DSC Gallery

Norbert Stefan | Decalphilia

14/07/2020 - 28/08/2020

DSC gallery is delighted to present ‘Decaphilia’, the first solo show in the Czech Republic by Norbert Stefan. The artist’s vibrantly coloured, arresting paintings are born out of the exploration of printmaking techniques like decalcomania – a process which enables engravings and prints to be transferred to pottery or other materials – in this case, onto canvas. It is a technique which was explored by a number of artists in the 1930s, notably Surrealists such as Oscar Domínguez who referred to his work as ‘decalcomania with no preconceived object.’

Stefan is intrigued by the idea of fusing technological processes from the past with traditional practices in order to create a synthesis that far from being retrograde, allows for the evolution of his medium. He talks about the unpredictability and lack of control which accompanies painting: ‘I don’t want to make choices, I want to ask questions regarding the material, so I use chance encounters to determine what’s going to happen on the canvas. I like building the stage for a painting that happens like a naturally occurring visual phenomenon such as the aurora borealis, a thunder strike, frost or even condensation… any chemical or physical reaction that leaves a visual trace or some kind of pattern that can imprint on various surfaces’

Stefan’s paintings are evocative of natural wonders. Some dazzle us with apparent cosmological constructions that resemble clusters of stars – orbs of pale yellow, viridian green and ruddy pink situated in the midst of dense black grounds. Stefan’s deliberate process makes it difficult for the eye to settle on his paintings’ surfaces. Instead, like trying to find the horizon line in a fog, the light bounces back at us, constantly shifting. One moment we are drawn into microscopic, even macroscopic details, at another we are expelled, forced back to try and ‘read’ the night or landscape that is actually a series of marks like pixels. In common with a CT scan, the images that Stefan makes can only be made possible with the aid of technology. The idea of seeing something that is confirmed by a scientific process and can only be translated into a readable image through this procedure is fascinating to Stefan. He is drawn to 3d scans, satellite photographs, cosmology, the animation of black holes and dark matter. Stefan’s interest also extends to the geological and physical – scans of caves, prehistoric skulls, neurological pathways and models of nerve endings. All of these curious meanderings find their way into the artist’s mind and paintings.

Stefan talks of his fascination for the visual possibilities associated with ‘medical media’ and the workings of the inner body. He understands that with the aid of technology, we are able to explore a visual field which attempts a scientific reading of data akin to philosophical attempts at understanding unprovable facts. Stefan’s hope is that through his work, he can create some kind of discourse with the vast expanse of the unknown and build on the visceral tension that connects and binds all elements and matter.

Looking at Stefan’s practice, we can find echoes of the work of figures such as John Cage and his sound theory and Keith Johnstone’s improvisations. First and foremost though, Stefan is concerned with the act of painting and the development of his chosen medium. It is unsurprising then that he has been influenced by Sigmar Polke’s investigations into photography, Rauschenberg’s fascination for printing and the conductor, Sergio Celibdache’s focus on creating a transcendent experience for the audience.

The attempt to create a transcendent experience for the viewer is a key motivation for Stefan. It starts with the need to transcend behaviour and movement and simply translate the expression of complex thought into a visual arena. It is the unpredictability and lack of control associated with

abstract painting that Stefan find interesting. He explains: ‘I don’t want to make choices, I want to ask questions regarding the material, so I use chance encounters to determine what’s going to happen on the canvas. Mind and matter are alloyed together in nature when it comes to visual experience – especially when it comes to a psychedelic experience where the brain becomes an image generator aided by the functions of the eye – but it’s not clear where the actual images of a vision are formulated.This is how the transcendental object or shape can occur – even with no clear source.’

