Stephen Chambers' work is renowned for its flat planes of intense colour and pattern, distinctive visual language and unique blend of abstract and figurative, minimal and decorative elements. Flowers Gallery represented the artist from 1989 until 2014, holding numerous exhibitions across its London, New York and Los Angeles spaces. This exhibition highlights paintings from the Gallery’s collection, which shown together delineate his developing style from the influences of his formative years to his current working practices.
The commentary that accompanies this exhibition is based on writer, critic, and curator Andrew Lambirth's 2008 Unicorn Press publication Stephen Chambers, which was compiled partly from a series of interviews with the artist. This comprehensive book can be purchased at the foot of this page
Chambers was born in London and trained at Central St Martin's and Chelsea School of Art. His most recent major project was The Court of Redonda, a large portrait series first shown during the 2017 Venice Biennale, then at The Heong Gallery at Downing College, Cambridge, and most recently at Hastings Contemporary in East Sussex. He was elected a Royal Academician in 2005.
Since the mid-nineties, Chambers has painted with an increasing degree of simplicity in his compositions, producing the vibrant colours and clean lines for which he is best known. He started reducing the figures in his work to an arrangement of flat patterns, often removing or rearranging their facial features. This is evident in Untitled (Leaning Figure), where we see only a suggestion of the nose and chin on the reclining figure. The vulnerable pose seen in this work, which almost looks as if the figure is falling, is significant in many of Chambers' paintings and was originally inspired by a photograph taken in a cholera epidemic in Bangladesh, and from paintings of The Entombment by Dirk Bouts and Rogier van der Weyden's paintings. Chambers describes his paintings as being about people, involving minimal narrative, if any at all: "They are also about the sensation of the visual explosion. I want the figures in the paintings to be familiar, though not recognised or specific, but evocative of a known 'state of mind.' Inviting the viewer to 'read' the glance of an eye, the fiddling of the hands and recognise the thought in the head, they are meant as silent potent conversations."
More and more frequently his figures were characterised by an androgynous appearance and unlike his earlier works, paintings of this period would also rarely depict more than one person on one canvas. “Paintings containing more than one person are not very common because I find that as soon as you’ve got two figures in a painting you’ve got a triangle going on [with the viewer]…I always prefer talking to people one to one,” explains Chambers.
A common thread connecting many of Chambers' works since the mid-nineties is his ambitious pursuit to depict intangible energies, such as noise, pattern of thought, emotional temperature or the imperfect nature of humanity. He has built a canon of devices that manifest these energies including dots, which gather in swarms and animate the surface; shout bubbles, opposed to speech bubbles; hands clutching 'worry beads;' lassos which rope around figures, exuding a feeling of insecurity; squiggles or 'petals' that throng and flood from the figures' heads and dense wedges of colour linking them to the edge of the canvas, which demonstrate what Chambers refers to as 'intelligence.'
Beds appear as a central motif in a number of Chambers' earlier works to various degrees of prominence, using pattern - in the form of blankets, rugs, and quilts - to steer the viewer towards areas of importance. These works are some of the artist’s most theatrical, playing out scenes of emotionally-charged domestic mayhem. Some of these paintings evoke the spirit of mischief (Audrey watering her sleeping partner in Sleeping with Audrey) and some are more sinister (two lifeless legs poking out from underneath the bed in Life Around My Spanish Bed).
Chambers first exhibited with Flowers in the spring of 1989. Speaking about the works created in the late-eighties and early-nineties, Chambers explains: “Those early paintings were me finding out about myself and doing what I wanted to do. In many ways they were quite autobiographical, and I realized that I could use a personal source to give the paintings an identity, a singularity they hadn’t had before. I think it was the realisation that I could put anything in that was the real breakthrough. I didn’t think 'this is going to be provocative,' I thought 'this is something I know about and can explore.' I didn’t care if it might be seen as quirky, eccentric or daft, I just wanted to see what happened. Suddenly I found a way of putting things down, and they came out with an independence of drawing, not like anything else, and I liked that.”
In Green House a house sits atop an unsettling cruciform waterfall of paint, a feature in many of his paintings of this period. This great pouring of paint expresses Chambers' profoundly cathartic experiences whilst making his work. He comments: “You can read into what I did later – cutting into the surface of the painting with paint stripper or with a black wedge. It’s about disrupting a quietness, disrupting a softness. It’s also about a change of speed, a panic and unpredictability.” This desire for uncertainty within the canvas has also lead to the occasional inclusion of animals in his work, particularly those that could quickly scatter in different directions, such as birds, dogs and rabbits.
A background of tonal or multi-coloured horizontal planking also appears in many paintings. This is Chambers' way of dealing with the complexities of space and light in these pictures, which he often refers to as "nothingness". In others, this empty space is accentuated by a block of opaque colour with a clear source of light illuminating the prop-like objects, almost as if the scene is taking place within a theatre production.
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Although Chambers came to printmaking later in his career, it is now an established and integral part of his artistic practice, both etchings and monotypes, experimenting with a variety of materials and techniques.