Sunday, March 22, 2009

Art Space Talk: Steve Litsios

Born in 1959 near Boston, raised in Washington DC, Steve Litsios moved to Switzerland with his family in 1967. He studied art for a couple of years at Geneva's ecole d'arts appliqués before attending the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 70's, then moved back to Switzerland where he has been active internationally as an artist since 1983. He lives in the city of La Chaux-de-Fonds and can be found playing the washboard with The Crawfish Blues Band.
Slice of air -1998 - acrylic on paper (Torinoko extra light) - Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de Neuchâtel

Brian Sherwin: Steve, Mark Staff Brandl introduced me to your work. I understand that you have exhibited with Mark in the past. Have the two of you ever thought about collaborating? Have you? Is that something that you would consider?

Steve Litsios: We collaborated two years ago. I was in a group show at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Neuchâtel in which each artist was asked to invite someone of their choice, and since I was interested in working with Mark I asked him if he wanted to participate.

For that show we organized an exhibition within the exhibition using Mark's Collapsible Kunsthalle: a wandering Art Space that he created and holds solo and group shows in( So I guess you could say that I invited Mark to show his portable Art Space in which he invited me to join him by making an installation for it. I certainly would be interested in other forms of collaboration.
Encircled - 2003 - acrylic and paper, each ball Ø10 cm. / 4 inches

BS: Steve, my understanding is that you were born in the United States and that you eventually moved to Switzerland with your family. Would you say that your travels have influenced your art? Did you experience a clash of cultures, so to speak?

SL: My family moved to Switzerland when I was eight, it was definitively a clash of culture and ended up being something that I was pretty unhappy with as a teenager.
I'm sure it influenced my work. When I went to the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 70's for instance, a canvas that would have been considered big by many Swiss artists was pretty much the same size as what was seen as small by my fellow students. Although that wasn't really a surprise in itself, the American tradition for large scaled works was well known, I found it interesting that in most cases it seemed that it was not a conscious decision, artists on both continents where mostly making art the size that “felt right” for wherever they were. How our sense of space is modified by a culture and the environment that goes with it has always intrigued me and is something I have often work with.

However, the San Francisco bay area had (still has?) a tradition for figurative work so it wasn't like I was suddenly confronted with something that was new to me. My mom is a printmaker, she studied art at Cooper Union in the mid 50's and is still very active in her work, so it can be said that my mother culture in art is also American.

It was actually in the first art school I attended for 1½ years in Geneva before going to SFAI that I experienced the most clash. My attitude, ideas and expectations didn't go over well with the teachers and it seems that the only reason I didn't flunk the first year was because I was American and what could you expect...

In the long run however, I think that simply living and adapting to Switzerland, learning to speak French and all, is really the part of it that influenced my work the most since it helped me understand just how much of what we perceive is defined by the culture(s) we belong to.

We watch, absolved in our narcissistic ways as Willie Pete consumes them. The children die, the wise man dreams. - 2005 - acrylic, ink and paper on linen - 180x120 cm. / 71X47 inches

BS: In several of your works I’ve seen references to aspects of contemporary warfare. For example, images of tanks and bombs. Is your work political in that regard?

SL: In that regards yes, but although it is political, politics isn't always its main purpose so it's kind of hard to explain in a general way. As a child I was always sensitive to the opposition between the enjoyment of playing make believe war and the knowledge of what war actually is. That concern remains facing the primal attraction a weapon can have and opposing that impression to the destructive object it is; this to me brings forth a curious state of emotional ambivalence all the more since we mostly can live with it and not be bothered more than that.

So in some of those works there is the desire to use these images of war machines in a way that hopes to portray those contradictory emotions. It is a fact however that some of my works do strive to denounce specific armaments in a more direct way if only by reminding us of their existence.
Landmine Wallpaper Motif (Where have all the flowers gone?) – 2006 - acrylic and interference pigments on linen – 110x70cm. / 43¼ x 27½ inches

BS: Can you tell us more about the thoughts behind your art? The themes that you deal with and so on?

SL: Well for years my work was mostly abstract, but beginning around 10 years ago, I found it growingly difficult to receive the daily media brought dose of the conflict we humans seemingly thrive on - the way we mistreat the small and finite planet we live on - the amount of viruses just waiting to pounce on us and so forth, and not be expressing anything about it in my art work. So I took a deep breath and began to look for ways to open my work to those concerns.

Although desired this wasn't something that just happened overnight, it took a few years to go from head to hand. One of the first “clues” I remember finding was in a small paper installation titled “Encircled” in which a group of paper balls I had made where placed on the floor in a circle surrounding other paper balls that where place haphazardly. The balls where coated with the discreet colors you get with interference pigments, a fact that could have been used - one color surrounding another for instance - but purposely wasn't. Multicolored balls encircle multicolored balls, both visual and part of an imaginable story.

