It is a cliché to say that a work of art should look effortless. The sense of ease conveyed by Stephen Felton’s work takes this to a new level. The work is indeed often executed quickly—speed being essential to the element of spontaneity his work trades in. This quality of immediacy and matter-of-factness, combined with its seeming simplicity and Felton’s own perverse brand of the axiom “what you see is what you see” makes the work hard to write about. There is the sense that nothing exists outside the terms of what is in the canvas, and very little in the way of relationships, formal or narrative, to parse. The only way into the work, analytically speaking, is via the relationships established between the work and the viewer through the artist’s puzzling iconography, and the sense of speed and directness his gestures convey.
It is not only spontaneity that Felton harnesses in his work. He balances this element with that of its seeming opposite: structure. This is true both in the act of making and in the viewer’s experience of the result. In previous work these elements existed in a carefully orchestrated, productive tension, one aspect on the verge of undoing the other. However, in Felton's latest work, on view at Valentin Gallery in Paris, they now co-exist in harmony. Whereas in much earlier work the limits of the canvas dictated a singular space in which a scene played out, in this body of work Felton introduces pseudo-geometric compartments of various formats and proportions within the painting’s literal boundaries.
These do not function like the frames of a comic strip, say, demarcating different moments within a given narrative, nor do they reference the material components of painting, as structural systems often do in this context. Instead, they are ambiguous and enigmatic, as motifs in Felton’s work have always been, while accomplishing the compositional labor of segmenting different parts of the painting and thus differentiating one region of the canvas from another. At a basic level Felton’s forms claim and demarcate space, which has always been the primary role of mark making in Felton’s paintings, and which elevates his elemental gestures. The confidence of the gesture’s execution definitively sets them apart from the casual marks they might resemble, though they retain a sense of immediacy and playfulness.
Forms in Felton’s newest works are often cryptic juxtapositions of symbols, establishing a readerly aspect to the work than the more purely graphic forms of the past. These feel at once ancient and eminently contemporary, given the ubiquity of symbols in our digital lexicon. Some of them are familiar from his previous work: sun-like orbs, cascading rainbows, jagged forms reminiscent of mountains, and stepped progressions, to name just a few. The boxing in of these, sometimes bringing them together, while at other times separating them, creates enigmatic relationships. How are we supposed to read the compartmenting of certain motifs? What seems clear is that we shouldn’t put too much stock in these compositional choices, but they are provocative nonetheless.
As others have written of Felton’s iconography, it is always approximate. He deals in floating, malleable signs. These invite the viewer to establish a certain kind of relationship with the painting, more than they disclose specific information to be decoded. They invite us to as if “read” Felton’s composition. This extends the artist’s longstanding interest in literature and narrative. These have previously been part of the experience of Felton’s work, especially in his museum exhibitions, which often revolve around a particular story or book. For example, he has based previous projects on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Arno Schmidt’s Scenes from the Life of a Faun, to name just two.
One of the key elements of Felton’s work is scale. His paintings have the intimacy of drawing, which is indeed the primary vehicle for Felton’s imagery, even if he uses a brush rather than a pencil. Felton sometimes begins with drawings, which enable him to try out motifs and compositions. It is important that the majority of Felton’s paintings are large. They retain the intimacy of the drawn mark, but transpose it to a much larger scale than that held by his works on paper. Indeed, something of the success of his work is due to this scale. It adds an element of strangeness, transposing what—on a small scale might indeed seem like casual markings—to something that feels “oversize.” This is part of what draws us in and want to spend time with one of Felton’s paintings. We want to understand what is before us, and so continue to probe canvases that are both seductive and perplexing.