Beautiful is perhaps the most non-specific word that could be used to describe a painting. On the same day that I visited Tim Stoner’s current show at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, I overheard at a gallery across town, a gallerist and a buyer in discussion over a tiny painting worth $500K. After the gallerist had announced the price, and the ensuing silence during which it wasn’t clear if everyone was in rapture to the painting or the number, the word beautiful was used to describe the piece. Hardly a $500K word I thought.
Later that day however, beautiful was the very word that kept coming to mind as I stood in front of Tim Stoner’s large canvases (The majority of the works are a satisfying 200cm+ in scale). Part of the problem with the word beautiful is its association with the idea of art as pleasure and a higher form of leisure. And the subject matter of these paintings might not help matters for the viewer who is averse to that which might seem simply easy on the eye. There are street scenes of café terraces in Spain and London, beaches with rudimentary figures that sometimes seem to merge with the landscape, perhaps out of sheer enjoyment. There are domestic interiors infused with light and atmospheric contrast. It’s the kind of subject matter your Gombrich might have referred to as bourgeois; the kind of material Manet so cleverly manipulated. To see these paintings as pure pleasure however would be to miss the point.
The beauty of this work lies in the set of decisions the artist has evidently made to be able to produce the work. Stoner has set his parameters solidly and confidently. Whilst there are fascinating passages of paintwork, which are charged with the energy of split-second decision making, there is little evidence of re-working or significant changes within the paintings. The scale always seems appropriate to the subject. The surfaces are oily enough to warrant really close inspection but far from superficially glossy. The subject matter is resolutely simple in essence, perhaps allowing our interest to more easily access the depths that the paintwork admits us to, should we decide to look deeper.
Georges Bataille spoke of subject matter in Manet’s Olympia as “the mere pretext for the painting itself.” (1) Without straining too hard to see Tim Stoner’s canvases as a theoretical or intellectual planchart, it might all the same be useful to keep this observation in mind when we come to assess the various references, whether explicit or coincidental, that become apparent to us as we walk through the exhibition. For whilst the subject matter of Stoner’s work might be resolutely ‘bourgeois’, and notwithstanding the consolidating effect of the shared large scale of the work, there is evidence of a considerable variety of treatments, approaches, and perhaps even styles from canvas to canvas. ‘San Pedro’, a café terrace scene, presumably in the south of Spain, where the artist is also based, is reminiscent of Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon in its treatment of the figures assembled on the terrace as fractured, iconographic, mannequin-like. They all but disappear into the environment of the café terrace, sharing as they do the graphic hatching and colouration of the background. The entire canvas seems to have been worked from dark to light by a process of masking off and then removing or perhaps scratching into the surface to reveal the light canvas ground. The overall effect is of the largest linocut ever created. And yet, despite the potential weight of such a graphic approach on such a large scale, this is a light piece which the artist has pulled off expertly.
The problems raised in each of the canvases have been dealt with on a case by case basis. Palm trees appear in more than one piece and the treatment varies accordingly. In one they become diagrammatic, more like children’s windmills. Palm fronds become wheels rotating in a warm breeze on top of long gently curving trunks. In another piece, ‘La Playa’, they are blocked in as large flat angular shapes against a rudimentary expanse of sand and sky. The figures in ‘La Playa’ are more comical than in the other canvases. They stand around in an awkward composition of bleached Mediterranean tones which bring to mind the blandness of Picasso’s ‘Fall of Icarus’ mural of 1958. This is perhaps the best treatment for a painfully boring day on the beach.
Tim Stoner, Brockley, 2015, oil on linen, 204 x 244 cm, 80 1/4 x 96 1/8 ins
Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Unless an artist’s work is cleverly choreographed, any sudden jumps in approach or style can be viewed negatively. Even Kurt Schwitters, perhaps one of the first modern multi-disciplinary artists, suffered from the perceived inconsistency of his project. (2) For a painter this can be even more treacherous territory as the medium of paint itself and the decision to use it preclude any option for what one might call a fresh start. As a medium, paint carries so much historical baggage that any unexpected stylistic jumps can easily come across as dilettantism. In Wisdom of the Crowd however there is a consistency of ‘look’ to the show overall. Somehow, the fact that the artist seems to be treating each canvas quite differently doesn’t detract from the effect. Looking at what is arguably the most striking piece in the show, ‘Brockley’, I would suggest that the consistency which runs through the canvases is best demonstrated here, in the undifferentiated treatment of the figures and the background. This can be seen in all the canvases on display but seems most skilfully treated here. In this piece all the elements come together beautifully. These elements are; scale (this piece is somewhat more human in scale than the more monumental ‘San Pedro’), the composition, which utilises the natural picture planes of walls and windows within the interior and which are counterbalanced by the careful arrangement of chairs and table tops, and the colouration, which is almost jarring and unbalanced (bright red, pink and green offsetting the heavy blue in the far corners).
The figures turn their backs to us as if to discourage us from looking for content; to abandon our search for subject matter. There is something of Matisse in this. This silence of the subject runs heavily through the best paintings by Matisse. This is arguably what raises his work above the level of mere decoration. In ‘Brockley’ Tim Stoner has revivified the classic joy of painting at its best, when the parameters of scale, medium and subject matter have been set and the artist can get on with the task of creating something simultaneously complex and beautiful.
(1). Yves-Alain Bois, Rosalind Krauss, FORMLESS A User’s Guide, Zone Books, New York, NY, 1999, p.14. Yves-Alain Bois is quoting Georges Bataille on the subject of Manet’s ‘Olympia’. The full caption reads: “…Manet tightens the noose around eloquence; reduces painting to silence; erases the text that under-girds it, by taking the subject as “the mere pretext for the painting itself.””
(2). “…many of his (Kurt Schwitters’) contemporaries viewed his work unfavorably, both in terms of the expansiveness of his approach as well as his tendency to situate his work at once outside of and within the incipient norms of the various movements which populated the artistic imagination of post-World War I Europe.” Elizabeth Burns Gamard, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau The Cathedral of Erotic Misery, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, NY, 2000, p.20.