Interview: Oliver Stephens
Luca Curci talks with Oliver Stephens during CANVAS INTERNATIONAL ART FAIR 2022, and RITUALS, first appointment of ANIMA MUNDI 2022, at Palazzo Bembo – Venice Grand Canal.
Oliver Stephens (b. 1990, Antigua Guatemala) is a contemporary Guatemalan artist based in Berlin, Germany. He notably participated in the “Padiglione Italia” for the 54th Venice Biennale curated by Vittorio Sgarbi. This experience prompted him to later attend the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) to pursue art. During his time in Savannah, Oliver became increasingly interested in the historic architecture of the city. Consequently, he double-majored in painting and historic preservation and thus considers himself a preservationist as well as an artist. Currently, the artist focuses on themes of social identity as seen through the lens of historic architecture.
Luca Curci – How did you get to your current artistic practice?
Oliver Stephens – My current practice is the result of years of work and study in the field of historic preservation. As a preservationist, it is of paramount importance to nurture and strengthen societies’ connection to and understanding of historic sites. These sites play a vital role in both establishing and strengthening cultural bonds that in turn promote social unity and communal identity. By recognizing art as another medium of communication, I aim to recount the stories that accompany these sites and make them significant. I would say my practice of retelling the history of the built environment through art properly began after working in the field of preservation in Guatemala. There I noticed how these connections to history have been eroding as rapid and unregulated progress, paired with sub-par education systems, have caused a rift between Guatemala’s younger generations and their own history. Since then I have expanded my practice beyond the borders of my homeland as I too begin to expand my worldview. Currently, I have adapted my practice to the history of Berlin, the city I have currently settled in.
LC – What are your thoughts while you paint? Do you have any habits or rituals while you work?
OS – Central to my artistic practice is the use of modelling paste which I use to create texture and relief. I see this as an act of construction in itself. While painting I imagine building these structures up from the ground. Then I apply the layers of watered-down paint which spreads and fill all the rooms, halls, galleries, and streets I have just created. When doing this I think of the watery paint as an extension of myself, and as the liquid spreads to fill all available space I too explore every nook and cranny of the building.
LC – Are your artworks focused on a specific theme?
OS – I focus on analyzing concepts of social identity as seen through the lens of historic architecture. I would say that if I had to cite a specific theme that encompasses all of my work it would be historic preservation and cultural identity. However, each series I do focuses on specific stories as the history of each region I focus on is different. For example, in my Berlin series a prevalent theme is the calculated and strategic attempts of certain groups to erase and reinvent the identity of the city, and the ways in which Berlin has resisted or adapted to these attacks on its identity. On the other hand, in my previous series focused on Guatemala a common theme there are the challenges of preserving the built environment in a seismic region, and how to conserve the memory of the places that nature has erased.
LC – How is being an artist nowadays?
OS – In the past five years, we have experienced significant upheavals. From global pandemics to the rise of fascists to the looming threat of climate change. I would say that this time period is particularly significant for artists as it is our job to view, record, and interpret the world around us. Of course, such trying times do take their toll on creative minds. To answer simply I would say the current time period is both greatly inspiring, and profoundly challenging.
LC – Which art themes do you pursue? What is your preferred subject, if there is any?
OS – Generally I am attracted to momentous and consequential history that has impacted social development. I never focus on a building just because it’s beautiful or plainly symbolic. The overarching theme of my choice of subject matter is always focused on the historic architecture that connects us to important lessons we would do well to remember.
LC – Do you agree with our vision of art and what do you think about the theme of the exhibition?
OS – Of course, I would say I agree with this vision of art, as I would say I agree with any vision of art. Art’s greatest strength is how fluid its interpretation is as this frees it from all constraints. I would also say that showcasing art at an international level, and providing a podium upon which voices of different nationalities can be heard, is always beneficial. My greatest takeaway from this exhibition was being able to share and converse with creative talents of so many different backgrounds and nationalities.
LC – In which way the artwork presented in our exhibition is connected with the exhibition’s theme?
OS – As the theme of this exhibition was to provide space for open dialogue between international artists and art lovers, I would say that my work fits in this theme in the sense that it too seeks to open a dialogue. In this case, it is a dialogue specifically related to past moments that find relevance once more in our present.
LC – Did you enjoy cooperating with us? Do you think ITSLIQUID GROUP can represent an opportunity for artists?
OS – Of course I do. Speaking from my own personal experience, I was presented with an opportunity to connect with a wider audience that I would not have had a chance to connect with without ITSLIQUID.
LC – What is your idea about ITSLIQUID GROUP?
OS – Art is by far humanity’s greatest endeavour, or at least it is in my opinion. Yet sometimes some of the world’s greatest talents are overlooked or remain undiscovered. If I am to be considered among these talents is not for me to decide, but either way, it is of paramount importance that organizations like ITSLIQUID continue to exist and work on creating opportunities for such talents to be seen and discovered. Whether it is to highlight the work of established artists or prop up emerging ones, I believe organizations like this one provide a great service to human society.