Paper Trail: In the Studio with Steven Riddle

Steven Riddle’s paper collages are additive. They’re layers and layers of material that slope past their underlying surfaces in gentle relief. They’re also subtractive, just as much the result of recursively eliminating elements. And they’re practically alive. A single composition is often an amalgamation of pieces produced more recently mixed with others from two years prior. They’re like living, breathing documents of the artist’s extended studio history, all of it cumulatively recorded in the bins of scrap paper in his studio -- blank paper that’s been air brushed, silkscreened, brushed over with gouache, monotyped , and that’s just for starters. Colorful and seemingly delicate, Riddle’s collages might seem like a reaction to the urban gray and grit of Baltimore, where he lives. Perhaps they’re escapist renditions, or more likely, ornate celebrations of a city’s latent energy.

I recently dropped by Steve’s studio at Towson University outside of Baltimore, where he’s a second year MFA candidate. You can check out his work space, and our conversation, after the jump. -Matthew Smith, Washington, D.C. Contributor

Steven Riddle | A Still History, 2011, marker, gouache, acrylic, oil-based mono type, collage on paper, 26 × 33"

Steven Riddle | The Studio Light, 2011, gouache, acrylic, oil-based mono-type, silkscreen, collage on paper, 46 × 46"

Detail of “The Studio Light,” in Steve Riddle’s studio

Matthew Smith: Can you tell me about your process? You start off with blank paper and you also have this large bin of scraps. How do you get from here to there?

Steven Riddle: Well, this piece [points to The Studio Light] was five or six pieces that I started and didn’t finish. I then took out parts that I really liked... Essentially it’s made up of a combination of failed starts. And this is a process that I really embrace -- this idea that there’s really no way to fail because I can recycle ideas and use them in another piece. That’s what makes this particular piece a strong one for me, because it’s a combination of all these failed starts. You just take the best parts of the failures and build a new piece up.

MS: I’m really taken by the visual language that emerges, like the repeating scissors and hand shapes. Can you tell me a little bit about the images and forms that make up your compositions?

SR: Yeah, they’re kind of iconic symbols of a personal narrative -- like a pseudo self portrait. The scissors are making the pieces and they represent my hand in the creation process of the works that I make.

MS: And what about all the flowers and leaves? They’re also repeating motifs.

SR: They’re still lifes. Every artist has had to paint a still life at some point in their career. And even the masters like Matisse and Picasso revisited still lifes later on when they weren’t students anymore. So it seems like it’s something that’s always there in an artist’s consciousness. But the still lifes that I make aren’t so much about the objects themselves. They’re about engaging with the history of painting.

Inside Steven Riddle’s studio

Inside Steven Riddle’s studio

Steven Riddle | Magic Hand, 2011,acrylic, marker, oil-based mono-type, collage on paper, 8 × 11"

MS: What about the holes that you punch through the surface of the papers you use? It adds a special textural effect.

SR: The idea behind the hole punching is to make the object look like it’s disintegrating or reappearing. I like the idea of things being in a state between coming and going. And I like the idea of the still lifes doing the same thing -- coming in and out of an artist’s practice throughout his career, and in and out of popularity in art history.

MS: And the holes also add another spatial dimension to the works, right? With all the layering of materials you’re not just working with a two-dimensional surface anymore. Is that how you you think about your work when you’re putting it together?

RS: I want to highlighting the physical properties of paper by folding and cutting, I have added folded paper fans and other things to make the work more dimensional. I also like the idea of adding paper not only to the from surface but also to the to back.

MS: You’re working with neons and lots of bright colors. Can you tell me about your color palette?

RS: I’m interested in the science behind neon colors. Neons are always in a constant state of desiccation, that’s why they appear brighter than other colors. I also like the idea that they are synthetic and not found in nature. I think of a dying sun that gets brighter right before it destroys itself. Lately I haven’t been using that many neons, but when I do I add them to other paints and use a UV protective product. I can also use other colors and get the same effect.

MS: And how did you transition from painting in a more traditional sense to working with so much paper?

SR: I was paintings on wooden panels,  adding meltable layers, sanding them, then adding more layers. When I was working on the panels I was also working on two or three works on paper at the same time. I was getting tired of sanding and of all the dust. So I started to collage the works on paper instead. In a way the process is the same as sanding and adding layers of paint. 

Steven Riddle | Dinner Guest, 2011, gouache, acrylic, mono-type, collage on paper, 46 × 40"

Steven Riddle | Fantastic Maker, 2011, gouache, acrylic, oil-based mono-type, collage on paper, 22 × 21"

Inside Steven Riddle’s studio

Inside Steven Riddle’s studio 


Steven Riddle is an MFA candidate at Towson University. He received a BFA from MICA in 2004. He has most recently exhibited at the Washington Project for the Arts and in the group show Paper Chasers at Nudashank.

Matthew Smith is a writer and artist in Washington, D.C.


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