Later that year (2003) I was considering the numerous man – women “toilet door” figures that were appearing at that time in many art works. Despite and yet perhaps because of the fact that I found them cheesy, it occurred to me that these and other generic symbols might also be useful for what I had in mind, a means for the narrative. It was a surprise just how interesting these turned out to be even if they were somewhat limited, so I continued looking in that direction and ended up focusing on emoticons (smileys).

Because these grins, frowns and winks are used to make sure the reader understands the emotion behind our hastily written words in order to help avoid misunderstandings, they seemed perfectly suited to be separated from their texts and tell a few stories of their own.

Still, trial, error and letting whatever elements enter the dialogue remains the basis of my work because I rarely have a clear image in my mind to work from, it's only when I can put what I'm working with out in front of me that it gets a chance to make sense. Mostly my ideas begin by seeming impossible to work with, I tend to get caught up in an intricate maze of what I know, all I don't know, the whys and the hows.

But some themes were obvious ones: portraying weaponry that can not be excusable for whatever reason like white phosphorus and fragmentation bombs. Terrorism and global warming have been unavoidable themes as well as the various plagues which I hear a lot about when I visit my father, a retired World Health Organization Senior Scientist, and currently a historian of public health. Nothing extreme if I dare put it that way, just our daily background noise with its multiplicity of emotional content.
Enhanced Mutant Maggot Wallpaper Motif with LOL Initialism (Maggots Love Global Warming) – 2008 - acrylic, paper on linen, 120x85 cm / 47¼ x33½ inches.

BS: So what are the direct social implications of your art? For example, is there a specific message that you strive to convey to viewers concerning issues that trouble you?

SL: Well, it would be nice if my babbling was somehow part of a chain of thought that gives the masses something to think about but I doubt it and in fact don't believe art to be a good weapon for activists. If your goal is communicating specific messages there are many other ways, most of them better.

Still, like everything else that happens on earth, troubling issues slowly become part of our collective memory and in that sense it's important that they be portrayed by artists. I see it as being part of our society's digestive system. How would we consider both the past and the present if we didn't have generations of art works that transmit visual sensations and emotions beyond the known historical facts?

BS: Tell us about your process. Perhaps you can discuss some of your current work and the process involved in creating those specific works?

SL: Most of my ideas come from the working at it and not the thinking about it. As I said, I need to stick things out in front of me and move them around until something clicks somehow, so I draw things I'm thinking of on leftover bits of paper, or on the computer to be printed, and leave them scattered around, visible to be picked up; a way to see what associations are raised when they are randomly placing side by side. I also have many stencils that I've made that can also be added to the mix.

I use repetition a lot, initially with the smileys it was a way to create the idea of a crowd or group of people while avoiding the need for explicitness. Later, like in the works that have land mine silhouettes for instance: Landmine Wallpaper Motif (Where have all the flowers gone?)(2006), I covered the canvas with them to make a wallpaper like pattern because the idea of wallpaper made me think of how its graphic presence, when new, fades into the background over time, simply because it becomes so much part of the room that we don't see it unless we look at it. By being metaphoric instead of descriptive, it suits how I want these works to feel which to me is perhaps even more important than how they look. Other works have elements place on top of, or behind the “wallpaper” layer like: Enhanced Mutant Maggot Wallpaper Motif with LOL Initialism (Maggots Love Global Warming) (2008).

There is also a lot of “let's see what happens” in what I do. “Mass Grave Soul Party” (2006) began with the decision to silkscreen a smiley repeatedly along a line on the bottom of the canvass until a whole area was entirely covered, in this case in black. At the time I was looking for convenient ways to cover the canvass with smileys and other images. Silkscreen worked, but getting the printed smileys to dry fast enough to be able to print over them before the paint in the screen dried up was a real pain. I ended up having to work in small sessions for two or three months just to cover that small area, but the resulting black is physically filled with the smiley motif in a way that made the whole process worth it. These days, if the image permits it I mostly use stencils for that kind of layering.

The “Lost Souls” series, an undefined number of paintings that I am working on now, are made like that with a multitude of human silhouettes. The idea came watching flocking birds in the evening sky and I wondered how much of their fantastic group movement could be transcribed to a painting.

The red oxide, white or/and black color combination found in all of my recent work came about when I started using linen again after a few years of just working with paper, at first three dimensionally and then flat. Process-wise, the flat paper works are better described as paper “sandwiches” than collages and the process used to make them involves a flat plastic surface on which it all can be glued together, left to dry and pealed off. At one point this surface was a funny orange red color which was visible through the thinner parts of the paper while I was working which was cool. I used a similar color as a base on the paintings and decided then and there that it was all I needed.

When the work contains paper its color adds to that palette of course and to complete the mix, most of my works regardless of medium, contain interference pigments one way or another. These have been with me since they appeared on the market in the early 80's and I have yet to find a good enough reason to stop using them.

Mass Grave Soul Party – 2006- silkscreen and acrylic on linen – 155x101 cm. / 61x39¾ inches

BS: Steve, I noticed on your website that you list what could be considered stages of your artistic exploration. For example, from 1977 until 1999 you primarily created oil paintings, from 1990 to 1999 you created shaped wood abstract painted constructions, 1998 to 2005 you focused on installations, and from 2004 to present you have focused on works on paper and mixed media paintings. Do you view your work in stages, so to speak?

