Stephen Bird

Ahead of his upcoming show at Olsen Gallery in Sydney, Emma-Kate Wilson wrote on Stephen Bird's practice in Artist Profile Issue 54. In 'Mare Incogitum,' Bird stretches his mind, and his brush, between the remembered and the imagined - and sometimes, even, into the prophetic.

In his new exhibition at Olsen Gallery in May, Stephen Bird uses both paint and clay to explore the imaginary voyages of the mind; how far the narratives of real-life extend into mystic journeys. ‘Mare Incognitum’ captures the inner workings of a human mind, layered with Bird’s own experiences navigating the far-reaching corners of the world. 

‘Mare Incognitum’ is a concept that explores the ideas of undisclosed seas – Freud also used this term as a metaphor for the unconscious human mind. In his forthcoming exhibition at Olsen Gallery, Stephen Bird poses questions for exploring the unknown; from travel, moving through life beyond the mundane, and even into unconsciousness. ‘Mare Incognitum’ depicts imaginary voyages and how far real-life can extend into mystic journeys. 

The exhibition follows on from Bird’s ceramic works for the Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Awards comprising thirty ceramics, each containing their own narrative. Complimenting these ceramics, the artist realised he could find depth and connection through painting. Here he can control the viewpoint and build the composition, journeys, and emotions of the characters. ‘I didn’t set out with a manifesto’, says Bird, ‘Each painting seems to be like something that I’ve got to do – every painting is like an individual experience.’

Armed with a sketch pad documenting the world, Bird develops a catalogue of ideas to draw on for his paintings and ceramics. Time in the studio becomes a place to reflect on the constant stream of information from global narratives. But they also reveal the artist’s perspective, drawing closer from imagination. ‘I think it takes you to the edge of reality, in a way’, Bird adds. ‘You recognise the real world, but it’s not quite.’

The surreal of everyday life is exposed; fact can often be stranger than fiction. A moment captured in Woman with a sawfish (2020) was derived from an image Bird saw in a book by Valerie Taylor, the global marine pioneer. Wearing a bright orange wetsuit, against a tropical background of blues and greens, Taylor pulls a sawfish out of the sea. In the work, her face is obscured by a Pacific Island mask inspired from the deceased estate auction of the Scottish artist Alan Davie. 

Elements of the painting are so surreal the viewer questions what is real and what is imagined. A Google search reveals the comically long nose of the sawfish to be fact, but the expression on the woman’s face, barred by the mask, is decidedly fiction. 

‘I always think that people can draw a line between drawing from life and drawing from imagination, but really they are exactly the same thing,’ Bird comments. ‘When drawing from your imagination, there is just a bigger time gap from what you see and what you draw.’

Often the works contain a mystery, even to the artist himself. Bird hopes the viewer can uncover these through an immersive experience, set by the paintings in the gallery. Memories are blended, and travel comes to the forefront of each canvas. ‘In the last eighteen months, I was an artist in residence in Hua Hin, Thailand, and I had a solo exhibition in Edinburgh as part of the International Festival,’ says Bird. ‘And then suddenly, there’s been a lot of time this year to reflect on the privilege of being able to do all that overseas travelling – previously it had just seemed so normal.’

Encounters from the residency in Thailand often appear throughout the new exhibition. Visit to the golden Buddha 1, 2019, with its zorbing clouds and golden Buddha at the centre, captures a moment as the artist said goodbye to his family as they returned to Australia, revealing the emotion of separation.  

Capturing the iridescent qualities of light moving through the otherworldly clouds, Looking west from moss side Auchterarder, 2020, depicts the magnetic lines of the Noctilucent clouds in the sky Bird saw on a recent trip back to the Highlands of Scotland. While there, Bird stayed with a friend recuperating from having a brain tumour removed. The painting is the view from his friend’s front door. ‘When I came back to Sydney, I wanted to paint the same view that he was looking at every day as he healed’, Bird shares. 

As we are all experiencing a disconnection of the everyday, ‘Mare Incognitum’ hovers towards the edge. The collection is an immersive experience, each painting a vignette of time or memory. Intersections between fantasy and certainty are at the crux of the works – the interpretation of illusions constructed from the memory of travel or the depths of imagination. 

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 54, 2021.

Mare Incogitum
12-29 May, 2021
Olsen Gallery, Sydney

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