Stieg Persson: The tastemaker - Art Collector

Issue 69, July - September 2014

Stirg Persson, photographed for Art Collector issue 69, july - September 2014. Photo: Kristin Gollings

Since graduating from the Victorian College of Art in the 1980s, Stieg Persson’s work has been firmly embedded in Melbourne, the city in which he works and lives. His painting style is best described as a postmodern conflation of abstraction and realism that melds monochromatic paintings with overlaid arabesques and free-flowing calligraphic flourishes appropriated from arcane sources and rococo influences, as well as graffiti that the artist finds locally and photographs. Persson’s singular aesthetic is unique amidst the larger wellspring of creative individuals whose work characterises Melbourne more broadly and was celebrated recently in Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria. For that exhibition, which garnered huge audiences, demonstrating the appeal of the local, Persson produced a specially commissioned wall painting that underlined his enduring critical relevance some 30 years since he left art school.

Persson described the work in
Melbourne Now, The Philosophy of Individualism with Goji Berries as “tagging meets rococo with … a contrast between the supposed urban vitality [of the] tagging of disenfranchised youth” and rococo’s fantastical and illogical aesthetics of weightlessness. A culture mash up if ever there was one, Persson anchored the ambitious work with a third design element taken from designs of the so-called dazzle battleships of World War II, the patterns of which were less about camouflage than altering perception. Persson adapted the warships’ original colour palette to more rococo inspired shades of pompadour pink and blue, and buttery yellow. The complex, layered wall work was a masterpiece of temporary madness, an epic folly. It provoked interesting reactions. “Personally I have never copped more flak for a work I’ve done. In the past I’ve made and exhibited works about cancer, neo-Nazis, genital piercings and Tony Abbott but nothing compares to the heat I received for my painting … What is it with Goji berries? People get really upset.”

The artist’s forthcoming exhibition,
The Fragonard Room at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne, extends the ideas contained within Melbourne Now. The paintings critique what Persson describes as a contemporary preoccupation with food and its role in urban culture. He explains: “The current paintings draw from a clichéd view of bourgeois taste – grandma’s biscuit tin and chocolate box. Now, this is not what actual contemporary Australian bourgeois taste is; I’m just using it as a signifier, a stalking horse.” Food is the new entertainment by virtue of an endless number of contemporary cooking programs and celebrity chefs. Persson looks to critique ideas of foodism and the connoisseurship of eating in popular culture. The works blend images of gastronomic excess with formalist painting tropes and graffiti embellishments copied from the artist’s photographs of specific tags found on the walls of some of Melbourne’s more affluent suburbs.

In this light, the new works in
The Fragonard Room read as a sickly sweet, oozing portrait of the city. Guatemala, Santa Felisa, Macarons is a 1960s abstract dream of concentric circles, at the centre of which hover lurid macaroons. A monkey eats quinoa (the grain ludicrously decreed a superfood) in the aptly titled A Monkey Eating Quinoa, while in Monarch Cakes, sinful chocolate éclairs are married with cream buns topped with cherries against landscape keyholes, eyed by a hungry mouse. Both are overlaid with floating arabesques of gilded graffiti. These fabulously fecund images of excess and urban moral decay, with their mélange of kitschy tokens and elegant arabesques, teeter at the very edge good taste, like so much rococo art. Persson adds: “Everyone loves fluffy kittens and bunnies. There’s nothing to understand, it’s a gut response. You are drawn into a judgment based on taste. And the exercising of taste is one of the most potentially shameful and exposing things the middle class can do and, as it happens, this anxiety is at the very core of art and art collecting.” Persson’s triumph is to package these complex concepts in a series of bombastic yet elegant paintings that beguile.

Persson is an artist’s artist; his ongoing project might be described as a serious investigation of the practice of painting, at the same time that it pertains to everything else outside of painting as well. What he makes is completely current, and timeless. On the subject of being an artist he says: “Economically it’s stupid to be an artist but as a group we are so tragically naïve as to ignore the obvious.” The term mid career or mature can be a difficult professional burden to bear, but Persson wears the monikers lightly, perhaps because he is an artist whose career has spanned the heady 1980s and endured postmodernity, ultimately demonstrating its critical longevity.

In 2003 Persson was awarded the inaugural Arthur Guy Memorial Painting Prize at Bendigo Art Gallery, at the time the nation’s richest prize for painting offering a riposte to the archaic notion of painting’s redundancy. Contemporaneously painting is alive and well, indeed robust, and a quick rollcall of Australia’s most successful contemporary artists would suggest. Perhaps it is painting’s ability to describe the hand of the artist most directly, and to that end, Persson’s paintings are most beautiful when seen in the flesh for their lush and complicated layered surfaces.

Significantly, Persson is among the celebrated few Australian artists whose work has been collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His work is held, too, in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Queensland Art Gallery, Auckland Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Western Australia and Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Persson’s work rewards the consistent collector and he has a loyal collector base carefully nurtured by dealer Anna Schwartz.

A prolific and busy artist since his first solo exhibition with Schwartz in 1983 Persson has exhibited widely both nationally and internationally. Significant projects and exhibitions include last year’s
Theatre of the World at La Maison Rouge in Paris and Mix Tape 1980s: Appropriation, Subculture, Critical Style at the National Gallery of Victoria, as well as the Theatre of the World at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart in 2012. Backmasking: The Art of Stieg Persson was an important early retrospective of his work mounted by Glen Eira City Gallery in 2001 that toured, though Persson is undoubtedly ready for another large-scale survey.

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