In the Studio: A Conversation with Steve Locke
Featured in edition #86 of New American Paintings, Steve Locke makes work that is colorful, complex, and unapologetically human. Concerned with figuration and perceptions of the male figure, Locke's paintings evoke richness in all its forms. I sat down last week with the Boston-based artist in his Hyde Park studio, where he lives and works, to discuss his paintings, his mother, and ideas of queerness. Above his door, a brightly-colored neon by the artist fluctuated between the phrases, "GOD IS LOVE" and "you little faggot." —Evan J. Garza
EJG: Before we left for coffee, we were talking about those pieces (pointing to the wall) that feature a pattern of faces and those wonderful gradients of color, and you mentioned your mother.
My mother died of lung cancer in 2004 and I was back and forth between here, in Massachusetts, and Michigan, flying back and forth to take care of her. I’m a very anal retentive person and I schedule time to be in my studio, and I was so upset and so overwrought about it that I didn’t know what to do [while] in the studio, so I just tried to paint my mother’s profile from memory. And there’s tons of work in that series because I would just come into the studio and mix this color, gradient by gradient, just trying to ease the transition. I don’t normally talk about this work, it’s been hard to show, it’s been hard—all that sort of stuff—but I like you.
No, really! ...It’s funny because I don’t—like I said, you’re the first person I’ve ever really spoken to, outside of my close friends, about what that work is about, but as I get older, and the event of my mother’s passing gets further and further into the distance, I feel like I have a different relationship to that work now. The hard part about it is I keep trying to change the content of that work to make it speak to people in different ways. I think that a lot of people misunderstand paintings. And that’s fine—sometimes that misunderstanding can be really interesting. With that work in particular, it’s always been so close, I didn’t want people to misunderstand it. I’ve always been very, sort of, protective of it.
EJG: And it must also be difficult because it is so conceptually different from the rest of the work that you make.
Very much so. I’ve always let people have their own experience with their eyes. I know that the modern moment is over where an object can talk about everything all at once. I think sometimes text is helpful. But with these paintings, for me to talk about where they came from would diminish their visual power, and they would start to become this sad thing, and instead I wanted them to be these sort of evanescent moments. And since then I’ve seen Anoka Faruqee, and her work is so brilliant, but working with the same idea with gradiation and stuff like that—her work leaning more towards abstraction and mine staying with a figurative basis because I think it’s the only thing I know how to paint. It doesn’t occur to me to paint anything else.
EJG: Why is that?
I think partially it’s my training. From the very beginning, I was trying to be a portrait painter. I wasn’t interested in any of the other things. Having to draw eggs and milk cartons freshman year, I was like, “So much for still-life. I’m never going to paint another one of these as long as I live.” It was also the appeal of the body, because you can do things with other people's bodies that you can’t do with your own. It’s one of the best things about painting the [human] figure.
EJG: Your work features a great deal of colorful negative space. Tell me about that.
The space in between is the third thing in the painting.
EJG: Like the third subject.
Exactly. So, there’s you, there’s me, and then there’s the space between us. And what is that space? When you’re in love with somebody, if you’re at a party together, you don’t even have to see them to know where they are in the room because the space between the two of you is so small. And I think about that in painting, like how a color can collapse the space between two people. So, a certain pink can make people feel like they're right next to each other even though they’re a mile apart. The way that shows up visually also has something to do with how it shows up emotionally. I love that about painting.
EJG: Tell me about the faces in your work. These (pointing to the wall) seem different than in your previous work.
The sort of disembodied heads are the newest work... I’ve been looking at a lot of painting over the past year that have a strong photo reference, and I’ve really been trying to force that out of my work, to have a work that relies more on the material nature of paint to create a form or create an illusion and less about a photographic connection. The work you saw at Camilo’s (samsøn, Boston) was really married to that. They were really painterly paintings that revealed something about physiognomy at one distance, but then revealed something about the matter of them when you got up close to them, and I really love that.
And looking a lot at George Condo and the irresponsibility he has with the figure, because that’s something that dwells in painting, and has for a very long time. And I’m very, very interested in that. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not still interested in a masculine subject, or what it means to be male in this moment and how difficult it is to be male.
EJG: Or even a queer male.
It’s not even that known that there’s a difference between queer males and males in general. And that notion of queerness seems like it should give non-queer men a little more safety and a little more permission to be human. But for some odd reason, it doesn’t… I’m not just saying it because I am queer but I think that a notion of queer is going to be the salvation, as people start to understand that one plus one might equal three. If you can just get your brain around that…
The Constable, 2008, from the Rapture series, lithographs printed on Arches 88 Silkscreen paper. Courtesy the artist and samsøn, Boston.
EJG: Some of your works are very vaguely homoerotic and others, like Rapture, featured at samsøn earlier this year, are much more obvious. How do you make that distinction?
I think Rapture was the most difficult thing I ever made because it dealt with religion and saying ‘no’ to the religious upbringing that I had. It also dealt with the erasure of gay men in a really…
EJG: In a really literal way.
Yeah. The pun is intended in a fundamental way because of the fundamentalist belief that there’s no place in heaven for queer people. So, when I was making it, I felt like, “I’m glad my mom’s dead because I don’t want her to see this.” And it was very physically and emotionally expensive to make because I felt like it was the most political work that I’d done up to this point. And I felt it could be more literal and more narrative and more didactic, for lack of a better word, because it was on paper.
The paintings had to compete in the culture of painting, which is a little different, and they needed to be open to other kinds of interpretation. A lot of people look at [my] paintings and think that they’re about being gay or about being queer and I try to remind them that they’re about being male, and that’s a different sort of thing. I’m not opposed to being queer, I hope to be really good at it one day, but I think the notion that two men can be together in a situation or they can be touching and they might not be gay, they might just be two men… I think that that happens. I don’t think that’s a gay thing, that’s just a male thing.
Steve Locke, included in edition #86 of New American Paintings, will be featured in the exhibition Traversing Gender at the McIninch Art Gallery at Southern New Hampshire University from September 20 - October 23. He also has a forthcoming solo show with Mendes Wood in Sao Paolo, Brasil in November.