There is something filmic about much of Stefan’s work and indeed he has a strongly developed interest in and knowledge of cinema. For Stefan, there is a clear connection between the evolution of the plot line in a movie and the painting process. In his own work he aims to become involved with the evolution of the narrative. He talks of how at times he feels like a spectator in front of his work because so much is happening that is beyond his control – as if his role is to raise questions and try to fix the problems that arise. Consequently, the structure of each painting is like the structure of a script: things have to happen at certain stages in order for the ‘whole’ to make sense. So the artist’s actions can range from him gently dusting pigments onto a canvas, to throwing 200 gram blobs of paint from various angles. In this way there is also a connection to music. There has to be a gradual buildup of incremental steps and a finely tuned relationship between time, space and sound. Jazz is built upon a series of spontaneous improvisations and techno music is layered and synthesised, so it’s not a great leap to recognize that almost every time an artist applies a new layer of paint to a canvas, they are pushing themselves out of the emotional attachment they have with the existing surface. In Stefan’s case, the layers react irregardless of the relationship they have to each other and this achieves the kind of tension he wants. Stefan feels this kind of schizophrenic approach to the surface arises partly from working with photoshop in the past  – where it is common to use an existing or appropriated image as a starting point and to move on with no risk or consequence involved. One can cut and paste with great ease, invert colours, erase moves – even delete a background all together – and radically change an image in an instant. Stefan wanted to have that powerful capability on a larger scale, such as a 3 metre canvas, where a bold move can finalise a painting –  or destroy it.

Stefan has what he describes as an ‘infinite faith in the potentiality of oil colours.’ It is their  complexity and versatility that he finds most compelling. Interestingly, his formal training was in graphics, printmaking, photography and digital media and it is this that informs his colour choices and technique: cool tones of pink and blue diffusing into inky black tendrils and bloodshot lines. There is always some kind of ‘tinted’ aspect to Stefan’s work – reminiscent of when he was developing film as a student. Stefan believes that the reason his paintings look ‘soaked in chemicals’ and have a slightly synthetic colour scheme is because he’s been adding hues and filters to screens for years.

Stefan talks of his interest in the experimental collaborations carried out by Marcel Duchamp and Man-Ray, where Duchamp left dust to gather on his seminal work: ‘The Large Glass’, and then photographed it with a two hour exposure. The work: ‘Dust Breeding’ (c 1920), delights in photography’s infinite capacity for ambiguity and mocks its practical obligation as a stiff recorder of reality. It is seen as marking a pivotal phase in the development of Duchamp’s masterpiece. The collaboration was a serious and committed undertaking by both artists, but also like much of Duchamp’s practice, conducted in a playful manner. Stefan clearly identifies with this, and so while he’s interested in what he describes as ‘playing at the junction between abstraction and figuration’, he also enjoys the shift between creating a depth of field, focus and blurring. It’s not hard to see how the likes of Rothko and Barnett Newman have influenced Stefan, but there is also a fluidity in his work that he likens to a ‘musical composition where 15 or more types of instruments come together in one broad coherence. At the same time, Stefan talks of how he wants to erase his presence from the frame. His intention is for his paintings to look and feel as if they are either made by machines or created within an alien environment. ‘This’, he says, is why he wants his actions to be compressed into untraceable layers. It is also is why the end result of his work contains no direct evidence of his body and the surfaces – even under a magnifying glass –  appear to be organic, with nothing representational present, even if there might initially appear to be resemblances to objects or beings. Stefan insists that this ‘seeing through the layers’ is one of the most important aspects of his practice and he relies on a dialogue between layering, glazing and transparency, to line up with his process in order for this to happen.

The speed at which the visual field is developing – because of rapid advances in technology – is changing the way artists engage with traditional mediums. For Stefan, it accelerates both the process behind his work and the act of painting itself. With the aid of technology, he can make 150 collages a day. Though he says he feels happy to be able to work faster, he also describes how – paradoxically – the printed result could not be further from what he wants to experience when standing in front of an image. As a consequence, he has stopped trying to print off any digital imagery because he feels completely detached from it. Instead he has begun to focus on how his mind and artistic practice has changed through working with computer screens. Stefan discovered that though the images he generates evolve much faster, the way he approaches the traditional medium of painting remains static.

Painting is – and always has been – an elastic and absorbent medium for new techniques. It might require a shift in thinking for Stefan and for all contemporary painters, but the truth is that the digital field has opened new territories and opportunities for a medium and its practitioners that would otherwise be progressing very slowly. Far from being killed by advances in technology, painting has absorbed change and reinvented itself yet again.

Curated by: Jane Neal (UK)