Steve Lopes: Shapes For Gods

I have come to expect the twirling ambiguities in Steve Lopes paintings. Rather than repelling me, I keep wanting to see more. His October exhibition Shapes For Gods at Mitchell Fine Art, Brisbane, imposes intriguing new questions about his use of metaphors, time, and dualities.

The exhibition title Shapes For Gods is taken from the painting of the same name. It is the pivotal work amongst a field of twenty-three figurative paintings, a print and a drawing. Shapes For Gods is Lopes’ fourth solo exhibition at Mitchell Fine Art and follows last year’s Encountered, a twenty-five-year survey (which this writer curated) at Orange Regional Gallery and S.H. Ervin Gallery.

There is a continuum between Shapes For Gods and Encountered, with the inclusion of the outstanding painting Figure with Horse Icon, 2022-23, which Lopes has slightly reworked from Encountered by sharpening the formal elements. He has also included the complex Still Life – Reaching, 2022 in this show. The inclusion of both adds a dominant presence of still-life paintings. It highlights that the artist has tilted his attention away from people and place, by making them less of the focus, while turning his attention to how objects are arranged in space and time.

In this exhibition are three paintings with text, all made in 2023: Shapes For Gods, Bearded Poet and Frontier Still Life. The use of text is relatively new in Lopes’ work. These texts suggest another dimension of time. The abstractive play with time is an exciting development, revealing connections between the artist’s introspection and his relationships.

“SHAPES for gods” – in a stencil-type font that stems from the early Renaissance period –appears at the top left corner of the eponymous picture. The font is reworked in an early twentieth-century advertising style, using cream and green colours. The colours denote a silly time when “Australian heritage” was defined by cream and green. This SHAPES for gods sign is painted resting on a wooden glass cabinet. The tops of the letters in “SHAPES” are cut beyond the frame. In front of the sign is what appears to be a carved Corinthian wooden column, and a type of Japanese warrior helmet, next to a sculpture of a head. There are many other objects in Shapes For Gods; a majestic weathered wooden lion, an ornate wood boot that is strangely skewed with a piece of wood from the boot’s side, (a reference to Philip Guston) parts of tables, more sections of columns, a model of a boat, a street sign, and a cropped painting. Amongst the crammed objects in the cabinet is a demure mannikin head with eyes veering to the left of the viewer: an unsettling curiosity.

The mannikin – surrounded by layers upon layers of objects contesting space ultimately creates a composition that is so ambiguous that knowing some of the references does help to connect with the work and exhibition. The statement “SHAPES for gods” originates from a sign found in a local antique shop with the text “SHAPES for dogs.”

Presenting the revolution of the word dog to god in the painting reveals an inner-outer contemplation. Not unexpected from Lopes; however, the idea of revolution and the emotion it sets off is polarising, and unusual for the artist. Lopes is wanting the viewer to be more considered in their viewing, take in the issues with a good dose of poetry. In Frontier Still Life various objects are again layered upon another. Some of the objects are weathered, others appear new. Sections of text are revealed and concealed. The painting is viewed from above. The scale and placement of the objects, such as a bullet next to a likely rabbit trap with the word “Australia” readable, make a direct comment. It is fair to assume that this painting is a harsh assessment of place.

With Frontier Still Life, Shapes For Gods and other works in the exhibition, Lopes is making us more aware of the non-binary space in which he has always moved, especially in reference to his Italian-Australian background. Here, I’m specifically referring to the problematic third space of which Lopes is trying to make sense: ideas in the arts, ethnicity, class, politics, religion, and gender.

He is now in his early fifties. With more than thirty years of practice behind him, Lopes’ ambiguities are twirling faster than ever.

This preview was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 64

Shapes For Gods 
10 October – 4 November 2023
Mitchell Fine Art Gallery, Queensland

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