Meet Stephen Little, Head of Painting

Meet Stephen Little, Head of Painting

Stephen Little joined NAS as Head of Painting in 2010, having taught in higher education since the early 1990s, including at the University of Western Sydney, Sydney College of the Arts and Goldsmiths College in London where he attained his PhD.

He has worked with many major galleries including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, and White Cube and the Lisson Gallery in London, and has exhibited his own work around the world, from Sydney to Amsterdam to Seoul.

As a practicing artist, he has had a diverse and daring career, looking beyond traditional ideas and practices of painting to explore alternative materials and methods, and to question the place and function of painting in today’s world.

He has sent art to Mars, created reverse acts of painting with a vacuum cleaner, beaten a custom-made drum on the windswept cliffs of Ireland, and developed new languages in his latest powerful work, Penitent, completed during lockdown in Sydney as part of his Harbinger video series.

Was lockdown a productive time for you?

I was home alone isolating for the best part of three months but as Head of Department at NAS it was really busy, we were redesigning programs to deliver the courses to students despite the disruption caused by the virus.

 

Did having a creative project help?

Yes. Suddenly you’re there by yourself, so you have to be inventive about how you’re going to realise it. I had to get a costume designer to make the Penitent suit, it took a while to find someone who was willing to do it. All the crucifixions were done at home on my front porch with my feet and hands. Needless to say, my neighbours view me differently now. I was up a ladder rigging lighting and jigs and making props, there was a lot going on behind the scenes. I also filmed at a location near my home, where you can walk down to the cascades. The last few shots were filmed after lockdown with the assistance of NAS student Tom Carman, who was brilliant! He is currently completing his MFA.

 

What was the seed that started this series?

When you have four-year-olds washed up on the beaches of the Mediterranean, and Australia’s Manus Island, you wonder what the Hell is going on? And you think here I am making art, I’m tired of making pleasant pictures for curators, so I decided to revisit some things I’d done when I was a lot younger, black works and black paintings. So the first video in The Harbinger Suite, Curse, started with the notion of painting as a canvas and a bit of wood, whether that’s a flag on a wooden pole or a wooden stretcher on a wall with a canvas on it, or as a wooden drum painted black with goat-skin sides in the Siren video. The drum could be a painting, it could be anything, but as an Irish Lambeg drum, painting it black eradicates those traditional unionist colours and territorial markers. It remains political, but as an absent non-space.

Siren was shot on the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland. I named the drum The Black Drum of Moher – the fierce wind is from the Atlantic Ocean, it’s freezing – and I also filmed at the Giants Causeway in the north. Drums and flags in Ireland are intensely political. I used to live in Lambeg in Northern Ireland and on the 12th of July, a protestant celebration of King William of Orange and the Battle of the Boyne, you could hear the Lambeg drums in the mountains from kilometres away. So I had a fourth-generation drum maker make me one but I wanted it all black, it was the first time he’d ever been asked to do that. I made the drumsticks myself with materials from Bunnings and Spotlight – you’d be surprised, best art shops ever.

 

Has the series changed course since you started it?

It started with ideas of painting and otherness in relation to painting, and then it steered towards mythology and different forms of belief. The important thing was to see where it would go and to run with it. I don’t want to prescribe it in terms of painting but that’s how it started. As I tell my students too, when they worry about, ‘Is it painting, is it not, what am I doing?’ I say you came to NAS first and foremost as a creative thinker so remember, you’re an artist first and a painter second. Never try to switch it around because that closes things off.

 

You’ve been at NAS 10 years, how has it changed?

Enormously. When I first came here, students were not interested in continuing after their Bachelor of Fine Art degree, they just wanted to get out and make art. Now when I speak to BFA third year students, they say, ‘I’ve been doing all this exploration and invention and finally arrived somewhere and it’s the end of the course.’ So they see the value of continuing with Honours or Masters. I’ve had students turn around and say, ‘You told me something two years ago and I didn’t understand it at the time but I understand it now.’

 

What do students need to make the most of their time here?

They need an open mind, to be receptive to instruction, that’s it really, and engaged at different levels. So when we interview people it’s not just, ‘Show me your work’, it’s also, ‘What kind of books do you read? Do you read art magazines, what kind of movies do you like?’ Because if you just do drawing and don’t read anything, it might be quite hard for you, but if you are interested and curious and engaged, these students are going to be receptive to all the different stimulus they get here, and that’s crucial.

It also helps that we don’t judge students by their ATAR, because some people don’t do well at school but they have a certain facility for art. All it takes is for them to be nurtured in the right environment, and they can shine and overcome things they couldn’t overcome before.

What is the difference teaching here to other places?

I’ve taught at many other art schools in Sydney and London, and the thing I like about NAS is everyone is on the same page, everyone is trying to do the same thing. This is an oasis – you come here in the morning, there’s blue skies, palm trees, the smell of coffee, and you talk to people about something you love. I’ve got an amazing teaching crew in painting, and they’re all supportive of each other, they do anything they can for each other, it’s a really rare thing. It’s because they value the school and see the importance of what we do – it’s a very special place.

 

You were the first person to send art to Mars, how did that come about?

The Mars project came to me through NASA and an organisation called the Planetary Society who were engaged in a public outreach programme for the NASA Mars Rovers named Spirit and Opportunity. When you signed up they gave you a typing window to contribute a small number of characters that, if deemed okay by the project’s curatorial team, would be burned onto a special glass silica DVD disc and strapped to the lander platform of each NASA Rover. I devised a short red text that would speak to painting, to its expanding dialogue with other media and technologies, and then transport this to a completely new context – the Red Planet.

 

How did this project develop your practice?

I look beyond my earthly horizons like just about any other artist, and I feel it is important to step outside ourselves, outside the here and now. Sometimes this offers the freedom to extend dialogue, methodologies or processes in ways that may be limited within a more traditional studio structure or an ‘art for art’s sake’ approach. New bridges can be created, and new narratives, with unexpected outcomes. New directions can be forged, new problems discovered, and recourse to prescribed conventions can be overcome. When we take a familiar dialogue into a new context, we can view it with fresh eyes and from many new perspectives.

You were the first person to send art to Mars, how did that come about?

The Mars project came to me through NASA and an organisation called the Planetary Society who were engaged in a public outreach programme for the NASA Mars Rovers named Spirit and Opportunity. When you signed up they gave you a typing window to contribute a small number of characters that, if deemed okay by the project’s curatorial team, would be burned onto a special glass silica DVD disc and strapped to the lander platform of each NASA Rover. I devised a short red text that would speak to painting, to its expanding dialogue with other media and technologies, and then transport this to a completely new context – the Red Planet.

 

How did this project develop your practice?

I look beyond my earthly horizons like just about any other artist, and I feel it is important to step outside ourselves, outside the here and now. Sometimes this offers the freedom to extend dialogue, methodologies or processes in ways that may be limited within a more traditional studio structure or an ‘art for art’s sake’ approach. New bridges can be created, and new narratives, with unexpected outcomes. New directions can be forged, new problems discovered, and recourse to prescribed conventions can be overcome. When we take a familiar dialogue into a new context, we can view it with fresh eyes and from many new perspectives.

Images (from top): Stephen Little, Siren, 2019, from The Harbinger Suite; monochrome (for Mars), Mars Exploration Rover (A) Spirit, Gusev Crater, Mars, 2004; Penitent, 2020, from The Harbinger Suite; Curse, 2018, from The Harbinger Suite. Images courtesy the artist.
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