Those Left Behind: Artists in Conversation

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Angela Edmonds talks via Instagram Direct Messages with painter Oriele Steiner about two of her paintings ‘Untitled’ and ‘Those Left Behind in the latest in a series of artist conversations focused on specific artworks.

Angela Edmonds: I’m looking forward to discussing your work but firstly congratulations on your recent successful application to study on the M.A at The Slade.

Oriele Steiner: Thank you!

A.E I recently saw your work when you took over the Shape Instagram Account and was struck by your vibrant use of colour and the enigmatic semi-abstract figures. One particular painting has a striking limited palette, and sense of the uncanny. It’s acrylic on paper and I believe it’s ‘Untitled’. Perhaps you could say something about your working method and what you were thinking here?

photo of a painting

‘Untitled’. acrylic and gouache on paper. 21cm x 30cm. Image © Oriele Steiner

O.S: At the moment I’m really trying to limit my palette … as difficult as that is. There’s always been a real need for me to use as many colours as would work in a drawing/painting, which has been great at times, but I guess I’m moving forward now. I’ve always used a bright coloured ground, allowing parts to come through, but more recently I’m allowing more of it to come through using contrasted colours to make the ground ‘pop’.

The figures have become one in this particular painting. I’ve been focusing on the single figure, commenting on themes around isolation (not connected to the current Covid 19 situation weirdly), so somehow I wanted them to become one. I’ve used drawing elements to keep it grounded, seeing it as a ‘sketch’ allowed me to stop when I needed to and not overwork it.

A.E: Yes I was struck by the way that the coloured ground creates the form of the figures. I see elements of Matisse in your earlier multicoloured work but you are being more selective now in your choice and range of colours. It’s interesting that you say these figures are conjoined. They remind me of Hockney’s early painting ‘The Lost Boys’ and also of The Three Wise Men.

O.S: Ah yes, Matisse was a big influence to me whilst studying for my B.A, that’s when I was really starting to get to grips with oil paint and colour … as I was actually a watercolour painter before studying! So it’s fairly new to me. I use gouache and acrylic on paper now more than anything so I’ve found my happy medium!

A.S: I like the Tony Oursler meets James Ensor eerie faces and the abstract Howard Hodgkin type marks on the figure on the right. There’s actually quite a lot of playfulness going on but despite the bright yellow the mood seems strangely dark and uncanny.

O.S: They’re all great artists, so that’s nice to hear! My work has always been playful but dark. It’s never something I consciously mean to do but they do reflect my personal experiences, including my experiences with epilepsy.

A.E: I can relate to the dark and playful aspects of your work. I think it’s often the case in work by artists with a disability, including my own. You’ve said that seizures often make your surroundings strange and reality a bit warped and blurry. There’s a sense of eerie dreamscapes in your work. The figures are flat and semi-formed, almost ghost like. Van Gogh said that he saw the world as others didn’t see it. He said that he painted it as he saw it because he wanted to share what he saw. I guess that applies to all artists, ha-ha, but in terms of altered states would you say that applies to your work?

O.S: Yes it definitely applies to my work. It’s funny you mention Van Gogh actually because neurologists believe he may have had the same seizures as me (Complex Partial). Some of his behaviours indicate that he may have had epilepsy. I guess my aim is to capture one in a painting. I haven’t quite got there yet, but I guess if I put all my work together maybe I have managed to over time. My epilepsy is controlled so most of the time I don’t have seizures, but I think when I do have them they really have an impact on my life.

A.E: It sounds quite frightening. Many of your figures appear in isolation and I wonder if that reflects a lonely alienating experience?

O.S: Yes, I guess it does reflect that in some ways. Some of the work celebrates loneliness and isolation too so there’s a mixture.

A.E: I see. So your work sometimes celebrates loneliness and isolation in a positive way?

O.S: Yes.

A.E: That’s an unusual idea and it’s certainly relevant at the moment during lock-down. You say that your figures come from photography, imagination and drawing. That’s quite a wide field. Do you have some sort of narrative in mind or do you work intuitively with free association?

O.A: I work pretty much intuitively, but when I have a few drawings gathered I create my own narrative, or I can see it after the work is done. I can totally see what experiences I went through when looking at a previous body of work, even if I didn’t intend for that work to convey those particular experiences.

A.E: Yes, you make it sound like a vision. You understand it afterwards. How important are titles to you? I notice that the painting we just looked at is Untitled.

O.A: Titles are really important, that particular painting was an experiment so it wasn’t in my thought process to title it. I usually reference something someone said at the time of me painting it, or that day, or something I watched or heard. Usually as funny as I can make it, as it reflects my character quite well … and also works as a juxtaposition within the work itself.

digital image of a painting

Those left behind 2019 oil o. n canvas 100cm x 75cm. Image © Oriele Steiner

A.E: Interesting that it was an experiment as I particularly liked its spontaneity. Although I suppose all paintings are experiments in a way. With regard to titles, your recent oil painting titled ‘Those Left Behind’ depicts a figure standing alone in a sparse rural landscape. It’s made up of flat planes of colour, his shadowy face is mask like and his clothes are made of colourful abstract shapes including diamonds. He seems a tragi-comic figure, a melancholy Harlequin. Can you tell us a bit more about this painting and its title?

O.A: Again there are a lot of juxtapositions in my work. There’s the comical ‘happy’ version of me and there’s the other side, one which I’m only discovering more recently. The patterns and diamonds are just ones I’ve picked up from various images. I actually found a 1920’s image of a woman wearing what looked like chef’s trousers. I also paint paintings over painting over painting creating an almost pentimento effect. I leave some of the earlier painting showing underneath so the patterns in the body are from previous paintings that I have banished. The title comes from a poem about suicide and how it affects people left behind.

A.E: Oh gosh. So you bring together disparate elements to create something complete but without a fixed narrative.

O.E Yes, I let other people decide the narrative and I only hint at what I believe it is. I know what that painting is about but I don’t necessarily want to out that story into anyone’s mind.

A.E: I get that. If you could tell a story in words why paint it. Your work clearly speaks for itself but would you say that in some way its partly a meditation on sickness and healing?

O.E: You mean for myself?

A.E: Perhaps? In that you bring together fragments and make them whole.

O.E: It’s been my therapy since a child … I actually started painting when I had therapy as a child growing up in North London.

A.E: It’s wonderful that you have not lost your passion or your spontaneity.

O.A: Yes! I guess I haven’t! It’s been hard to bring it into the Art World because its been insular.

A.E: I can imagine. Someone once said that sickness is a healing. Obviously that’s not always true but I think Art can go some way towards mediation.

O.A: Definitely!

A.E: I’m glad you agree. Thanks for the opportunity to learn a little about your work.

O.A: Thanks. I really enjoyed it actually. I’m not very good at talking about my work so I surprised myself.

A.E: Well you are an Artist. You speak with paint. I hope you enjoy the M.A. Thanks for the insights into your work.