Steve Lopes

Steve Lopes breaks away from the familiar, then returns to it. His paintings require astute attention: they entice, but hold the viewer with an unease. Lopes treats complacency and apathy as though they’re as infectious as the pandemic. His subject is reality; humanity at the mercy of chance.

Asking where expressionist painting began is like asking who invented drawing. Historically, the Western expressionist artist is individualistic, the work not readily situated in specific art periods and countries: both El Greco and Bosch were expressionists. In the early twentieth century, artists embracing revolutionary ideals were given this label. Expressionism, using form and structure to play with ambiguity, and reflecting on cycles of empowerment and disempowerment, is possibly the connection between Steve Lopes’ philosophy and his art.

Lopes’ art gives outward release to inner emotion. His emotive energy is unavoidable. Often his expressions are subtle, tightly controlled, silencing; sometimes forceful, always unfolding. His images disrupt nature and the normal appearance of body, place and object; they seem to border on the transcendental, tending to the surreal. He doesn’t romanticise his subject. Painting must have power. His intention is to produce a realistic depiction of what he sees and feels physically and psychologically, the beauty in the uncomfortable. And a tussle with complacency. He carries a grief. He wants us to know, ‘There are people in uncomfortable situations. My family was in an uncomfortable situation … Life is uncomfortable.’ Even so, his paintings reclaim hope. Invention is mandatory, yet he rarely speaks about it. He wants urgently to express the uncertainties of life – opposing concepts of equality and inequality; freedom and conformity; love and hate.

A recent example of Lopes’ concepts is the painting Toy Soldier (2020). A subject with no apparent location, a sleeping figure’s head awkwardly rests (almost floating) in front of a flimsy diorama of toy European vessels and figures. The setting is disarming, until one notices the tropical feel of the military uniforms worn by people mostly with black faces, and that the scenery is non-European (probably Oceanic). In the bottom right corner is a healthy Rhoeo plant incapable of ever veiling this scene, and then there are the ships: sail and steam suggesting generational trade.

By now the sleeping figure’s Europeanness implies some sort of colonial cruelty. ‘I wanted to show the movement of people against their will and the violence against Indigenous peoples as our problem,’ says Lopes.

To put the figure in a space is to be at some disjunction from that place. The figure can become an expression of local adoration but also of uncertainty, anxiety. Lopes understands that art with imagined and real content can be a mighty expressive human combination; what he describes as ‘halfway between heaven and just a little bit out of hell’. While travelling in India in the late 1990s with his wife, Lesley, he was confronted by the coexistence and disparity of conditions of humanity. Lopes attests, ‘I saw in India the beauty of what you could do with the figure and humanity … not just straight drawing and painting of people.’ His diaries were filled with figure drawings of ship-breakers in Bhavnagar, impromptu magazine clippings, sweet wrappings – indeed any cultural ephemera that were interesting. India’s radical difference from his Sydney culture showed him how things really are.

Earlier travels to New York in the 1990s didn’t evoke such a cultural response as in India. There Lopes could grasp from that great city a pathway to the ‘creative life’ he craved as a child. Working as the Australian Editor of the satirical MAD magazine brought him regularly to New York. He used some of the time to attend painter Harvey Dinnerstein’s life drawing classes at The Art Students League, and also accepted the guidance of publishing art director Edna McNabney, who introduced him to the behind-the-scene life of local galleries and the importance of classical literature.

The excitement he felt when distant from home convinced him that travel was necessary for the work to grow. Two years of living among Islamic communities in Willesden Junction, London, provided another expanse of beauty that is contemplative and intelligible. In Willesden Junction, Lopes witnessed the official stigmatisation of the Islamic community. He was charged by the knowledge that Leon Kossoff and Lucian Freud lived, walked and painted in the neighbouring suburbs. Working part time as an artist for the Financial Times newspaper also gave him the independence to study the collections of the great museums of Europe and the United Kingdom, and to return frequently to New York. In Scotland, he worked with the painter Peter Howson, learning his studio methods, such as working without any references to depict human suffering as a universal subject; tying the past to the future. Lopes was moved by Howson’s Bosnian Civil War paintings, but particularly drawn to his use of the expressionist figurative lineage of Grosz, Beckmann and Barlach.

Success in New York and London meant he could become a full-time artist. Returning to Australia in 1999 to raise children, Lopes also came back to the irregular pentagonal studio he’d built in the corner of his backyard in southern Sydney. The COVID-19 pandemic has stopped his regular overseas travel to study and exhibit. Such trips included voyaging to scenes of human butchery with other Australian artists in places like Gallipoli or Belgium’s Messines. On these trips he would try to make deeper connections by gathering natural material like dirt from Gallipoli or Beijing’s Feijicun district, or twigs near New Zealand’s Mount Ruapehu. He would grind these into the paints he makes, to accompany the oil paints he buys. Even when the materials are rarely visible, by combining them with his paints, Lopes tries to deepen his – and indeed the viewer’s – connection to place, magically luring us into the scene, as in the languorous painting Feijicun Transition (2013).

The certainty of his compositional range empowers the content’s sensitivity, giving deeper expressive vision to inner emotions. It is this inner space that evokes his sensuous yet austere expressions of contemporary humanity. This work is not only about the emotive and intellectual appreciation of the subject and its contemplative qualities. For Lopes, if the experience of art is to be lasting, there must be an emphasis on the importance of the poetical, and a proficient use of materials. The more he demands of himself for his work, the more ruthlessly he judges it, discarding many a painting if they can’t survive his vision. He says, ‘The work eventually stands on its own.’ To get there, he explains, ‘Experience is not enough, it’s going that extra mile to find that magic, that last one or two per cent push that visual research gives to rise above the unearthly. And that’s what makes the work fantastic.’

