Bread is put into a toaster. Before it goes into the toaster it is bread, after toast. The bread is gone, of course only transformed, but perhaps now something less fresh, more burnt, stands in its place, at any moment ready to crumble. Of course, from the opposite angle, we could say that unappetizing, stale bread has, quite rapidly, been turned into something delicious. What might have been thrown out, once again, being put to good use.
Might something similar be occurring to or within these works, a transformation at times verging on the accidental. A slice of toast cast in bronze suggests a process of transformation that has been fixed, a monument to daily ritual both banal and resonant, and in many of these works we witness a process of self-questioning – doing, undoing and re-doing – that has also been fixed in time and space.
You are in the studio, it is morning, a coffee in one hand, perhaps a cigarette in the other. You’re wandering around the studio, looking out the window, wondering about various random things, about the next move, absent-mindedly placing the coffee cup down, picking it up again, noticing that the bottom of the cup has left a ring, a stain. The stain is a trace of this aimless moment, repeated over and over again, as if into infinity.
The still rising sun shines sharply through the studio window. Each possible work, hung temporarily to gain some perspective, scattered underfoot and propped up in corners, all detritus from this never-ending conversation (but a conversation with what exactly) can be seen somehow differently in this new morning light. All the intermittent struggles from the days and weeks and months before, of trying to figure out how and why and what to make, might – for at least a few hours – be washed away. It is morning and all you have is the work in front of you, without explanation, saying only what it chooses to say in that exact moment.
Some of these works make use of things leftover or cast aside from the process of painting. Or processes, activities – repetitive, obsessive – that fill the time before or after painting or, temporarily, instead. To make a better meal of the leftovers then the one you had originally cooked.
I wrote: “While still in art school, all artists should take mandatory courses in humility.”
Justin wrote back: “If you teach the humility class, I can be a guest on occasion, showing up with nothing to say, stuttering and crying. If I did it often though, I would probably stop crying and feel comfortable saying nothing, maybe even pretend that nobody was there.”
In this tone there is something that gets to the underlying spirit of these works better than anything I have been able to write. These works do express a kind of humility in the face of their own making. But I believe, at the same time, they are also constantly searching for reasons to push beyond themselves, reasons to take themselves apart one more, one last, time. And new ways to put it all – roughly, tenderly – back together.
(This text is about the work of Justin Stephens whose website can be found here.)