Steve Kirby: Between Choice and Chance
Art is that moment at which life can touch chaos, most joyously… art is that momentary opening up to chaos where we can enjoy a fragment of chaos, now bound safely, in a frame. In art we come closest to enjoying chaos without being destroyed by it... And this is how art can return us to that unliveable from which we came and gives us a premonition of an unliveable to come.
Elizabeth Grosz, Sensation: The Earth, a People, Art, lecture given at Faculty of Architecture, University of Sydney, 2 August 2007.
I’m going to start this catalogue essay with an unusual confession, which is, when I visited Steve Kirby’s studio to view the works for this exhibition, one of the paintings made me cry. I’m not accusing the painting of being morbid, or sad, or painful, and nor would I anticipate that anyone else would have the same reaction. I can’t explain why The Joining Run made me feel so sad. Generally I’m not in the habit of crying in front of paintings, and Steve’s work tends to provoke feelings of joy rather than sadness; the jewel like colours are spun gossamer across the surfaces of the works, often in compositions reminiscent of lace, or marquisette jewellery. Generally I’d say that Steve’s paintings embody a life affirming delight in the world and the capacity of paint to stretch the eye and imagination of the viewer beyond a representation of the existing world into remaking new worlds and new possibilities of seeing, sensing and living.
Kirby’s paintings hang somewhere just on the edge of meaning; composed of intricate forms that remind us of things, that we can almost name, but then slip away, just like the symmetry of much of his compositions, hinted at and then evaded. The forms that emerge in his work are protean, reminiscent of marine life, or cells, or even fleshy protuberances like buttocks, encased in visceral linear forms, which take our eye away from the point of naming what they are, and into the strange rhythms of the painting itself, patterns spreading across our field of view, marking out, filling in and moving across space and time.
The time aspect is important to these works, as they do not represent a fixed scene or invoke a deadening stasis. Movement pulses throughout, and our eyes are continuously taken across, up and into the works: through the forms, enfolding and encircling each other, along the lines that are not quite lines, that meet each other and meet our eyes with a remarkably odd delicacy. The lack of aggression only adds to the strangeness of the works; they nudge us with the grace of an oddly coloured butterfly, hovering on the edge of our field of awareness.
The works are imbued with a diachronic temporality; we see the time they were painted in, within each mark, particularly within the squelching coils of spiralling lines, spanning the surface of the paintings, weaving in and out of the picture plane, generating their own geometries of paradox. The painterly finesse of this technique is based on extensive experimentation with the viscosity of the paint, and working the mediums up to a level of flexibility that can suspend time, and sustain the delicate films of translucent colour Kirby uses. The fragility of the paint mixture grounds the marks, the gestures, the forms made by the paint as much in the chemistry of the paint itself, as the techniques Kirby uses to amplify gestures, to test the limits of his body and imagination.
There is something in the paint, which manages to continually slip between its materiality as oil paint and what we experience as viewers of the work; as we encounter colours oscillating across a surface and the suggestive qualities of the marks and forms that Kirby has spun and woven the paint into. This experience doesn’t belong to the artist or to us as viewers, but hovers and slips and slides within and outside of us, like sunlight reflected off water. Perhaps it was this that made me cry.
Maybe I was too close to the work, well within the eighteen inches that Mark Rothko suggested to the viewers of his paintings. I was less than a foot away, slightly to the left, where concentric amber rings fading into the white of the board caught in my eye, and made me shudder and sob. I felt part of something lost inside, as a nameless sensation met with the paint, and the scraping points of light seemed to expand and overwhelm me. It seems strange to write about something that is so far beyond words, and my point is that painting as art affects us deeply. The way that light bounces across a surface and enters our eye, the way that colours scintillate and marks oscillate and vibrate within us like music, affect us emotionally and physically. Painting is not about pictures, but about paint, and the wordless intensity that can fill us with sensation and take us somewhere else, such as an impossible intimacy with the artist, and ourselves. Kirby’s works approach this metaphysical condition of art, a space where we can open ourselves up to not understanding, but to experiencing the joy of looking with our whole bodies.