Jeffrey Steele interview

Getulio Alviani
“A work of art must be intelligent, that is to say, exact. Exact art has the character of a science.” (Getulio Alviani)
Katrina Blannin artist

Edited extracts from an interview with the artist Katrina Blannin published in the magazine "Turps Banana" (issue 11, June 2012).

Turps art magazine cover
Jeffrey Steele artist studio Southsea 2014 by Peter Missen

You have suggested that the English Constructionists in the 1950s attempted to integrate their work with new architecture, but that their utopian values avoided a more coherent progression towards the "rational".

I have always been sceptical of the Constructivist ideal of "art into life" and the integration of the visual and musical arts, architecture, the urban environment and so on.

Take the Aubette [Strasbourg, redecorated in Modernist style, 1926-28]: within a very few years it had fallen into disrepair. It didn't work and people hated it. The heroism of the artists involved is incredible, but this and all the examples since then have been imaginative fictions. These are ideas about society that can't come about under a capitalist order. There is no way of telling what kind of architecture socialism would produce — this is still on the other side of the river. You can't expect to build a little bit of beautiful socialist architecture, only for it to then become its opposite, solely the province of a sub-fraction of the capitalist class and this alongside a lot of crumbling tower blocks which just give Modernism a bad reputation. This is not to say that Constructivism hasn't produced some beautiful art.

In the light of this can you clarify the importance of staying with painting as opposed to say relief, sculpture or architecture-inspired installation pieces? Why is it important to develop or advance the historically charged process of "paint on canvas"?

To turn one's back on painting and all its political effects throughout history would be foolish. Rather than taking a stand against painting, I became interested in Tachisme and painters like Michaux and Hartung. In 1960 in Paris I saw a group exhibition with the wonderful title Antagonismes that included Vasarely's 1950s paintings and they influenced me greatly. Although I am not a complete Vasarely apologist (earlier and later works were inferior, rather tinselly and cheap), here I could see everything, the geometric, the mathematical, the Cartesian and a bid for rationality. Here was everything combined from the history of painting: Poussin, Uccello, Chardin and Watteau and crucially the pictorial architecture of Cézanne. Here you could see the birth of Cubism in Cézanne's last paintings. Here was Tatlin and Malevich. Here was a realist facing all the problems of picture-making and dealing with the clash of mimetic and constructed imagery. I soon realised that this interpretation was my own, and very much exaggerated – that neither Vasarely nor most of his followers and associates actually delivered the effects that their art had seemed to promise.

I have seen your works in the setting of a gallery and they are so much more pleasing to the eye than reproductions ... I would go further and say that they are beautiful. Can you say something about the aesthetic values that we might bring to a Systems painting?

Take my newest painting for example, which is a set of 15 square paintings, the culmination of many years of research {top photograph]. In a sense they are like a set of drawings and the whole piece could be seen as a prototype for a work which could go on to be realised again in different materials ... It is like a mine of visual structural information and is, I think, perfect. Yes, there is perfection here in the offing, waiting in the wings. I mean that nothing can be added or taken away without damaging the whole. Now, why should the prototype be superior to the eventual product in the case of a painting, when this is obviously not the case with an aeroplane or other utilitarian objects? Artists in the early 1960s were interested in having their works made for them in a factory. They were against the idea of the artist's touch. They believed that the artist was the manager in a way ... However in the process you lose the evidence of the "journey". And for me the journey is worth knowing and the traces of that journey are important to see.

How do you respond to the idea of "intuition"? Could you clarify the inherent use of mathematical and logical systems in your painting?

I don't like the word "use" in this way: using methods, say mathematics, in the way that you might use an assistant ... for me it's the "system" that "generates" possible paintings. Aesthetic values are "dispersed" throughout the whole process ... I am against the idea of the "sublime" — it should be more graspable than that. There is no final moment of aesthetic judgement or revelation.

But do you have a "good eye" — perhaps better than someone who is not an artist?

There is no such thing. There is only one world and we all see the same things. Artists are trained and perhaps notice things that others don't, but really I would love it if the whole category of the sublime and the genius would go away! It's such a class-ridden concept and a form of mysticism that we need to be rid of.

The titles of your paintings often describe what is happening, eg: Four sets of Chromatic Oppositions in a System of Rotation. Is it essential for the viewer to have access to the titles?

Absolutely not, and furthermore they can be a complete pain in the neck sometimes. The titles are really like nicknames — you need to give a painting a name so it can be referred to.

Why did you become interested in the Gestalt theory of perception?

The idea in the first instance is about "perceiving" and then "naming" something. Then it means you have to draw a line round it so it stands out or is isolated from its surroundings in a successful way. It is all about "figure" and "field" and people noticed that you could also switch the "figure" with the "field". You can then start to think about whether something has good Gestalt or bad Gestalt — has it got a clear shape to it? I can look at one of my paintings and see whether it has good Gestalt or bad, and this has happened occasionally. A clear process of abstract thinking should lead to a satisfying visual Gestalt. I don't necessarily "reject" or stop working on a project when this is not happening, but it bothers me, and I want to know what is going wrong.

How important is the "readability" of your paintings?

In the Systems group we used to talk about the principle of "recoverability", that is the retrievability of the structural information contained in a work, and the accountability from which artists are traditionally supposed to be exempt. This type of information might be easy or difficult to retrieve, and in my own case it lies at the difficult end of the spectrum, but the idea is that whether the art form is easy or difficult, popular or esoteric, something intelligible is going on, perhaps something counter-intuitive, which might repay closer attention and critical work on the part of the recipient. And if a work presents such an object of knowledge — something relatively invariant under scrutiny — then indeed a high level of consensus about its nature becomes conceivable ... But this would require the cultivation of different habits of viewing and reading from those currently encouraged by the mass communications industry.

Do you work with a routine?

No, not really, but I do have time to do things. I stretch and prepare my own canvas and I make my own oil paints using pigments — it is important that I do the whole process. There is the endless round of menial tasks, but also definite programmes of disciplined reflection: reading, record keeping, note taking, archiving, and even dreaming.

Katrina Blannin is an artist, curator, writer and teacher. She studied fine art at Portsmouth Polytechnic in the mid-1980s when JS was a lecturer. She lives and works in Shoreditch, London. Katrina Blannin Turps Banana

Photographs taken at JS's home by Peter Missen in February 2014.

Jeffrey Steele artist in library Southsea 2014 by Peter Missen Jeffrey Steele artist studio materials Southsea 2014 by Peter Missen Jeffrey Steele artist studio materials Southsea 2014 by Peter Missen Jeffrey Steele artist studio palette knives Southsea 2014 by Peter Missen Jeffrey Steele artist studio pigments Southsea 2014 by Peter Missen Jeffrey Steele artist piano Southsea 2014 by Peter Missen Jeffrey Steele artist studio materials Southsea 2014 by Peter Missen Jeffrey Steele artist studio paint dishes Southsea 2014 by Peter Missen