Stieg Persson

Stieg Persson delivers a consistent expression of painting’s potency by writing a pathway between modernist and post-modernist concerns.


Stieg Persson’s treatment of the language of painting and, importantly, the treatment of language, constructs a field of engagement that delights in the pleasures of reading. It’s not just the simplistic decoding of letters and sentences but the manner of the curving line in a vowel sound, the pregnant pause between phrasing, and the urgency of communication manifested with haste on a surface that is both loaded and spacious.

Persson is a known presence on the Australian art landscape and a well-respected one. Beginning as a bright rising star, his ascendancy was propelled through acquisitions of his work by international collections, not least of which the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A consistent thread running through his oeuvre is his treatment of text. Persson explains that “the use of the arabesque, calligraphy and text has morphed, taking on different roles and purposes over the years”. Its presence evokes a driving need to communicate as well as a refined appreciation of the iconography of the written word.

Persson’s early work from the 1980s saw him using text “as a metaphor for the breakdown of language, the desire to communicate and its difficulty/impossibility”. His thinking in this regard continues today and expands into new considerations, with a keen awareness of the symbol’s internal logic and its attendant meanings. Text is a dominant touchstone and his treatment of it demonstrates a committed examination of both form and content.

This early approach is a reflection of the dominant language around art theory and philosophical approaches to addressing visual communication. “It also worked,” Persson continues, “as a descriptor of the functionality of painting – to decorate.” The calligraphic aspects to his work and the handling of the iconography of text provide riffs on the transitional shift between a form and the content it bears. Curves, loops and angles are conducted in such a way as to tease out the inner essence of their being while transcribing a broader social implementation as a tool of distributed communication.

In the 1990s, Persson drove the work into new terrain with, as he puts it, “an emphasis on languages that are intelligible only to the initiates”. This included forms like Death Metal logos, which he describes as “metaphoric of the often closed nature of contemporary artistic practice”.

Persson’s work is self-consciously aware of its place in the grand tradition of art history. He plays with the very notion of painting and its place in the trending acceptance of its importance at a given moment. Through a carefully considered exploration of its capabilities he positions his work at the centre of contemporary concerns.

In his most recent works, Persson encourages us to select from a menu of consumable forms, picking and choosing from a scattered array across the canvas. Herein lies a joy that comes with a dedication to his intentions, for these are indeed joyous works. One might even contend they are hedonistic works.

With steak, oysters, raw chocolate and champagne in the mix there is little doubt that we are sitting at the table of luxury and excess. It’s not a wallowing in basic pleasure-seeking but a carefully considered composition of ideas, a reflection on the very nature of painting and art.

Persson is driven by a devotion to unpacking the intricacies of painting. “Paintings can be pretty easy to dismiss because we are so comfortable with the genre,” he explains. Not afraid to engage his audience with visual intensity, he has painted the walls in previous exhibitions, motivated by a desire “to make people work a bit harder at looking” through an “assault on the senses”. His current body of work contains this intensity within the canvas itself, delivering the urgency of graffiti tags with cafe text, and the Pavlovian stimuli of fine foods with the eruption of molecular expansion.

It’s the efficient combination of productive elements that makes any good system hold together and function effectively. Persson’s attentiveness to this balancing act is evident in his dynamic imagery. “Pictorially,” he explains, “I’ve always understood my paintings as a flat ground on which events take place.”

These are works that appear to have been frozen at a given point in their lifeline, as if a pause button has been pressed in moments of chaotic activity. And they threaten to explode again at the merest hint of release from their delicate containment. For Persson this is a matter of “controlled and managed exuberance”.

Understanding this process of equilibrium, fragile as it is, Persson acknowledges the significance of collage in shaping his imagery. He deftly takes the principles of collage and inserts them into his method of painting. “The collage elements are a very important structural device, both formally and conceptually,” he says. “Collage has to be one of the great inventions of the 20th century. The ability to create unity and disjunction simultaneously opens up so many potential layers of meaning.”

