A short trip through the studio

by Erwin Mortier

‘maybe i should leave you alone, otherwise i might talk my work to bits’, he says as soon as i have entered the place. i say no, because i think his work can easily take that. it is just that he does not like the typical arty jargon, catalogue talk and bombast, and i tend to agree with him.

he always seems restless, often scratching behind his ear whilst talking. always alert, almost animal-like, a trait that can also be found in his work. if something strikes him it needs to be ‘processed’. i do not think it is therapeutic, it is more like he gives something back to a world that never stops feeding us stimuli. the surface of his paintings, found on the walls surrounding us in varied stages of development, is one of vibrating layers of images. images that overlap, intersect, cover or insinuate one another. a pleasant art, often evoking a smile, half nervous, half liberating, certainly when a phrase or a word bursts the image play, or on the contrary encourages it, or puts it in perspective.

it is almost as if this artist is in a constant playful but fierce and determined struggle with the visual wall that is constantly threatening to surround us, by combining images with one another, or by knocking away pieces – like in his sculpture – maybe to awaken us people-turned-image creatures, us beings that imagine or are forced to imagine all sorts of things. we are on the brink of becoming a kind of miserable image ruminants. stief likes to take matters into his own hands to shake us out of this lethargy. he shows me pieces of paper from some kind of german bird guide, displaying types of wings, heads, beaks. in the book these images evoke a comforting order that is destroyed on the paper. out of their normal environment these drawings are stamped with words like ‘flügeln’, which is after all exactly what these schematic shapes are in the bird guide: wings, heads, tails and beaks. i think this kind of typologies intrigues stief by the tenacity and at the same time poverty with which they want to control the intangibility of nature and also because they hint at our longing for ‘naturalness’. this was already apparent in earlier work. the imaginary walks for example, inspired by – mark the word – national parks in the states: paintings in which multiple images are at play and in which the painter has made trekking paths. why do we only see nature as nature when there are footpaths available, why did we turn in into a park?

when i entered his studio for the first time there was a painting of a cabin in a forest hanging on one of the walls. an idyllic image that was immediately reminiscent of walden by thoreau, but i do not fancy stief to be that naïve to believe in a perfect harmony between man and nature. we put birds in cages, we rake, weed and cut our gardens. eagles have probably been extinct in our region for dozens of centuries, but we find them a plenty in cement on many front lawns, sometimes accompanied by proud deers with mighty antlers, equally motionless. and we only allow wolves near us after they have been thoroughly selected and made into slavish dogs. i do not think stief’s work is a protest against this – on the contrary, i think that by layering and using other methods he wants to counter clear perceptions of his paintings, videos, sculptures or performances. otherwise his images would immediately be an integral part of the visual flood that surrounds us, they would not be more than visual slogans, sculptural pamphlets, easily erased and turned powerless.

one afternoon he tells me about a group of statues he wants to construct, a group that would mainly consist of plinths, but also of bronze statues of forest animals. just like you have open spaces in the forest where the animals gather he wants to create a similar ‘space’ in the urban forest. ‘people can then sit on the plinths and still be close to the animals, because i would place them in such a way that they are very close to one another.’ so no, his amusement about the front lawn animals in flanders is not gratuitous. these stone animals that are often put close to the street, with their backs to the houses and its occupants, as if they are meant to amuse drivers and pedestrians passing by. when he recreates or combines them, or cuts them – seemingly at random but in reality very purposeful – they become strangely monumental and turn into local variations on the follies and ruins, greek temples or pantheons that were installed in the gardens of 18th century noblemen. his sculptures are just as sophisticated, purposeful and ‘composed’. they are classic, but they also reveal the search that has lead to their existence.

it is work that allows us freedom of movement, it does not tell us what to do, it does not declare anything, and it also does not count on our laziness and it testifies of freedom of movement itself. stief is not one to be influenced by the history of art in such a way that he only applies skimpy colouring on his paintings for example, thus creating paintings that dissolve themselves. painting pictorial impossibilities and basking in other trends is not his way. pop art-like clarity and stern lines meet a way of painting that is reminiscent of abstract expressionism. some paintings display traces of wildly applied paint or other matter that has been thrown across the image. it is a way of working in which chances are taken. it can work out, but it can also go badly wrong and destroy hours, days or even weeks of work in the blink of an eye. this gives stief’s work a huge vitality, a life instinct and in all its restlessness it also displays fundamental fun. it is not disturbed by dogmas, it plays a serious game.

during my first visit i notice a nascent painting on the easel: a silhouette of a woman and a flower, pitch black on pitch black, with the contours of other flowers already visible on the canvas but not yet fully painted. later that summer during a second visit the painting is almost done: the bright colours contrasting fiercely with an even blacker female silhouette. the easel already displays a new painting, showing the contours of two parakeets making love – cage birds. the upper corners show unpainted canvas on which lines of paint have been drawn.

‘painting can sometimes be too easy’, says stief. ‘if it fails you can always apply a new primer, cover up the disaster and start anew. but working on unpainted canvas you need to get it right immediately.’ stief does not make it easy for himself. he does not wallow in his talents and he is not happy to easily continue what he does best. ‘sometimes it is a struggle’, he says. ‘and sometimes you have these moments when it all comes together, when everything you try just works out. that is pure ecstasy. at that moment you lose track of time and suddenly find yourself working for hours without noticing it.’

i think painting is stief’s big love, or maybe it is vice versa: painting loves stief in such a way that he sometimes needs to escape its suffocating embrace, escape to other media he also likes to explore and mould in a playful but thorough manner. the three-dimensional aspect of sculpting, the possibility to catch movement on video, or performances that suck in not only movement but also spaciousness and the body itself into his work. but i do believe that painting is at the core of all this, the spot at the top of the studio, by the window framing a breathtaking view of the leie-region.

it is a fact that he gets full of emotion when speaking of painters from the past, and he has a rare talent for admiring things. i notice that when we are sitting at the table drinking a glass later on. because at a certain moment strong gusts of wind started to make the fence of the studio clatter. stief looked around, looked at all the paintings that are strong enough to speak for themselves, scratched behind his ears and said: ‘maybe we better go inside for a drink.’