Steve Demyan is a Brooklyn based abstract expressionist. Expanding his knowledge through constant experimentation, exploring memory and reality, he creates chaotic and audacious paintings. We talked about mediums, his creative approach, and the importance of interpretation.
As far as I know, you studied history for three years before switching to fine arts. What made you change your major?
I started drawing/painting when I was 16. Not fully realizing my true potential, I guess I just figured I wasn't developed enough. Leaving for college I had to give up a lot of the things that had influenced me either because of time, space, or money. I grew restless pretty quickly with the structure of college and fulfilling requirements, having felt I was wasting my time. After my first semester I started signing up for elective classes one of which was Intro to Art History. I wanted to feel like my time was being utilized so I decided to branch out into other fields of interest. I was so fascinated by it that I struck up a friendship with my professor. I lied about my major, my age, and by the end of my first year, I had snuck my way into grad-level art history classes. I continued to do so for the next couple of years, spending most of my free time listening to Pandora and painting in my dorm room.
Describe ideal conditions for painting. Does it happen spontaneously, or do you need to put yourself in a special mood? Could you elaborate on your routine?
There are days when I can feel that a successful piece will emerge from my efforts and there are days where I just do everything wrong. Just like there are days when I feel like I'm on top of the world and there are days where I can't get out of bed. The two are not synonymous with each other, but confidence is key. I try to use the hard days as motivation to pick myself back up and move on. A fire gets lit and I'm out to prove I can do everything just as well if not better than my previous successful piece.
There are definitely routines/preferences I've noticed that have developed throughout the process. I prefer to start working in the early afternoon. I spend about an hour cutting paper, stretching canvas, mixing paints etc. Once I have my set up I start playing music. I love listening to hip-hop. The energy and confidence in the lyrics really fuels the drive and determination. I listen and relax for a little bit before jumping in, hovering over the white surface for a while, moving my palette knife across to get an idea of composition. After that preparation I just go for it. Sometimes it all comes together in one take. Other times I'm working on a piece for days on end revising it until I'm satisfied. It's always an adventure and remains a challenge.
You work mostly with ink and acrylic. Are there any other materials/techniques you'd love to explore?
I'm constantly experimenting with different pigments and mediums. Though I do prefer inks and acrylics, I recently moved into a larger space with room and ventilation to experiment in oils so I'm really excited for that. I've also recently been collaborating on an exciting new project with my girlfriend, Paula. It's very illustrative and full of imagery as opposed to the abstraction that I'm comfortable with. I've had a blast working on it and it's been really fun to watch another skill set develop.
Picasso said, “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.” What's the most essential part of your approach? Is it composition, use of color or an emotion you want the audience to feel?
The most essential part of my approach is composition. It's the aspect in which I'm the strongest and have the most confidence in. If I can't achieve a successful composition on a painting after many trials and revisions, I'll discard it completely and move on. To me, it is a crucial tool to convey my ideas and stems from my need to communicate yet leave interpretation open to the audience.
Let's talk about your series Cataclysm exploring the cause and effect of decisions made leading up to historic events, natural disasters, and mechanical failures. How did you come up with that concept?
Cataclysm stemmed from the quick thinking and many decisions I have to make when executing a painting. My paintings were reflecting a visual chaos. Being deeply interested in history, I started thinking about chaotic events that had happened in the past. These events are so devastating and so lawless that the most documentation starts with the disaster happening and the subsequent aftermath. We don't have explanations as to what lead to these events. We don't know which individuals are responsible for making theoretically devastating and harmful decisions. It's like reading Lord of the Rings, where right from the beginning Frodo is already in Mordor. We don't really have a beginning. Every mark I make, every change in movement, and every splatter represent a decision leading up to these events. The series is in black and white to take away from aestheticizing these events and to show that the documentation that we have now isn't so clear-cut. It's presented to us in black and white, but there's a grey area we aren't aware of. I wanted to bring attention to that. As living beings lucky enough to exist in the universe we should be looking to question everything, which was my intent with Cataclysm.
Abstract art is probably one of the most subjective forms of art as it's ultimately linked to interpretation. How important is interpretation to you?
I use the titles as a tool to guide the audience. My objective is to spark curiosity from the titles to guide people into learning and questioning. I believe in objective-interpretation rather than a literal interpretation. One of my favorite artists, Gerhard Richter, said “Pictures are the idea in visual or pictorial form; and the idea has to be legible, both in the individual picture and in the collective context - which presupposes, of course, that words are used to convey information about the idea and the context. However, none of this means that pictures function as illustrations of an idea: ultimately, they are the idea. Nor is the verbal formulation of the idea a translation of the visual: it simply bears a certain resemblance to the meaning of the idea. It is an interpretation, literally a reflection."