Currently residing in Kansas City, MO., Stephen Proski’s work looks as though it was painted directly on a canvas. But on closer inspection, the shapes separated by color are stitched together with thread to make a painting. The process is charming in and of itself but I thought to myself, there has to be a deeper meaning behind why he engages in this laborious process. Looking at his sophisticated use of color, you would not guess he is colorblind. Although he can’t see all colors, he continues to challenge himself to use them.
Recently featured in New American Paintings, and currently working on a public commission for Kansas City Museum. These works intrigue me as an artist and I felt compelled to ask him a few questions to get to know him as an artist.
Looking closely at your paintings, some of your paintings are distinctively figurative, some are abstract, and there are ones in between. For example, in “The Spanish Girl in the Pink Room”, I’m able to recognize the female figure and major parts of the body. “Poppin’ Off” is devoid of figures and looks as though it is an investigation of shapes, color, and relationship between 2D and 3D. I can make out a bird wearing a nike sneaker in “Portrait of my Former Self” but it is after I took in formal elements- shapes, textures, and saturated color that make up the bird. Do you think you are trying to blur the lines between abstraction and representation? How about craft and fine art?
There is both a physical blur and a metaphysical blur that is taking place. Given my degenerative vision loss, I literally experience reality as a blur, and I am constantly in a struggle to squint through this. My experience with painting is rooted in formal abstraction. And with this body of work, having spawned from a lapse in making and an overall deterioration of sorts, it was only natural to pick apart and reassemble things based upon that logic. I couldn’t make these paintings unless I physically deconstructed everything I had done prior to this. Liberate Te Ex Inferis. I honestly never thought I would pursue representation in my work, but the evolution happened naturally and it only made sense to follow through on it. I think I became bored with abstraction. I got tired of running into the same brick wall over and over again. Frustrated that I couldn’t communicate what I wanted to. Most of the work that I find myself drawn to at this point is representational in some sense or textile-based. Once I learned of the quilters of Gee’s Bend, I began to seek out more work like this, which eventually led me to tapestry weaving and the history associated with that, onto more contemporary artists like Jeffrey Gibson, Summer Wheat, and Grayson Perry. Everything is a blur now. The post-cultural landscape we find ourselves confronted with is so fast-moving, fuzzy and confusing. I try to reflect what I see and cannot see into my work as much as possible. I just know I couldn’t make these paintings unless I was sowing them.
I really like that your work deviates from the convention- that is rectangle painting on canvas. Your work reminds me of Elizabeth Murray and I’m sure she is a big influence to you. Do you think your work will take more of a sculptural form in the future?
My work has actually reverted back to the rectangle, a completely intentional and practical decision, which I’m okay with. The irregular-shaped constructions became harder and harder to manage, display, and care for. I think a part of me also just missed the rectangle, and the limitations of what one could do within that space.
Elizabeth Murray is one of my favorite painters and in the early stages of developing this body of work, I was definitely looking towards her for answers on how to push, bend, bounce, and break apart the boundaries of what a “painting” could be. A lot of the questions for me yet to remain unanswered, but I’m working towards stumbling across those solutions. The work already has a sculptural quality to it, given the layering and stitching and layering, and I think it will inevitably become more sculptural as it progresses. I have this urge to take up as little space as possible, which is why I want my work to remain on the wall.
How do you go about starting your work? Do you sketch before starting? How much do you plan? Are there fixed orders you follow each time?
I go through periods of intense creation followed by periods of even more intense execution. Some pieces start out with a clear vision in mind. Others are more haphazard. I’ve been doing a lot more sketching since the quarantine started, which feels really good, and have a cache of ideas I can come fall back on when need be.
I have a flat file full of canvas scraps and unfinished thoughts. Things I pieced together years ago that I’ve forced myself to come back to, just so I can make room for more clutter. Trying to take these demos from the past and remix them to the current sound I’m riffing around with, has allowed me to push the envelope in ways I would not have been able to do otherwise, making room for things to take shape that a sketch could not provide. For me, I think most of the magic happens outside of the sketchbook. Accidents and the tension leading up to them.
Usage of sophisticated color while being colorblind is so interesting to me. When I first saw your work, my first impression was that this person sees, understands and loves color. It is one of the first things I noticed about your work. After I learned that you are colorblind, it made me rethink my first impression. What was the most challenging painting you worked on in terms of color?
Any painting that has red or green in it. Those two colors I don’t see or understand very well. That being said, I’ve been using a lot more reds and greens in my work, which I really enjoy. For a while, I did everything I could to avoid those colors. Painting has allowed me to adapt and progress through my disability. My understanding of perception and how color works comes from reading about color theory. Books like Chromaphobia, The Secret Lives of Colour, and A Mango-Shaped Space. Also just listening to music and how certain sounds can make you feel certain hues. It’s not easy being green in a pink room.
Has your production rate changed since the pandemic?
Did it increase or decrease? I’ve had more time to spend in studio, and I’ve been able to experiment and develop new ideas. I’ve been working on a large-scale commission for the Kansas City Museum; that was filling up a good chunk of my time. I took a break from that though to focus on more personal work. And once I get these pieces out of the way, I’ll eventually return back to that one. The months have flown by it seems and I’m not ready to go back to work anytime soon. The few residencies I had lined up this summer were cancelled, and I’m still pretty bummed about that.
You are engaged in product design such as jackets and swimsuits. Any exciting new projects you are currently working on?
Not really. I haven’t done anything like that in years. Honestly, I don’t think I have the following for it. I’m still just an unknown artist in the Midwest. But if a brand approached me and wanted to collaborate, I would be all for it. Right now, I’m just making paintings and figuring out my escape route.
Stephen Proski INFO