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Stephen Sumner Paints Music from Memory

Stephen Sumner‘s recent series paintings are a departure from his early artwork, painting landscape from memory. His new body of work translates music to canvas. Earlier this year, for Whitewall‘s spring 2015 Art Issue, we sat down with the artist in New York to discuss his process.

WHITEWALL: Your show at Agnès Monplaisir in Paris, “An Odd Turn of Phase” (September 27 to October 11, 2014), featured a new direction in your painting, away from landscape painting.

Courtesy of the artist

STEPHEN SUMNER: Actually, I first did a show in May of last year in San Francisco at Serge Sorroko Gallery. It was the first time I’d shown this new work. I spent the better part of the last 20 years painting landscape from memory.

WW: Why from memory?

Courtesy of the artist

SS: I painted from memory because I wanted to get away from working from any other visual reference. I’d been painting landscapes before that were based on photographs I’d taken and places I’d been to. And one day I decided to work from inside my head, not from any other reference. I found that worked better for some reason. I realized there were no restrictions in it. You train yourself to do things a certain way and you have to break the cycle a little bit.

WW: And were these black-and-white abstract paintings a way to break the painting-landscapes-from-memory cycle?

Courtesy of the artist

SS: Yes, I wanted to get away from that again. I felt like I’d done as much as I can do for the present moment in that area. I was at a loss. I thought, “People are so subjective, and then you get absorbed in the psychology of the person you are studying when you’re doing portraits,” and so I thought, “I’m not interested in doing portraits.”

During that time I was listening to a lot of music, and some of it was music I hadn’t listened to in 30 years, some of it was new music to me, and I realized when I stopped playing music I was carrying the tunes in my head like you do. And I thought, “What if I just paint free-form with this soundtrack in my head?” That’s what I did, and that’s how that black-and-white series started.

Courtesy of the artist

WW: Why in black-and-white?

SS: I don’t know, quite honestly. I wanted to get away from the way I’d been painting. It’s like that whole thing where if you change your materials, you change your work. There has to be an effect. I’d been working with regular oil paint and I thought, “Well, what can I do to make it different, or how can I get away from the old traps of doing the same sort of thing?” And so I started to work in latex paint, which dries within three minutes, so you have to work differently. I wanted something that was a little crisper, a little softer, in some ways.

Portrait by Steve Benisty

The other thing about all the black-and-white paintings is that they are meant to be hung any way you like—there is no top. You can rotate it, hang horizontal or vertical. That was deliberate. I wanted to get away from anything visually recognizable. I gave them obscure titles that you wouldn’t be able to visualize.

WW: You moved to New York from England just under 20 years ago. That’s when you started painting from memory as well. Do you think the move prompted that change in your process? Did you miss England?

SS: Maybe. Maybe that influenced it. I do miss people and places. People ask if I miss England, and I say not necessarily. [Laughs] But I miss people; I miss places. Places like where we can go in the countryside in England, I call them my 18th-century landscapes because nothing has changed apart from the trees have grown. You can walk for a whole afternoon in the summer and not see another person; you come across a tiny cottage with smoke coming out the chimney because they have coal fire, not log fire.

I came to New York willingly, and I’m very happy about it, but I guess there was, not a longing—I don’t know, maybe it just became necessary for me to keep things in my mind that I left, you know what I mean? You do miss places more than you think sometimes.

WW: What are you working on now in the studio? After the show in Paris at the end of last year, do you take some time between starting something new or do you get right back at it?

SS: A bit of both. I am working on some new stuff. At the moment it will be a continuation of the type of the work that I’ve been doing. But it may be slightly different. The other side of that is I do allow myself to play around with things and experiment and see what comes up, like cleaning the blackboard, and getting off yesterday’s notes.


This article is in Whitewall‘s spring 2015 Art Issue.



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Kelly Wearstler




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