For the painter Stefan Boulter, kitsch is not a negative term. That fact speaks volume about his artistic practice – he’s a figurative painter in a world where conceptual art is what’s hot. He has chosen to live in Iceland rather than New York or London or Los Angeles, and he values that distance. “Art is about creativity,” he says. “When you start you don’t know the end result.” For more about aesthetic twists and turns, read on!
So, you are an artist.
I’m a painter. I prefer to call myself a painter.
Why is that?
Because an artist can mean anything. If you get an idea, it’s art. I prefer painter because it says what I do. “Artist” is little bit too general for me. If you look into the past and think about what art was, originally it was about craft. Today, it’s about ideas. There’s been a change. I don’t think it’s bad, but if you say you’re an artist, you’re not saying anything, really. You’re saying you’re a creative person, but there are a lot of creative people who aren’t artists.
What do you focus on in your work.
I’m a figurative painter, which is seen as sentimental. It’s not what’s being done. At one point being called an Impressionist was an insult – being sentimental is sort of similar. If work lacks irony, and you’re just saying what you feel and you’re being sincere, you’re going to have a hard time in the world. These days, you have to have some ironic angle.
How long do you think that has been the case?
Since the invention of Modernism, really. I like Modernism, especially abstract painting and jazz, which I grew up with. My parents enjoyed those arts. But in another way, it’s just not me. I was looking at Velasquez and some of the Baroque painters, and that’s what I wanted to do. But the times I’m living in don’t value that, although I do think there’s a strong undercurrent of figurative painting. A lot of it’s bad, of course, but there’s a lot that’s good too. It just isn’t really being seen, and is about being seen and getting into the scene. A lot of money has been invested in art, and the scene promotes that investment. Some people say it’s the most corrupt thing in the world. You have to do a lot of networking, and I hate that. It’s just not my character. For some artists today, networking is their main job. They spend more time doing it than they do making art. They make their art pieces right before their shows. I don’t think there’s a lot of passion, but I understand that people are just trying to make a living.
Speaking of having to pitch yourself, what do you think about the advent of social media? Are you on Instagram?
I think social media is a terrific thing. You don’t have to meet people. You can promote your work through the Internet, and you can bypass the system, which is flawed. You can reach people you wouldn’t otherwise reach. I might have an exhibition somewhere, and there might be a few hundred people who would come.
How do you think your work plays on Instagram? Have you seen an uptake in your business?
Figurative work plays well. It creates an illusion of space. And yes, the Internet has helped me sell more. I don’t have a middleman. At one point I was working with a gallery in Iceland, but Iceland is like staying on the moon. It’s a wonderful place, but it’s distant from the center of the art world.
Do you find that living in Iceland informs your work in a particular way? Have you lived in other places?
I lived in Norway, and I studied in Italy. I also studied graphic design in Arizona a long time ago. The isolation of Iceland brings out eccentricities. You aren’t surrounded by a lot of people doing work that’s similar. You can follow things in books and on screens and see what’s happening, but you aren’t physically there. The distance pushes you to be more creative, but once in a while, you need to meet people and see for yourself what’s going on. It’s good to see it and then leave it, and not be too influenced. Of course, everyone is influenced by everything they experience in life. You don’t create art without seeing other art. But I think the isolation is beneficial. It brings out strangeness, and a little bit of strangeness is always good. At least that’s what I’m looking for. Something unexpected.
What shows did you see while you were here?
I saw the “Unfinished” exhibit at Met Breuer. It’s a fantastic exhibition. It’s interesting because you can see what the person was thinking and doing. I also went to the Paul Booth Gallery to see the Odd Nerdrom show. He’s my old maestro. And of course I had to go to the Metropolitan Museum. I wanted to see the American art, especially people like Edward Hopper.
Do you have a process when you begin a painting?
Of course, every artist would say that sometimes it begins spontaneously. You see something that gives you an idea for a piece. I’m trying to incorporate that kind of spontaneity into my work, but it’s figurative, so it has to be planned. The composition can then become the work in progress. You start with something and you add and you change. I don’t have a detailed image when I start. I just start working. If you see an old wall with paint peeling off the wall, and you see images in it – that’s what I like. If I start with a loaded brush, and I put paint thinly on the canvas and some images appear, sometimes I work with it. Not wholly, but partly.
What was a really formative experience for you as an artist?
My parents were an influence. They loved art, and they took me to art exhibitions when I was young. My oldest brother, Fred, also took me to conceptual shows. Comics played a big role. My brothers were raised in America, and then they moved to Iceland. They brought Mad magazine and The Fabulous Freak Brothers and some underground comics. I was doing comics first, drawing these cartoon figures. That’s what led me toward painting. They were a great influence. I would be doing comics if I wasn’t painting. I love them both equally, but I know if I split my energy I would do both half-assedly. At times I have felt really torn. I have thought, “Why paint? It’s really crazy.” Making comics is fun. But painting gives me a lot, and I think what draws me back is the challenge of it.
Earlier you said that Odd Nerdstrom was your maestro. What are the three most important lessons that you learned working for another artist?
- You have to have courage. Following the trends as they are is a really easy solution. It’s a quick fix. I admire people who are brave enough to do what they really want. It’s something I admire in people in general.
- You have to turn things upside down. When you do that, you see them in a different way. When we’re talking about art, it’s so easy to believe that it’s made of some kind of fundamental truth. If you turn things around, and see the good as bad and the bad as good, you might notice that the bad is actually good, which is unexpected. Our society is shaped around certain ideas that we repeat without thinking. That’s why we really have to look at things from different perspectives.
- You have to have a work ethic. You have to work a lot. You can’t just wait for inspiration to strike. That’s where the ideas come from. They come from having to do things – they don’t come first. It’s almost that way with everything. You have to do the thing for the idea to come, not the other way around.