Encaustic, or molten beeswax mixed with pigment, is Steeves’ medium of choice. The physicality of the encaustic medium is reinforced in the form of large renderings of fingerprints layered over the canvas surface. The prints are often Steeves’ own — he had himself ‘processed’ by the Vancouver Police Department in preparation for this work — and they serve to remind us not only of the existence of the painter, but of the substance of the painting itself.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in New Brunswick, Canada. In my early twenties I moved to British Columbia to do a master’s degree at the University of Victoria and eventually made my way to Vancouver. This was in the mid-nineties during a particularly lively time in the development of the city’s art scene. I had a studio downtown and was on the curatorial board of the first iteration of the Access artist-run centre. Now I work in a big, beautiful barn studio in Langley, BC.
What is the first thing you do when you start a work?
It’s always a bit different. There are times when I’ll simply make a few marks and start pushing the paint around hoping for something interesting to happen. Maybe I’ll have a title already and I’ll start with an image in my mind that’s suggested by that title. It can be something as simple as wanting to make a painting that’s mostly blue with black in the background. My process usually takes me in unexpected directions so what I do first might not be very important to the eventual outcome.
Walk me through a day in the studio.
I like to work in the afternoons. I find it easier to focus on painting after I’ve sorted away the other things I have to take care of in my day. And I’ve typically got a lot of things on the go all at once. My studio is large, so I’m usually surrounded by whatever finished works happen to be on the wall and an assortment of paintings at different stages of completion. Sometimes I know what I’m going to do when I begin a work session and sometimes I’ll just sit with the paintings for a while and think about what to do next. It’s usually about building on something that’s happening in the work or removing something that’s a problem. The wax that I work with takes a while to warm up which means there’s always at least a short time where I’m just looking and thinking, considering what I did the day before and making decisions about what comes next. Then I put on some music and get to work.
You work with encaustic (heated wax and pigments). How do you use it?
I’ve been using it for a long time. It’s had a surge in popularity over the last two decades, so I think people are familiar with the process now but when I first decided to use it there wasn’t a lot of information out there. I remember seeing images and short video clips of Jasper Johns warming up small pots of wax on a single burner hotplate and I took my cues from that. The way I use encaustic it’s just beeswax mixed with mineral spirits, to keep it malleable, so it’s not too hard and I can carve into it, and dry pigments. I’ll sometimes use oil paint with it but that makes for a slightly greasier texture. The mixture is heated until it’s fluid and it hardens as soon as it touches the canvas and cools. It’s a slow process and I think that’s a big part of why I was attracted to it initially.
What attracted you to encaustic?
I had been painting with oils since I was eleven years old, so I had a facility with traditional painting processes when I was quite young. I think I felt like I needed something that would slow me down, something that would be hard to work with, that would cause me to consider the significance of every decision. Encaustic certainly meets those criteria. It is very literal… the paint is fluid when it’s hot. You lay down a mark and it drips and the drip freezes, recording both your gesture and the medium’s own properties at the same time. It exaggerates the things about painting that I think are important. Things like its physicality, its susceptibility to chance, and its temporality. I liked the directness of it, and I still do.
There is a layered, collaged look to your paintings, and I wondered how you achieve that effect?
That’s something that encaustic does really well. Because it hardens as soon as it hits the canvas, it tends to build up in thin layers. Collaged materials can be embedded and preserved within the layers like a bug in amber. My process involves adding layers and then removing material by carving and scraping and then adding more. That means I can decide to add collaged elements at any stage.
Who are the artists you admire and have been an influence on your work?
My heroes are mostly artists who have challenged or redefined traditions. I was fortunate to have a great high school art teacher. Shout out to Ken Frost. His love of art history was infectious, and he had a huge impact, not just on me but on lots of his students. I remember learning about Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, about how their work could be understood as an alternative to the abstract expressionist’s focus on the communication of an individual artist’s emotions and the romantic aesthetic of the sublime. What they were doing was instead a reflection of the entire culture. That made sense to me. That art could be about striving for a shared understanding of how the world works, that it could reveal the truth of things. It felt like a revelation, like it was becoming clear to me what being an artist could mean. And many of the artists that I discovered when I was young are still important to me.
I mentioned Jasper Johns earlier. I think I’ve been influenced as much by the way he writes and speaks about his work as by the work itself. He’s said, for instance, that a painting should include more experience than simple intended statement. The poet Charles Olson advised that an artist’s problem is to “give his work his seriousness, a seriousness sufficient to cause the thing he makes to try to take its place alongside the things of nature”. And there’s John Cage’s insistence that “art should imitate nature, not in her appearance but in her manner of operations”. These are all sentiments that have influenced and guided me for ages, almost like a set of instructions.
What is the significance of the fingerprint imagery? What are you looking to communicate?
It’s tied up in these ideas about art and nature. I’m interested in how painting can reflect the complexity of nature and reveal something fundamental about what it means to be alive, something about our relationship to reality. This is the thing that I think makes painting valuable, especially in today’s technologically dependent world.
Physical, gestural painting has the capacity to elicit a felt kinesthetic response, a gut reaction that reminds us of our physicality and embeds us in the natural world. This process I’m describing, the methodical application of layer after layer of molten beeswax, results in a complex surface that can be read as a chronology of the painting’s construction and as a record of the painter’s physical presence and actions. So, my paintings are not just concerned with human physicality but also with the body’s inescapable submission to time.
The fingerprint imagery has been a prominent feature of my work for quite a while. As a subject, it naturally suggests ideas around individuality, identity, and the classification and categorization of information. But I prefer to think of the fingerprint simply as a metaphor for painting. These are fundamental human marks. They’re the traces we all leave behind. Painting can be thought of in similar terms – as the residue or marks left behind.
Randall Steeves, “Document”, commissioned work, Seattle WA
Tell me about your recent Family Portrait commissions.
Right. Just because I prefer to think of the fingerprints metaphorically doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes consider their significance as a signifier of an individual’s identity. I’ve recently completed a family portrait commission in which each panel of the series was made using each family member’s individual prints. This is the second commission I’ve done like this and they’ve both been a lot of fun to produce.
Randall Steeves, “Family Portrait, commissioned work
And finally – What is art for?
That’s a question I’m always grappling with. I suppose all we’re really doing as artists is creating representations, and this recording of our thoughts and our perceptions seems to satisfy a fundamental human need to make sense of our shared experience. Whether those representations are characters in a novel or visual situations that reflect something about our perception makes little difference. We’re making objects that facilitate contemplation about the human condition; about what it means to be alive.
For more information on the work of Randall Steeves please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 604.730.9611 @randallsteeves