The strength of Persson’s approach in this regard is the collaging of elements across categories – arabesque line meets painted silhouette meets handwriting. The synaptic cross-firing afforded by his method of collage then runs inter-medium or intra-medium to open up new lines of understanding about mark-making, form, symbol and typography – always filtered through the medium and meaning of painting.

Counterpoint to this is a feeling for isolation and a field of play. On light monochromatic backgrounds, Persson sets both a foundation and a source of form. He sees these backgrounds as “open areas (that) are both active and passive”, which allows for them to recede as infinite space or to surge forward as islands of weight. There is a classic sense of push and pull that ensues, which is further enhanced by text and singular objects that sit isolated, seeming to float above and between the fray. These chosen objects, food items and tiny meal portions, establish a clear terrain of consumption and speak to the hunger of the eyes to devour the content of the work.

In what Persson describes as “a continuation of the Melbourne Now works (shown at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2013-14) but with more of an emphasis on class,” his current work taps into western culture’s hunter/gatherer acquisition of resources from around the world. We see macaroons of varying hyper-colour that attest to the market forces of culinary fashion and the sharing of food imagery on the internet. Zucchini flowers and redcurrant jelly further drive forward thoughts of gourmet cuisine. Heirloom carrots fall from the sky or tumble around the atmosphere as the consumptive urge of our culture vacuums up the finest foods into its own vacuous maelstrom of excess.

Importantly though, his delivery is without malice or heavy-handedness. Persson’s hand is a delicate guide, an offering palm, and not a hammering of ham-fisted intent. The objects within the paintings, not so far removed from still lifes, are elemental components presented without manipulation or interference. They simply stand as signifiers of what they are. The viewer is free to elicit an interpretation based on their familiar origins rather than on their implied translations. But to be clear, these objects are loaded. Persson finds “food or more particularly ‘foodism’ (to be) one of the most fascinating cultural expressions of our age”.

Persson dissects the imagery he is working with to consider and co-opt it. The food is more than just food. It is culture. “Numerous sociological studies on diet indicate the same patterns,” he explains, “the impoverished eat poorly because of the lack of choice and education, as well as low income.” His choice of particular foods becomes anthropological evidence in a subtle investigation into cultural cues. With a keenness befitting an artist of acuity and deepened awareness of context, we may well be seeing another metaphor of painting itself and, more widely, the very idea of art.

Persson’s consideration of what he describes as “the world of feminised discretionary spending” delves further into class. Fascinators, skin treatment and yoga references all hint at such a notion. Consumption and ‘treating yourself’ are packaged as stark devices delivering clear content messaging in text and image. What is worthwhile noting is the way this is both a first-level content trigger and a formal device for selecting pattern, shape and image.

Running counter to the feminine is the prevalence of graffiti tagging and its associated masculine undertones. And here again we have a balancing act of elements working in relation to each other for unexpected outcomes. Persson sees tagging “as the dark side of the neo-liberal subjectivity – indulgent, selfish, narcissistic”.

It is well worth noting that the blackboard texts that espouse culinary options and fashion fare are documentary in nature, “direct copies of merchants’ blackboards seen in Brighton shopping strips”. Nearly all of the graffiti tags are sourced from the same area, conflating the two disparate expressions of text. For Persson, this is a “sort of a battle of the privatisation of public space, both forms unwanted but one ratified – ultimately both are vulgar. So-called street art embodies the same principles with a pretense to aesthetics and social commentary.”

There’s tremendous joy in unravelling both the formal qualities and the content aspects of Persson’s work. It is work that rewards contemplation while exercising the eyes. It is art that captures the character of its time while expressing its own historical relevance. You can surrender yourself to the dynamic aspects of its appearance and you can find intellectual pathways through the gravitational fields that hold the molecular elements of its construction in place. Much work aspires to such sensorial enrichment but very little of it achieves it in the way that Persson’s does.

Image: Poussins and Grapes, 2015, oil on linen, 187 x 227cm

Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

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