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Steve Lopes Encountered

In Artist Profile 58, Anne Ryan previews Steve Lopes Encountered, a landmark solo show surveying a quarter-century of art making, at S.H. Ervin Gallery and Orange Regional Gallery.

I go backwards and forwards . . . I live between two worlds, in my head.

Steve Lopes is an artist who finds himself at once both everywhere, and nowhere. An inveterate traveller since his youth, his insatiable curiosity for new experiences drives his art and desire to tell stories, connecting the threads of history and place with the people who have shaped them. 

Lopes grew up in Sydney with parents who migrated from the Aeolian Islands, a small rocky archipelago north of Sicily, before he was born. Like many children of immigrants, he always felt his experience of the world was suspended between two places – Australia with its short white history and ancient Indigenous one, and the rich Western traditions of his family’s Italian ancestry and his training as a painter. As an adult he moves freely from city to country, in Australia and the wider world. He is a seeker, an observer, and above all, a storyteller. 

Lopes undertook formal training at the City Art Institute, Paddington (now UNSW Art & Design), and later in the US and UK, interspersing it with travel to New York and Europe where he combined visits to the great museums and art centres, and visiting the islands of his parents’ birth. Today he works in his Sydney studio and cottage in the New South Wales Central West, and undertakes local and international residencies, including in New Zealand and China. In each new place he finds rich material for his work – from landscapes to those individuals who he gets to meet and know. 

Lopes’s affinity for paint and desire to express human experience has driven the direction of his practice, which encompasses drawing and printmaking as well as painting. He rarely sets himself a project, preferring to respond to what is before him without a preconceived theme; connections within a body of work are incidental, rather than forced. One exception to this is painting landscape en plein air, which he undertakes regularly on expeditions to Millthorpe, NSW. The discipline of this process – as he is forced to react to the swiftly changing conditions of the weather and light – is a necessary reinvigoration of his studio practice and usually an end unto itself, although  occasionally leads directly to more realised studio works, such as those he painted following a journey to the World War I battlefields of the Western Front in 2017. In these paintings, the modern landscape is shown scarred by the battles of a century ago, and infused with the artist’s knowledge of its history. 

Lopes’s artistic influences are diverse – from Australia’s Kevin Connor and Britain’s Frank Auerbach to South Africa’s Pieter Hugo, from Goya and the early Renaissance Italian masters to Chicago’s Leon Golub. His studies in the early 1990s at the Art Students League of New York, which has a focus on the figurative and an international student cohort, liberated his approach to his work. This loosened any ties to a national school of art, a pull he had felt strongly in Australia – to a more international, and also more individual, outlook.

There is a distinction between Lopes’s landscape paintings, which spring from his dedicated plein air practice, and his figurative paintings, which have a more metaphysical, considered feel. The landscapes have a painterly, expressive quality that is informed by a direct and emotional response to his subject.  The figurative paintings, on the other hand, are carefully composed tableaus with a collaged-together quality that feels studio-bound, although the characters and objects painted within them all come from direct encounters – subjects known to the artist, or places and situations which he has experienced directly. There is an intensely psychological undercurrent to these works where meaning is hinted at but never made explicit; the suggestion of a parable that goes beyond the moment to a meaning of more timeless significance. Both artist and viewer become observers, somewhat detached from a scenario that seems both close, yet also universal.  Surrounded by objects or within a particular constructed or natural landscape, analogy and metaphor are offered up for the viewer’s interpretation as part of a narrative flow.

Portraiture is a small but significant subject for Lopes, and has included those close to him as well as more famous people, such as artist Reg Mombassa and musician Warren Ellis, both of whom he got to know after admiring their work. A real connection is important for him when painting portraits, tying in with his interest in delving deeper and telling stories from life.  

Steve Lopes’s work will be the subject of a forthcoming exhibition surveying a quarter-century of art marking. Enormously diverse in imagery and content, it is a celebration of the enduring spirit of humanity and the power of connection.

Steve Lopes Encountered includes over eighty paintings and rarely seen drawings, prints and collages, diaries and sketchbooks dating from 1997 to 2021. It opens at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney in March 2022 and will tour to the Orange Regional Gallery in May. 

This essay originally appeared in Artist Profile 58, 2022.

EXHIBITION
Steve Lopes Encountered 
26 March – 8 May 2022
S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney 

21 May – 16 July 2022
Orange Regional Gallery, New South Wales

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