SL: No, not at all. It was just that the way my work evolved can be a bit confusing to explain, presenting it that way helps to make that clearer. Basically I worked on shaped relief oil paintings for quite a while until the way certain aspects of the early works were reacting over time forced me to reconsider my whole work process, a moment of forced change that also made me give acrylics a try.

It was a surprise to find how much acrylics had a different language than oils and a direct outcome of that was that they inspired me to paint directly on the wooden structures that I had been building to stretch the canvass on. It also showed me just how stupid I had been up to then by having many of the preconceived notions that oil painters can have when facing acrylics. I decided to be more open to other mediums after that.

The painted wood structures pointed directly towards sculpture, which with hindsight seems to have slowly removed the need for color in the wall works that I continued to work on. I've always liked the fact that a shaped object on a wall has nothing attaching it to the space around it, a relief from sculpture's plight with gravity. It suddenly became obvious that objects had to be hung in space and I was fortunate at that time to have a group show that gave me the opportunity to experiment a first idea in that direction. (Slice of Air, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Neuchâtel, CH. 1998). So because of its light weight, paper became something to work with, not on, and inspired a whole series of both flat and sculptural works as well as some installations. So one thing just lead to another and a lot of it happened simultaneously.

BS: It often seems that we are told that artists should focus on one form of expression-- that branching out to other mediums instead of having a focus can become an obstacle. In your opinion, why is it important for an artist to branch out and explore several mediums?

SL: Although I can see what your getting at, I'm not convinced that artists are really told to focus on just one form of expression. Painters usually draw, which is a whole world in itself, and are often involved in printmaking one way or another, and these days who doesn't play around with video and everything digital technology offers, even if it's only for the yearly Christmas card. So in fact it would be an artist who really works in only one medium that would be weird.

That said, it's also a fact that certain medium mixes seem more “acceptable”, most artists work with one form of printmaking or another and no one ever views it as a lack of focus but painters who make sculptures and vice-versa can still meet with some foolish “not a serious this or that” negative remarks. Fortunately contemporary art has helped make working with many medias a lot more acceptable.

Exploring different mediums can be stimulating and often makes you see your work from a different perspective, get a new eye, plus it can a lot of fun. If you only work within your comfort zone, you greatly reduce your chances of stumbling on something that will help you move beyond it. But that doesn't necessarily mean working with another medium so whether it's important or not depends on the person. It is obviously going to take up your precious time so there has to be a certain amount of desire, need or curiosity to begin with.

In any case, I was taught that much of being focused involved mastering the medium; because only then could you express yourself clearly. But in my opinion focus is also learning to recognize and take advantage of the specificity of your abilities.

BS: Speaking of the internet, you are involved with a few art forums and sites, correct? What are your thoughts on the internet and how it can be utilized to gain exposure for artists and inform artists?

SL: No, I wanted to give it a try but writing actively turned out to be far too time consuming for me. The web has obviously helped art's globalization, it makes it possible to know what's going on pretty much everywhere, as a result there is the fact that any successful trend is immediately recuperated. Today's art is tomorrow's commercials and vice-versa.

Of course it is useful, if only to give easy access to images of your work and of course it can help artists gain recognition since it has already created a few stars. But blind luck aside (I was once contacted by a gallery owner, the poor guy was suffering insomnia and stumbled on my website at 3am), I suspect more often then not it is complementary of the exposure artist are already receiving in the “real world”. There are simply too many artists everywhere trying to get there work seen.

Unfortunately the web can also be to the artist's detriment too. Even having your own website is not an obvious choice-- it means that if you aren't getting shows it will be blatant and people will be judging you by what they see there. Keep in mind that not all that many successful artists have them...

I do follow a few art sites, Sharkforum ( for instance which I like because of the diversity of the content, (poetry, music, art, etc) and because of their critical attitude towards the art world which we need more of.

White Human Silhouettes (Lost Souls? #1) – 2008 - acrylic on linen – 180x120 cm. / 71x47 inches

BS: Is there any specific concerns that you have about the art world at this time?

SL: The art world and the art market now seem the same thing, a system that functions with a market's logic, with the value of an art work based on its desirability and perceived importance. Both are contiguous to your perception of them and as such are factors that are malleable. I've never been that interested in this white-collar way of looking at art so “concern” is probably too big a word here. However I do think there should be more critical debate about this state of affairs.

It used to be that the market would become interested in an artist after they had received acclaim by their peers; nowadays it is the art market itself that does the filtering. This does not necessarily mean it makes bad choices, but it does show that the dynamics within it have drastically changed. Everyone is a business man!

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?

SL: These days it's all in the titles...

You can learn more about Steve Litsios by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor
New York Art Exchange
Myartspace Blog on Twitter on Twitter on Twitter

1 comment:

Mark Staff Brandl said...

Great interview Brian and Steve!