Australian artist Grant Stevens is perhaps best known for his pithy text-based videos that mine sources such as television, film, and the internet. Recalling advertising, screen savers, and online-confessionals, these works trade in clichés, platitudes and stock phrases, while cleverly exploring the way human psychology and communication are being shaped in the digital era.
Through his video works Stevens has presented ambiguous conversation fragments and social media communications rich with familiar tropes but altered and collaged together so that they create a sense of familiarity which is then immediately undercut, allowing new levels of meaning to emerge. If cliché had a collective noun, surely it would be 'an embarrassment', and the early video work Crushing (2009) has a rich and plentiful offer of broken-hearted gems. Merging the highly personal with the bleakly generic it includes the lines: 'I'm still hopeless I loved you from the start I don't feel well we even talked about getting a dog don't you remember'. Stevens has viewers smirking one minute, then cringing the next.
Working across photography, sound, sculpture, drawing and installation, Grant Stevens' practice explores the sounds, images and texts of media culture and the internet. His new exhibition at Starkwhite introduces The Mountain (2018), a moving image work exhibited for the first time here, and The Waterfalls, an ongoing photography project. Shot around New South Wales, Tasmania, and beyond The Waterfalls continues Stevens' interest in the possibilities for self-reflection and contemplation in an era of digital overload, image saturation, and short attention spans.
Describing the process of creating the works, the artist relates how an initial Google image search of the waterfall he wants to photograph intentionally frames his experience. While actually capturing the image involves an authentic experience of being in nature and hiking to the falls, Stevens has already set the stage for what he's going to see when he gets there, his experience is pre-mediated through the digital images he's seen online. With other keen photographers often at the same site, Stevens waits for his turn to stand in the prime spot and take the photograph — a photograph that will be deliberately similar to all the others, its composition as uniform as possible. Indeed, Stevens applies a consistent compositional device across the entire Waterfalls series, letting the images mirror and repeat each other.
In her elegant extended essay, On Photography, Susan Sontag argues that images — particularly photographs — carry the risk of undermining true things and genuine experiences. "Knowing a great deal about what is in the world (art, catastrophe, the beauties of nature) through photographic images," Sontag notes, "people are frequently disappointed, surprised, unmoved when they see the real thing." But not Grant Stevens. His practice asks "can we still have moments of wonder, reflection, contemplation? Even if it is premeditated, can it still work?" Rather than reinforce idealised understandings of the natural environment, Stevens' artistic strategy highlights the ways in which the 'natural' seems to increasingly stand in for contemporary modes of contemplation and reflection. Like his video works, The Waterfalls sits on the cusp of sublime and bleakly generic.
The Mountain is a computer-generated video simulation that changes and evolves in real-time. Its appearance is shaped by the interactions of numerous cyclic elements: the time of day, fluctuations in the weather, and geological forces. As a virtual camera rotates around the perpetually changing scene, deep geological time mixes with the fickle weather and the constant passing of day and night. An ambient soundtrack accompanies the video, programmed to generate and evolve through infinite permutations. Drawing on meditation and mindfulness principles, The Mountain seeks to represent and provide space for experiences of the ever-evolving present moment.
The Mountain extends Stevens' ongoing interests in digital representations of the natural environment to evoke metaphors for and experiences of personal reflection and stillness. In a context where the production and proliferation of images seems to become increasingly hyperactive each day and with techniques like mindfulness flourishing as coping strategies, The Mountain conflates various time-scales to slow down processes of looking. With speed, immediacy, and distraction the norm, The Mountain resists with an unfamiliar temporality.
When two things come together a third meaning is created, and it is in this conceptual space that Grant Stevens' practice takes root. This is a familiar strategy for Grant Stevens, creating a fertile middle ground between pop culture and the profound, a spot to probe (or induce) contemporary existential crises. Fusing the iconography of modernism and conceptual art with popular digital culture and new media, his practice is underpinned by an interest in how we construct and communicate our experiences. Stevens' work draws from familiar models of self-expression and self-help, but also offers unexpected moments of reflection. His works lay bare the machinery of emotional manipulation, while mirroring back to us how we suspend our disbelief, how we willingly indulge.
Grant Stevens' project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.
Grant Stevens is an Australian artist currently based in Sydney. He has exhibited regularly since the early 2000's, with numerous solo exhibitions in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and the United States.
Recent solo exhibitions include: You Have Within You Right Now, Everything You Need to Succeed, Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney, 2018; The Sun Set, Art by Accident, Murray Art Museum Albury, 2017; What You Seek is Seeking You, Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney, 2016; Dark Mess, Boxcopy, Brisbane, 2015; What We Had Was Real, City Gallery, Wellington, 2014; Hold Together, Fall Apart, Starkwhite, 2014; Supermassive, LA Louver, Los Angeles, 2013.
Recent group exhibitions include: Yours Internally, Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne (two person exhibition with Kiron Robinson, curated by David Sequeira), 2018; Prelude to Oceans from here, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney (curated by Allison Holland), 2018; Evolver, LA Louver, Venice, CA, 2018; Transboundaries: Art + Connection, QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, 2018; Out of the Ordinary, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2017; GOMA Q: Contemporary Queensland Art, QAGOMA, Brisbane, 2015; In Motion, Starkwhite, 2015.
Stevens received his PhD from the Queensland University of Technology in 2007, and is currently Deputy Head of School (Art) at UNSW Art & Design, Sydney.
Press release courtesy Starkwhite.