In advance of Stephen Appleby-Barr's solo exhibition at Nicholas Metivier Gallery,
Above the Clouds, Below the Sky, Daniel Strong, Associate Director and Curator of Exhibitions at the Grinnell College Museum of Art, asks Appleby-Barr about the inspiration for his latest body of work.
Daniel: This new body of work contains some remarkable architecture and flora that are the result of a significant evolution in your process. Why did that come about, and what was the process like?
Stephen: It started ages ago and is only now entering the work. My friend Lauchie and I used to make puppets and sets to adorn our zine tables at fairs. We picked up a few things while interning at a stop motion animation studio, working on a film called Madame Tuttli Puttli. This was in the early aughts. The impulse to make these objects again became really pressing when I started living in Berlin. There was so much to process and I wanted reference material that didn’t really exist. I started sculpting little figures and buildings. I could light and arrange them and they would suggest compositions to me. I liked the results and had that lovely feeling that says, “oh dear, you’re going to spend all of your time doing this.”
Some friends invited Cody and me to stay with them in Chianti. They drove us into Florence and walked me up to Brunelleschi’s Duomo and I was dumbstruck. I wanted to fly around this thing and see it from all angles. So, I had to make it. Making one thing suggests the next. My goal is to create a whole library of these sculptures to serve as reference.
D: On my first visit to Florence I arrived at night in inclement weather. The next day dawned with the city’s particular sunlight and I felt as though I’d arrived in another world, with no visual sense of what connected it to where I had come from. It was uncompromised by my approach to it, so to speak. Naturally I’m drawn to your nighttime views, Approaching the Duomo (Portrait) and Debating the Walker’s Wisdom.
The latter recalls for me the make-believe city of Zemrude in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, of which he states, “It is the mood of the beholder which gives the city of Zemrude its form.” He then fathoms the perceptions of those who explore it while looking up as opposed to those who walk it while looking down. “For everyone, sooner or later, the day comes when we bring our gaze down along the drainpipes, and we can no longer detach it from the cobblestones….”
Does making a model give you free reign over a form, or the reverse: does it reign in your impulse to invent?
S: Fortunately for me, the cobblestones are as worthy a subject as a cluster of spires. There’s this great Charles James interview where he says, “a sketch promises everything and delivers nothing!” I love that line because it gives me courage as I put all this time into making these sculptures and models. There’s something about making them that feels so right. It takes every ounce of my attention. It’s physical and mental. At the end of the process I have this memory in my mind and in my hands. My fingers now anticipate the hours of pressure and precision that would be required to describe the recesses in a triumphal arc. I can easily recall the attention it took to get a set of buttresses to fit between two levels of a structure or how I had to re-cut the windows for a whole section because they were too big and would throw off the integrity of the vertical geometry. That level of engagement only used to happen when I was painting but now I have a new place to find it. The impulse to invent and the making of the models are inseparable to my mind. I’ve got time for any process that can create that level of engagement… now you’ve got me thinking about cobblestones.
D: You’ve relocated from Berlin to London, whose museums are chock full of artistic influences for you, but which is also an epicenter of one of the world’s most pressing narratives at the moment. What is the balance like, particularly for a newcomer/outsider, scouring London’s artistic past, setting up a London workspace, while its future is a moment-to-moment headline?
S: It is interesting that I should come to these places to have my own experience with culture shock only to find that the people of these places are themselves in the midst of being shocked by their own cultures. That’s how it seems to me anyway. It’s hard to say what the balance is like because it doesn’t feel very balanced. I talk to people, I listen, I read, I think and then I go back to work. More than anything, I believe I’ve been lucky in my encounters with people. In Toronto, Berlin and London I’ve been fortunate in my friendships. I’ll always paint portraits for this reason.
D: The New York Times recently [Sunday Book Review, Sept. 7, 2019] asked singer/author Patti Smith what book everyone should read before the age of 21, and she replied Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi, “for it contains the full arc of innocence and experience, encompassing love, betrayal, heartbreak, forgiveness, transformation and redemption.” I hadn’t realized that, after the Bible, it’s the world’s most translated book. At first glance your works have a “Once upon a time” feel to them, which may prompt a categorization of escapism or fantasy for them, separate from the concerns of the world we live in.
S: I grew up with the edition illustrated by Roberto Innocenti. Those images and that narrative are locked in my marrow. Patti’s correct. The themes and allegories contained in that classic really resonate. I had a writer friend in Berlin who appreciated the relationships between myth and meaning, she introduced me to the works of Franz Fanon and Ishmael Reed. We’d meet most mornings at the Croissanterie off of Weserstrasse where I would practice my German with that morning’s paper. One morning (post brexit and pre-trump) she laughed and handed me Der Tagesspiegel. Across the front page was a great banner image of Pinocchio, at once ominous and innocuous, with the words “POSTFAKTISCH: Was wahr ist, bestimmen wir”. The image and text were a warning, but I wondered how it would be understood by someone who had only ever known the Disney version of Pinocchio, a good story told badly.
D: I’ve never seen the Disney version, I’ve only read the book. But I read it as an adult, not as a child. It didn’t strike me as a children’s book, the same way the stories assembled by the Grimm brothers seem ill-directed at children, except to govern them by fear. We also read Aesop’s fables as children but rarely return to them as adults, when the lessons might do us good. If we’re assembling a reading list for world leaders, perhaps we should go back to basics?
