004. William Stein

William Stein, Prince, 2013. Oil and pencil on panel; 53 x 40 cm.

To celebrate its launch, Traction interviewed five artists featured in 2013′s ‘The Future Can Wait’, London’s annual curated exhibition to coincide with Frieze Week. Here, we talk to William Stein. 


Your paintings are very emotive in their treatment of abstraction. How do the recurring motifs in your paintings resonate personally with you?

I think this question cuts straight to the underlying activity of my painting practice. When I paint, I put myself in the work, and I am an emotional being, so one thing must surely lead to the other – I do not close myself off when I work, so yes, the works are emotive. The recurring motifs are the conduit, the link from myself, to my work, to my viewer. They begin as inarticulate shapes, objects, but I hope that once they have been worked, caressed, beaten, they will carry a voice and a story, albeit an unknowable, unknown, abstracted story. And I think this leads onto why a limited pallet of shapes and objects, rather than a figurative remaking of the things we see around us: this is because I have no desire to illustrate the seen world, neither to illustrate an idea or a concept. Rather the work is to be sensed, to be felt, not analysed and understood. I want to guide the viewer into a space, somewhere liminal, somewhere to be explored, and it should sit aside from the known, otherwise surely there should be no reason to create it.

I don’t accept that abstract work can exist without a narrative value. As far as I am concerned, once two elements are placed together, we have a narrative and a story.

The shapes and objects in my work are sometimes quiet, sometimes restless, and they gaze at the viewer, and in turn the viewer moves into herself, and then moves back to the shapes and objects, and takes herself with her, and the circle is closed, and the motifs are no longer personal to me, they are the viewer, they hold everything that the viewer is. And so the motifs are only personal in that I have formed them, I have made them just enough of something so they may act as a vessel to others, and indeed they soon enough are anyone’s, they become personal to all who care to take them on.

There is a notable sense of drama in your compositions. How do you balance the roles of narrative and abstraction?

I am very interested in the narrative potential of abstract work. To take that point further, I don’t accept that abstract work can exist without a narrative value. As far as I am concerned, once two elements are placed together, we have a narrative and a story. And to relate back to your first question, the presence of a narrative must mean that a relationship has been born; and so from there, we are presented with an emotional tone. It is within this context that I view work: I am more aware of, more concerned with my felt experience, as opposed to my thought experience. Regarding the question, I do not set out to balance the roles of narrative and abstraction; the work will lead me wherever it wishes, and it constructs its own logic, and it will perhaps be balanced, perhaps not. I think all I can do is to approach my practice with an open mind, to not deny anything, and to make the work in a clear and forthright manner. At that point the work will have a chance to exist beyond thought and decision, beyond explanation, and will be independent of the balancing of roles; for the roles, the object, the image, will be one.

William Stein, Function, 2013. Oil, pencil, and plaster on paper on panel; 53 x 40 cm. 

Pre-empting the making of your compositions is your preparation of the gessoed panels that you work on. How does this very physical process relate to the act of painting that follows?

The making and preparation of the panel signal the beginning of the work. A panel may sit for some time once gessoed, but it has nevertheless begun its lifespan. It is alive even before any oil, or any pencil reaches it. In fact, it is possibly the best it will be, draped simply in its porcelain-like, chalk gesso gown. And then I will turn to it and ruin it. And a process of building up and breaking down will commence, often over months, occasionally into years.

I once believed that a painting reached its endpoint when it ‘came alive’. This I now think is completely incorrect.

I once believed that a painting reached its endpoint when it ‘came alive’. This I now think is completely incorrect. I think perhaps it is the absolute converse: A painting is finished when it dies; when it can breathe no more; when it can turn no more corners; when it is still. And so in that sense, the bare chalk panel is fundamental to the work as a whole – it is the work at its purest: unblemished and sublime. So the physical process of producing the gessoed panel relates exactly to the process that follows, in that the making of the panel is the birth of the work, and I will then direct it, drag it, through its life, to its final resting point.

Your compositions demonstrate a strong understanding of depth. Is it important to you that your paintings are read as sculptural?

It is important that the works are read as more than a smear of stuff on a surface. In relation to the previous question, we can see that the panel is as active as the paintwork and drawing. And so with regards a sculptural reading it is the real objectness of the work which excites me, the lump of panel, the oils and pigments saturating it, sitting on it, the gauged pencil lines, the rubbed and sanded surfaces. I do not want the work to be merely an illusion of a thing, rather it must be something. Exactly what is not the question; it may be everything, it may be nothing. It is only important that it exists beyond mere illusion and talks of nothing but what the viewer may choose to offer it. And so the work should not be about something, it must remain in a hinterland, open to anyone who wishes to guide it onwards.

I think that an active ground, when the ground becomes the work, when painting moves into sculpture, I think this work has the most chance of becoming something real, something beyond illusion; something beyond that which relies on explanation and understanding. So to answer your question, it is not that I want the paintings to be read as sculptural, rather that they are sculptural, that they are something.

Looking ahead to the following months; do you have any new projects coming up?

In January 2014 I will start an Honorary Research Associate position within the Slade Graduate Painting department.


William Stein’s work can be seen at The Future Can Wait at Victoria House, Bloomsbury Square, London WC1B 4DA until ­­­­17 October.

Visit his website for more information on his practice.