For his first solo show at Francis Gallery, titled Resonant Line, London-based artist Liam Stevens creates a sense of rhythm with repeated lines and forms, while drawing equal attention to the negative space around them. Featuring layered pigment washes with pencil on canvas, constructed reliefs, and a selection of drawing studies, his work is inspired by the repeating structures he identifies in natural and urban landscapes, as well as his connection to music, which often takes a visual form. In his canvas compositions, subtle vertical grids act as a regular tempo, while groups of horizontal lines create a sense of movement, progressively stepping out of phase with the grid.
Following the launch of Resonant Line on 16 April, 2020, Francis catches up with Stevens remotely, from his home in London, to discuss his ongoing artmaking, the ideas behind the show, and his thoughts on art and art history.
Francis: What are you working on at the moment?
Liam Stevens: I normally have three or four different projects on the go at one time, all at various stages, either in my mind or in my notebook. There are a few woodworking pieces I am experimenting with, which build on the idea of repeating forms of identical dimensions that I was exploring in Resonant Line. And I recently bought some metal and metal benders [laughs]. When we spoke previously, we discussed how the relief works I made with paper for Resonant Line got me thinking about larger pieces in folded metal; these materials will allow me to test some of those ideas out on a smaller scale at home. I'm also interested in how I can affect the surface of the metal, how I can give it an appealing patina. I may have to invest in some hydrochloric acid – although I don’t know how much I could get done in the flat without affecting my wife!
I like to explore three-dimensional space as well as that of a flat surface. A lot of artists imagine the plane of their canvas as a window into something else, rather than a thing in and of itself. Whereas, even though there are lots of layers in my canvas works, I regard them fundamentally as objects. I don’t see much difference between making a painting and a sculpture in that way. They overlap for me.
How do you start your day?
I wake up and do Japanese lessons for half an hour, before beginning my work for the day.
How long have you been taking Japanese lessons?
Probably far too long for the level I am at! My wife is Japanese, and we often stay with her father in Kugayama in Tokyo when we visit each spring. If my wife leaves us alone, we can’t do much except stare at each other and smile. So I have tried to get to the point where I can hold a mini conversation with him and the rest of her family.
Our trips to Japan have had a huge impact on me. In Europe, traditional thinking around art is largely informed by wealth: historically, much of European art is either bourgeois or religious. Japanese art on the other hand seems to celebrate nature much more. Sometimes it is very contrived, such as in a Japanese garden, but even so, it’s an art form that uses nature, pruning it into a form, almost like a collaboration.
I also like traditional Japanese architecture – it’s more low-key. There’s no ornate cornicing or gilding or massive great paintings. The architecture serves to celebrate the views of the surrounding landscape, and the natural textures of paper and wood play an integral part to the interior. During these trips, I began to notice how the geometry of a Japanese house – all these hard lines and grids – play off the natural forms outside. I found it really beautiful; I think it’s had a significant influence on my work.
What other artists are you interested in?
Early on, I loved the attention to nature in Ellsworth Kelly’s drawings, and the huge geometric shapes he created, where the wall or the surface they are exhibited on become just as much a part of the work as the painting itself. He did a lot of beautiful work with abstracted shadows. One piece was made by observing how shadows fell on a step: he divided the canvas into vertical and horizontal planes, to map the positions of the steps, then drew in the shadows, and how they hit each level differently. I didn’t know they were shadows until I heard him talk about it – I just thought it was a lovely arrangement. It got me thinking, ‘Wow, maybe I should start paying attention to shadows more!’ A painting can give you insight into another world that you otherwise might miss.
I was massively inspired by André Derain and Henri Matisse, too. Even as a child, I loved the way they painted their lines with spaces between them. There were gaps in everything. That really affected me, and it still does. I find it so interesting that they could paint an object without any of the lines touching, and still suggest a sense of wholeness. And isn’t that how everything is constructed as well? At an atomic level, nothing actually physically touches.
There is void in everything.
Exactly, there’s void in everything. I like that idea – that things are seemingly whole yet have different amounts of space between their molecules.