S: I just don’t get the assumption that adults don’t need fables. Philip Pullman has a great essay on why he considers “children’s literature” such a misnomer as they are rarely books that are written by children.
Whatever the stage of your life, you’d better be careful about turning down a good story. Whether they take the form of paintings, books, songs or whatever. I was never raised with the Mummin books and only discovered them in my early twenties. I worked in a children’s bookstore in North Toronto called Mabel’s Fables. My reading at that time consisted of whatever the kids were reading along side the usual suspects of the ‘newly adult’ kind (Plath, Camus, Woolfe). I came to Tove Jansson’s work by way of Philip Pullman. It was a lucky thing that I encountered them at the age that I did. There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have appreciated them until I’d collected enough of life’s saddle sores. So, it’s difficult for me to see fables, fairy tales and the like as somehow ‘less mature’ or irrelevant to the adult imagination. I hope to always live within biking distance of an independent bookstore. Good stories that are told well will always find their way around.
D: There are figures in your paintings — perhaps drawn from your experience of model-making and puppetry — that casual viewers might regard as children’s playthings. You have created etchings as well as paintings of Pantyhose (sometimes called Scutifier), which are based on an inanimate (or at least non-human) object, which I find bewitching. Perhaps it simply comes down to your gifts as an artist, but it’s not easy to imbue a wooden character with such emotional vitality. Just ask Geppetto, I suppose.
S: It’s not obvious to me as to how it’s done or even why it works. It’s beyond me and that’s what keeps calling me back to doing it. It’s got to have something to do with my genuine care for these characters. In my mind they all have a great deal of interiority. I can feel how they would feel if faced with some circumstance and they often surprise me with how they respond. I want to know them, see where they go and what they do when they get there.
Throughout my notebooks you’ll find a mix of writing and drawing to this point. A drawing of a potential hat for Poussin or Cuniculus in some court dress, and then I’ll have a little vision of Cuniculus doing something. Maybe he is walking in the rain or trying to disentangle himself from some brambles. “Where are they going?” I’ll think and then start writing and drawing. They’re headed off to see the moon who has been in her garden harvesting beans with a silver trowel. The usual path is obstructed by the Emperor’s new toll houses and Cuniculus wants to see if there’s a way to avoid them and now he’s ripped his lovely clothes to ribbons in the thick of it! The next vision might be of the Emperor. He is frustrated because he cannot find the tasseled belt he uses to fasten his bathrobe. Half-naked, he wanders his palace disassembling the baroque finery in an attempt to find a suitable replacement. These are the kinds of scenarios. It’s a way of giving the subject some weight in my mind. They have goals. They have reason, however unreasonable they themselves may seem.
It was reading Tove Jansson that made me feel like writing was a natural way to create content for paintings. The way she tells stories, builds characters and describes places feels different from any other stories I’ve read. I never feel like I’m being dragged to an obvious place in her writing. There is some narrative ambiguity happening all throughout her works. It must be because she was a painter firstly and then a writer. When reading her work it feels like I’m just there and the characters are just there and then things just happen… and that’s enough. Perhaps her work has this effect on me because she spends so much of the books inside the characters heads and hearts, in the coming and going of their feelings. Such empathy!
D: The stories we’re living now — let’s sum them up as Trump/Brexit — don’t seem to fit the bill. They feel to me like stories that no one is writing, or that are being written to distract and confuse rather than clarify or edify.
S: The problem is not that no one is writing these stories. The problematic part is that these stories have already been written and are once again being weaponized to cruel and disastrous effect. On the other hand, I’ve never in my life been so moved by the level of storytelling from the opposition to this political moment. Such empathy! It’s magical to see how these narratives rise to meet each other. There are many encouraging voices rising in this dark hour.
On a different scale, I’ve seen something like it before. In my 20’s I lived in Toronto where there was a queer culture explosion. Will Munro, Luis Jacob, and Jeremy Laing would throw parties in spaces not meant for them. The mission at the time was to get the gay out of the ghetto and its roll on effect was to create queer bastions across the city. There are victories that do not rely on victimizing your antagonist. Those are battles worth fighting and there are many happy warriors in the field today. People whose mere existence is resistance. Too many to mention here but I’ve painted some of my favourites.
Procession, 2019, oil on linen, 60 x 72 in.
D: Over the course of our conversations you listened to the MSNBC television host Chris Hayes’s podcast featuring a Grinnell College alumnus, Chase Strangio, a prominent advocate for trans rights. In their discussion about gender narratives, you noted his reference to litigation as storytelling. I replied that the opposite (or enemy, or at least antagonist) of a good story would be policy by non sequitur, which is what we seem to be living now.
S: Chase is one of these voices that I’m talking about. Every time I hear him I’m richer for it. The quality of their storytelling is such that whether they win or lose a case in the court, they have already succeeded in irrevocably expanding the narrative around what human rights are. That’s powerful stuff.
I would define good storytelling as the ability to create space that wasn’t there before, to imagine more. Whereas bad storytelling’s goal is to limit, punish, or manage the imagination into its smallest container. This goes for all forms of art and media. This may seem like a leap, but I always consider whoever is looking at the work to have the final production credit.
Sculptural reference of the Duomo made by Appleby-Barr