I’ve been to see Sealed, a new solo exhibition by local artist Steve des Landes at the View Two Gallery on Liverpool’s Mathew Street. It’s a superb show, featuring a number of large canvases and two series of smaller ones, all produced during an intense period of inspiration in the last year or so.
Alongside a series of small-scale Welsh landscapes, it’s the larger canvases that grab your attention. These are powerful, yet mysterious images, several of which echo Stanley Spencer in their vertiginous perspectives and fleshy modelling of the human figures.
For me, two canvases stood out: ‘Municipal Act’ (above) and ‘Cover Up’. In ‘Municipal Act’ an ill and listless man on a stretcher lies cradled in the arms of three women and two men who struggle with the effort of hauling him down a steep, dingy stairwell. A mosaic of municipal black and white floor tiles binds the foreground. The painting is a study of hands: caring, cradling, supporting and gripping. I learnt later that the composition was based on a scene witnessed by Steve when he was living in a high-rise. An elderly man had fallen seriously ill, and the only way the paramedics could get him from his flat to the ambulance was to haul him down the narrow stairwell of the building.
There are echoes of ‘Municipal Act’ in the striking and deeply mysterious ‘Cover Up’ (above). Again there is a dramatic handling of perspective and viewpoint; the same black and white tiles draw the eye up the picture; the same man on the stretcher in ‘Municipal Act’ is now being lifted onto a hospital gurney; on the left, three of the women from the stairwell rush in alarm down a flight of steps, arms outstretched in anguish. To the right, men on ladders are lowering white, rubberized screens to hide a group of men who are moving haunches of meat from cold lockers. A woman who has been mopping the floor pauses and leans on her mop to watch. Most puzzling is the empty baby buggy, abandoned just behind her. What does all this signify? I don’t know; but it’s a powerful and confidently executed work.
In the exhibition notes, David Bingham observes that Steve des Landes is ‘a craftsman painter with a great sensitivity to the relationship of colour and form’, and certainly the use of colour – from the warm yellow at top right to the cooler white, blue and greens of the curtains and meat lockers, and the hellish red used for the interior of the lockers – adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.
These are not the only paintings whose images mirror each other and echo across the gallery. In ‘Cast Upon Stony Ground’ (above), a half-naked woman, scatters lilies over piles of rusted metal hoops, sharp-edged like scythes. The ground stretching into the distance is a stubble of scythed corn. In ‘Letting Go’, the same woman, now clothed, casts lilies onto the same rusted metal blades. But now there is a bungalow in the background, a figure leaning on the steps to the front door, windows open, curtains blowing.
As in Spencer’s paintings, the human figures are not simply a fleshy presence – they also communicate mental states and a sense of hidden but powerful psychological forces. To quote David Bingham’s notes again:
[These] images are not just intended to show us an external visual life but, through his landscapes, his figure studies and the jumble of broken down objects, the unfolding of an unconscious world within the symbols of treasured artefacts and the power of broken dreams.
Broken dreams …There are two paintings entitled ‘Loyalty’. In the first a young couple, sit exhausted surrounded by dirty plates, perhaps in the aftermath of some kind of celebratory meal. In the second, the same couple embrace each other, as if holding on for dear life. ‘Welsh Chair’ seems to pursue the same thread: alongside an empty Welsh chair, a couple are portrayed: the woman is desolate, the man, behind, hunched, wrists together as if handcuffed.
In ‘Mr & Mrs Andrews (After Gainsborough)’ (above), the modern-day Mrs Andrews is not seated on an elaborate Rococo-style wooden bench, but rather one of those cheap, stackable plastic-seated chairs. The painting is cropped, removing the husband’s head. As in the Gainsborough portrait, des Landes has chosen to portray his couple surrounded by all that they own – not rolling acres of parkland and a distant mansion, but a bungalow, and on the front lawn a scullery draining board, empty drawers and a box of CDs.
There are two studies entitled ‘Midnight Pain’. In the first a woman lies, apparently in agony, clutching her stomach on a kitchen floor. Around her are strewn dirty dishes and pots and pans. On the worktop a bunch of tulips lie on a red dishcloth that bleeds over the edge of the work surface. The dominant tone is red. In the second (above), the same woman lies on a purple rug. The tulips are gone, replaced by thorny twigs. On a shelf there is a plate of figs.
The people in des Landes’ studies are not the young and fresh faced ingenues in life, but more interesting subjects more marked and scarred by their experiences. His couples in particular are immersed and moribund – caught in a life beyond their own understanding with the internal dilemmas and emotions etched on their faces. Unexpectedly for a male artist, he appears to have a particularly strong empathy with his female subjects, who are often the lead figures in his works, whether they are cramped on the floor with stomach pains against the backcloth of the kitchen, or confronting their loss of vitality with age and the consequences of their relationships. These are complex figures, treated unsentimentally, as they endure the loss of promise.
– David Bingham
There are small landscapes here too, some of which hve echoes of Paul Nash about them. David Bingham writes:
Even in the painter’s more lush landscapes, which are so beautifully formed, there is no move to depict a recognisable reality in any sense, but instead a more mythological place of the imagination, where with the use of perspective, thistles come to compete in height with trees against a sun transformed into a moon. These paintings are much more than decorative. They are not places where people easily belong, but rather a depiction of the intuitive world of nature which lies beyond moral choice or influence: A place of sweet beauty and death, belonging to neither this time nor the next.
Inspired by Plex Moss, a lowland farming region near the area where he grew up in Southport and also the wilds of the far northern Scottish highlands and shorelines, the artist transforms rusted, wind-broken barns turn into metallic palm trees, and the spaces around the buildings, so often filled with odd pieces of farm junk lying around, into a new sorting ground for his gaze. This is the artist as engineer, or ‘imagineer’ breaking down, transforming and re-assembling the objects in front of him. He turns the kinds of ‘outpost’ farmhouses and yards, perched on the less than certain borders between urban life and security and the natural world, inside out, ransacking these places – shaking them out to see what lays inside.
There are two self-portraits in this exhibition. ‘Studio View’ reminded me of certain paintings by Liverpool artist Dick Young. As in Young’s paintings, the studio is the location, but the eye is drawn to the window and the view outside, as well as the mirror, aslant to one side, where the artist is reflected.
In a statement on his website Steve has written:
An image will appear quickly and then take months to evolve, but will be filed away in my image bank, my sense of creative security. For me painting is all about the illusion – a window into a world of near abstract feelings but rendered close to a sense of reality through a process of craft.
Steve des Landes paintings are powerful and arresting, exuding a bold and confident mastery of composition, form and colour. Their artistry and vision draw the viewer into a mysterious and personal world.
- Steve des landes: artist’s website (with image gallery)
- Exhibition: Recent Paintings by Steve des Landes: View Two Gallery page on 2010 exhibition