I have also become more interested in Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, and the Dansaekhwa movement in the last few years. I liked a lot of hard-edged abstraction, but the more I have worked with different materials, the more I have moved away from the hard-edged stuff, where surfaces are completely red or completely blue. I have become more interested in the patina on the surface, and things that are not perfect. I think if you are striving for something to be completely perfect, it will be your downfall [laughs].
And you risk being left with something that is so clean, that it loses some heart.
I think we respond to blemishes and imperfections really well. We like that human touch, especially with art that works in physical materials and paints.
I think it is the same with music too.
Yes. With digital music, if you have a 4/4 beat, you can quantise everything to exactly where it is meant to be – but it sounds robotic. It can feel almost painful to listen to something so mechanically perfect. I think there needs to be some kind of misalignment – elements that drift in and out of time – for it to be enjoyable.
My brother works as a sound engineer, and played several instruments when we were growing up. We used to play together. And when I was at university, I used Logic and other software to make music. I learned a lot. I liked the visualisation of the sounds – similar to the coded, perforated strip that programmes a Pianola. I think my work bears a semblance to the Pianola code. Even though it is programmed, it resembles something organic to me, somehow.
Even now, I experience music in a very visual way. When I listen to the music I’ve selected for the Francis playlist – the Steve Reich rhythms blasting up and down – I see these steps ascending and descending. Similarly, when I am engaged with my surroundings, when I’m looking at buildings, I see these steps as well. I’ll notice an anomaly, like a window that has a blue blind when the rest of them are white. For me, that experience is not unlike the sounds I am hearing. It feels quite familiar.
Do you listen to music when you are in the studio?
Only when I’m painting, because there is a little more freedom there. If I’m drawing up the lines on the surface of the canvas, I won’t listen to anything – I have to be completely focused. It’s amazing how time flies – it’ll suddenly be 10 p.m. and I haven’t eaten anything. I think that focus is healthy. And it’s so important to enjoy the process of making. I remember an interview Agnes Martin gave when she was in her 80s; she said, “I painted for 20 years and I didn’t like the paintings". It was an endeavour. And with Howard Hodgkin, at times he would make a brush mark and leave it for a year and then come back to it. His works are beautiful, and they look effortless, but each decision would have been agonising. In a way, if there’s one thing you don’t need, it’s a process that feels agonising! I don’t want to suffer while making my art. I want to enjoy it, and I think the best things come out of that, for me.
We spoke before about your interest in the idea of phasing in music. How did you first come across this?
I think I was in New York when I first heard Piano Phase by Steve Reich. It completely blew my mind that it was two pianos playing one motif in and out of sync. You can’t tell with your ear if one piano remains constant while the other moves in or out, or if both are moving in relation to each other. I found myself visualising it as I was listening to it: these vertical and horizontal lines. The vertical lines were keeping a kind of tempo, while the horizontal lines created these repeating visions. That became my starting point for Resonant Line. In one of my pieces, I didn’t play with that concept too much, and in others, I moved each repetition along a bit, so they were out of step with where they were previously, to create a visual movement on the surface, like water.
Now that you have seen the curation of the show, how does it compare with what you were imagining?
I am really pleased. I was not expecting the three big canvases to be overlapping each other like they are on the wall of the main gallery space – I really like it.
It is almost as if the canvases become another block iteration, creating another rhythm.
Yes, like using the wall as a canvas in itself. Richard Serra said something that really appeals to me – that his sculptures were purely to delineate or articulate space. Without them there, the viewer would be less aware of the space around them.
Like the Matisse and Derain paintings, with the gaps between the lines.
Exactly. Delineating the space around it, literally with lines. It’s so interesting. I have no idea why! But perhaps that’s what drives the exploration: it is something mysterious.
It is unknowable.
Yes – unknowable. I think we are drawn to those sorts of concepts, when something is masked or a little unclear. Our natural inclination is to want to know more.
Words: Ollie Horne
Photos: Rich Stapleton