) move in and out of the picture, bringing forth an effect that painter Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) called a push-pull dynamic. Joy uses both these methods and it is with this pictorial logic as his starting point (or vocabulary) that he creates his specific form of expression.

Steve Joy’s painting is characterised by his desire to bring spiritual experience into his art. He does this by charging the painted surface with varnishes and metallic fields, giving it a visual space that explodes out of the physical material on which it is painted. Metallic surfaces, in particular, can create depth and a vibrating, visual experience of something mystical that cannot be subjected to the rationality of surveyors and survey rods. The depth of such an image cannot be quantified.

By switching between paint, almost transparent and opaque fields, he can play with the differences between fairly dense areas and others that appear to be far more open. It is precisely these differences that bring a special pulse to Joy’s work, due to the rhythm that runs through, and in and out of, his pictures. This is always what distinguishes his pictures from those of others who use the same language. He uses silver, gold and copper, and it is the gold that particularly suggests Orthodox icons and Byzantine mosaics. This is Joy’s express intention and he provides the audience with hints of this by calling the works by names such as “Icon – The Hermit of the North” and “Icon – (Byzantine) Azure”. In historic religious contexts, gold was used as an abstract background, an imponderable depth as a sign of the heavenly, the foretold, that which cannot be seen but which can be imagined. Like the icon painters, Steve Joy paints on wood; he also builds out the picture by placing different parts together so that sometimes the outline is not purely rectangular. This links some of his works to architectural structures. They become like walls with openings in. This logic is also found in Sean Scully’s use of stripes and squared fields, the types of patterns that can be seen in fences, roadblocks and buildings.

Steve Joy’s pictures also have some of the values found in Barnett Newman. Newman was very occupied with how his abstract pictures should charge and give voice to the room in which the audience is standing, embrace the audience and give the work and its viewers a place; one so special that he compared it to other privileged, unique places such as a base in the Yankee Stadium and an altar in a synagogue. As with Newman, Steve Joy’s religiosity is unofficial, not directly linked to a particular collection of dogmas and beliefs. There are few direct symbols that indicate established religions and their iconography, but in Newman’s work there is a subtle tendency to Jewish Kabbalistic iconography and colour symbolism, and in Joy’s work there is an indirect indication of Christianity’s artistic treasures through the use of gold.

It is up to each observer to experience these works in relation to their own experiences and beliefs, but what we all have in common is that the room serves both as a presence and as somewhere that wishes to hold on to something that we are unable to grasp and which cannot really be seen. And by seeing the works, not as physical windows in the room, but as windows out to something beautiful, lasting and good, the exhibition succeeds in making the magnificent Nøstetangen Room a special place, one where the art industry’s transparent glass and shiny, reflective gilt and silver surfaces, are enriched with symbols of something extraordinary and unworldly. And, in this room, we see its physical glory.

Steve Joy is English, but now lives and works in the US. He also lived and worked in Norway for many years, so has good contacts in the Norwegian art world. At the same time as the exhibition in Drammen there is a major museum exhibition with Steve Joy’s work in Trondheim Kunstmuseum, opening on 11 June and closing on 24 September.

- Åsmund Thorkildsen
Museum Director and curator for the Solo project in the Nøstetangen Room

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