Photography / Editorial / Print

Belfast-born creative, Steven Quinn, has many strings to his bow, from collage to paint, motion graphic design and photography, that create a thought provoking body of work, youthful in outlook and questioning of our place in society and the universe. His recent collages "explore 1950s imagery, space and apocalyptic explosions." Now living and working in London, we met the young artist at his studio in Hackney Downs, with desks strewn with intricately cut out imagery from vintage magazines, books and posters. There are boxes of cut-out images for space, people, eyes and landscapes in a studio resembling almost a cocoon of paper. Photography books are a good source of material, "they usually have big images to work with. I was in Paris a while ago and got a load of fashion magazines, old paper has a great feel and have just bought some NASA stuff," showing me the box of space cut outs, which he uses to "layer up towards a background." An avid recycler, "I never throw anything away really, all the cut outs I have of eyes for example I keep, same with faces and other bits and pieces. You never know where inspiration may come from and how they may be reused. I do have a hard time cutting up books, kind of grew up to not do that, but sometimes the science books are really out of date or the theory is not relevant any more." In a way, re-purposing the imagery gives it new life.

Paper quality is important, finding himself drawn to the texture of vintage magazines and print. "Some of the new stuff just doesn't feel as good in your hands. Someone wrote a review hinting at a nuclear family and I hadn't clicked about that when I was creating the series, there is a fascination with 1950s imagery, space travel, explosions but nothing that I had defined as such." The imagery is identifiable but reconstituted into imaginary environments that have an underlying cheekiness and sense of fun. We see couples point excitedly into the distance as the landscape explodes in front of them, giant beautiful dames basking amongst a bed of skyscrapers and buildings, old record players streaming colourful confetti shaped as spermatozoa, dream like space scenes of people populating the moon, chimpanzees riding motorcycles. In others, the sun looms big and bright engulfing the horizon, clowns drive tanks and giant skulls, made from collages of equilateral triangles, merge images of space with landscapes on Earth.

"War, women and people pointing are very common themes", he laughs and the images used in the collages, once cut out, become permanently combined, "you are committed to it, you cannot undo once it is glued. Especially the Paris stuff, which is very old from the 40s and 50s, some of it." Using spray mount, PVA or Pritt Stick, "the paper is so delicate, it's like dust on your hands when rubbed. Even as you glue it, it sometimes tears." Much of the work is the result of spontaneous experiments, as with an explosion, it is transient, impermanent but it can leave a lasting effect.

The love of art was evident from a young age, "I always knew I would do this, my dad traced our family tree back to Italy and everyone has a creative background, furniture makers, woodworkers. My great uncle, who my dad used to work for, used to paint old cinema posters, there's an architect, my younger brother similarly does motion graphics, my older brother is an art director. His sister however doesn't draw at all, "I guess the male gene is very creative in my family." Growing up in 80s, he was "addicted to child craft books, one called 'Make and Do,' a whole series of them," and his craft is still very much hands on, with other influences such as "Transformers, robots, sci-fi, Star Wars," both directly and indirectly influencing his work, which we see in the Star Wars family portraits and the interest in lunar or otherworldly environments. Recalling his time in school, "loads of people used to come to our art rooms to do GCSE art," once he had got a percolator machine, "it became a room everyone used to come to for lunch", it was the social hub, as often art rooms are. "I used to get called OCD by my tutors because of the repetitiveness, using the medical scalpel for hours on end." He picks up the scalpel and deftly strikes it into the cutting board with the aim of an archer. How many times has he practised that I wonder? mental note to self, entitle piece 'Scalpel Assassin.'

His dad was an Art teacher in Ireland, who now teaches technology, "I always grew up drawing and kind of knew I was going to Art College from a young age."  Steven did an MFA at University of Ulster in Belfast, "they have a great arts course with a couple of famous alumni, such as performance artist Alistair Mclennan, who is now the Research Professor in Fine Art at the School of Art and Design. He always wears black, sort of like a life performance in itself and is a cult figure in performance art scene. There is also Willie Doherty, the University's Professor of Video Art who has twice been a Turner Prize nominee, so there is a good mix of people." Being an artist needs dedication and passion, evident in the laboriousness of it all, but there are great rewards to be had.

In between motion graphic jobs, the skull pieces we learn took three months to complete. Revelling in being able to dedicate so much time to a single project, he "ordered three bits of 8 by 4 wood, got them cut into several pieces and worked on the project flat out. At the time, I was really attracted to Cubist art, deciding to make the work using triangle cut outs. I used a computer program called Triangulate to help formulate the skull, with the resulting 3D model used to plan the complicated collage."  The use of space imagery allowed Steven to "cover a large background with emptiness, I always knew it would be light and dark. Futurism, Dadaism. I don't see this as dissimilar to the skulls, just simple geometric forms." The triangle shape holds special significance, he has a triangle tattoo on his right forearm and a circle tattoo on his left forearm, "I think it is such a fascinating simple shape," which we see also employed in some of his latest animation videos and other artwork, "I've always said any tattoo's I get will be simple geometric shapes."

The triangle motifs have also been used on remodelled vintage furniture for ReFound, "it was great because I kind of collect furniture myself, I make sure I have a really nice chair, a 60's Ercol table, addicted to that kind of thing. Jill from ReFound, who started the project approached me and I happily contributed.  The first one I did was a bureau chest, was quite interesting to make it all spacey and surfaced with triangles, it was intensive also, with all the prep work, varnish and layering required. Even needing to fix furniture, replace dowels!"

Some of the American imagery was gathered from his time in New York, in Brooklyn. "I used to go every summer for eight years, when you could legally go for 90 days. One year I paid for a visa for seven months or so.  A lot of people from Belfast and Dublin visit New York, some of whom work in a bar and use that as trip money to explore America. I love America, I always really wanted to go as a kid. This summer I'm looking forward to doing East to West trip in October." 

Having exhibited in London, Belfast and New York, more recently, he has participated in The Other Art Fair, represented by Jester Jacques gallery and FADpresents in a group show entitled Electric Moon Candy. There are some exciting exhibitions ahead, in addition to his work with the BBC in animation, such as the James May series 'Things You Need To Know’ and his staple music video/ motion graphic work . Does he ever get homesick? "Northern Ireland is very traditional, people still like their Irish Watercolours. We've got a new Modern Art Museum, called The Mac, which just did a Warhol exhibition. Belfast is getting better, there are a few people doing street art and right now, I'm quite content in London." We however sense there is a traveller at heart, "I love Berlin and it's arts scene, it used to be loads of Germans who would drink wine and stuff. It used to be so cheap, has changed now nearly everyone is from New York or London. I'm kinda newish to Paris, there are loads of little streets you find that you are drawn to. I may even live in Paris for a while... become a Parisian." There is an antique Visible Man toy on his desk, "got that last summer in New York. Similar to objects I have in my flat in Leytonstone, got it for $12 in a flea market. I love all this kind of stuff." There also maybe several red wine bottles, we learn he has a penchant for. Whilst topping up on the tannins, one thing is for sure, there is nothing invisible about his work.

Interview and portraits/studio detail
Nardip Singh

Artwork images provided by artist
Copyright © Steven Quinn

Interview as featured in Unfolded Magazine Issue 14


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