The Surprising Gifts of Justin Stephen’s Inks

Avoiding Eye Contact by Justin Stephens
Avoiding Eye Contact by Justin Stephens

Avoiding Eye Contact by Justin Stephens

Some artists need to get away.

Visual artist Justin Stephens started in Aylmer, Quebec but tried out Montreal, Vancouver, Australia, and a few other places before ending up in Glasgow. “Glasgow is a fantastic town,” he says. “I applied to the Glasgow School of Arts partially based on things my friends said about the program. The city’s no bigger than Ottawa, but has an incredible, burgeoning, international arts scene for its size.”

Not only is Glasgow’s arts scene vibrant, but it’s also accessible. “It’s an approachable arts scene, a doorway into greater things,” he adds. “Many places I lived before – like Australia – it just didn’t seem like it was possible to do the things I wanted to do.” 

“What I also like too is the art community embraces a variety of ways to making art. No one walks into the show, and says we can’t have a discussion because we make different types of art.”

Coming back to Montreal for his latest show, Method Acting, has made Stephens pensive. “I come back here and every corner is lodged with so many memories. It’s quite difficult.”

Nonetheless, Stephens approached his show at the Parisian Laundry in his usual way. “I took the space the way I would normally take a show. The process of making my art includes being in the space and editing a lot of work in the space. I’m not the type of person that will build a little maquette. I brought a lot of extra work to the gallery and spent days sitting around the space drinking coffee.”

He spent some time reflecting on how to show the exhibit. “It’s not like you’re basic easy, whitewall one wall meets another wall gallery. The architecture is quite daunting and monumental. It’s difficult to work with,” he says. “I thought I would figure out some clever way of installing a show to reflect the space somehow, but it was an impossible challenge.”

The challenge is that most of Stephen’s paintings are small. “I wanted to see how they fit in the gallery. It was interesting to see what I could do in that large space, instead of giant canvasses.”

The small size is partially a result of Stephen’s process. “Most of the work I’m doing use coloured inks as the grounds of my paintings. The process results in small abstract paintings. Little ontological canvases. I lay down ink on to these canvases and from there work with gesso on top of the ink after it dries. I wanted to work larger, but good quality inks are not made for painting like this. You can’t get large bottles. I need 15 $12 vials of ink for a big canvas and it’s not really possible to brush it like this” He ultimately prefers this style. “I like that restriction. It’s dictated by the medium.”

In addition to the limitation of size, the ink doesn’t allow for repainting. “I move the ink around with gesso and it either works or doesn’t. The ink shows through so it’s a one time thing. For every one working canvas, there are 10 that don’t.”

He sometimes throws the non-working canvases out, or ends up reusing the frame with the old canvas left in place. “I’ll just restretch canvas over the top. Some pieces have 3 or 4 canvases. There’s a hidden history there. Over time, the shape of the canvases change because of the linen or canvas underneath. It’s like a hidden extra gift for somebody.”

photo by Rachel Levine

photo by Rachel Levine

At the moment, Stephens is painting what he wants. “I’m into this no glam, no shock art that I think is quite common in the art world. I think people’s attention spans are lacking. I do ask a lot of the viewer in terms of them taking more than a moment to look at the decision making of the canvases and paintings I make.”

“I think there’s so much going on and so little to chose from today.  There are so many ways of throwing a composition together. You get so overwhelmed by the possibilities. That’s why I went to small paintings. For myself I find them really challenging. Perhaps some people think small paintings are not contemporary enough. For me, it is. I think Glasgow has played a big part in that. There are a lot of artists there that think along the same lines.”

His only regret about moving: “I wish there was more natural vitamin D in that town. But I deal with it. It’s a beautiful place nonetheless. The people are lovely.”

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About Rachel Levine

Rachel Levine is the big cheese around here. Contact: Website | More Posts