Lopes uses rich, sophisticated, varying brushstrokes, painting with a tonal palette that encompasses the entire colour spectrum to reveal beauty sometimes in the most horrific of places – as in Exposed Wood, Mont St Quentin (2017), for which he was awarded the 2018 Gallipoli Art Prize. His use of formal elements reveal an artist who respects the medium and the furrowing into new ways to learn about the paintings that move him, not the art histories or theories that chronologise the artists as ‘the Renaissance’ or ‘early to late modernist painters’. Above all, Lopes is devoted to giving respect to painters who have ‘toughed-out’ their methods. This is a quality that endears him to many older living painters.

His imagined and real depictions of content uncertainly rumbling against formal elements, memory and the experiential has become the method that defines Lopes’ visions. It seems the greater the uncertainty or ambiguity, the more magical the reality becomes. The painting Village Dancer Study (2011), of a figure in an incredible acrobatic flip, is what Lopes actually saw in Beijing’s Bei Gao village. In the painting Seine Figure (2010), a person bending over a ledge on Paris’ Pont Neuf captures a real moment. Whereas Cracker Man – Chrisp Street (2020) and Dancing on Rossiter (2020) are imagined figures placed in plein air landscapes of the Northern Territory town Rapid Creek. The large painting Inside the Outpost (2020) is a mysterious combination of local and international places; figures known and unknown to Lopes; devastating historical conflicts from the nineteenth century and natural forces from the last century. Inside the Outpost is an ambitious vision of reclaimed wasteland through the labours of normal people.

On other occasions Lopes chooses to undo the path most predictable by preferring the absence of the figure. Halfway through the making of After the Harvest (2019), the land without a figure became the actual site of a friend’s extraordinary survival from an industrial accident, in Humpty Doo in the Northern Territory. The paintings from Gallipoli, such as Trench Life (2015) and Walker’s Ridge – Still Life (2015), are subjects without the figure; he has let the weathered debris, the terrain, illustrate the bravery of both invaders and defenders, and their submission of life to a command. These, and other paintings where the figure is absent, stimulate all the senses.

Other paintings that include the figure – for example, Untitled Figure (2018) and Untitled Figure III (2017) – derived from later trips to France’s Somme Valley and Polygon Wood battlefields. In these paintings, Lopes’ fusions of figure and place have superimposed the nameless, stateless migrants he saw throughout Europe onto historic sites of human carnage. Outstanding in Untitled Figure is the resilience of the soft figure wearing a white tqiy (cap) against the imagined hard surface of the chequered cantilevered step and the existing embedded bunker.

Not yielding to ideology seems to inform the thinking of many children of migrants whose post-war parents gave their lives to their children’s future, raising them to respect the past but deal with the future. Lopes’ father left his small impoverished island of Filicudi in the Aeolian Islands to reach Sydney in 1962. He was a crane driver at Cockatoo Island dockyard in Sydney for more than fifteen years. Lopes adds, ‘My father couldn’t read very well, and at eight I was teaching him how to use the gears from the crane driver’s manual.’

Lopes’ maternal grandfather was an aspiring concert violinist and the son of a merchant seaman who jumped ship in Sydney early in the 1900s. He studied the violin with Cyril Monk at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, later forgoing his dreams of becoming a musician to support his family by running a fruit shop in Darlinghurst. One of Lopes’ sons attends the same institution, now the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Lopes’ mother trained as a milliner in King Street in the city, and later, while raising two children, she used her sewing skills for factory work. Lopes’ 2017 portrait of the enigmatic Australian musician and composer Warren Ellis, poses him with his famous violin, seemingly sitting – even floating – on his cracked piano, fixed on a dirt ground engulfed by ruins, is both homage and allegory. Ellis’ dogged journey through music unfolds through detail, unpacking some of Lopes’ own journeys; of his grandfather teaching him both music and a firm understanding of his place in the world.

A more unalloyed, lasting pride was found in the game of cricket. Lopes’ passion for the backyard game led him to play grade cricket for the University of NSW as an opening batsman, but he eventually gave up on seeking a cricketing career to concentrate on being an arts student and full-time artist. Recollecting the demands of his cricketing achievements still fills him with joy. Sport at that level demands discipline and a capacity to learn through solitude, qualities Lopes continually uses in his art practice today. But, looking back at this time, Lopes says, ‘It was kind of like a “fuck you” to show all these Aussie kids that I could play just as well as them’.

He spent much of his time in the late 1980s and early ‘90s making a part-time living from publishing while studying painting at the College of Fine Arts, Sydney (now UNSW Art & Design). This was a time when live painting and drawing, with studio contact, actually mattered. Lopes trained under painters Alan Oldfield, Idris Murphy, Trevor Weekes and Andrew Christofides, developing enduring friendships with them.

For Lopes and his younger brother Tony (also an artist), stories of back home and family settlement in a new land were captured in their tightly structured Sicilian Catholic upbringing. There weren’t many friends allowed in. The somewhat insular life of school and family, Lopes’ reflects, ‘made me read more and to get into art, and probably opened up my imaginative state more than the average kid’. Fear of the other also fuelled the conversations. There was plenty of evidence and firsthand family experience of the customary xenophobic insults. Lopes wasn’t immune to them, either on the street or at school. He explains, ‘You just copped it back then, and there was no expressing yourself or talking about it, you just lived it.’ He could easily have become a victim of the hatred. Instead, the bigotry left a haunting sense of disempowerment and empowerment. As a child he began to see the kindness and the harshness in the world.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 52, 2020.

Steve Lopes
18 February – 8 March 2021
Queenscliff Gallery & Workshop, Melbourne


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