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Profiles, Hallucinations and Tokens: A Conversation with Stephen Flemister

Installation view of 'Profiles, Hallucinations & Tokens' Exhibition at The Silver Room, January 2012. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

Somewhere between reality and our carefully crafted digital personae lies the work of Stephen Flemister. With years of portraiture exploration under his belt and a practice that is highly attuned to the nuances of the digitally-saturated age we currently live in, Stephen finds a way to bring together the traditional and artificial in a way that is beautiful, complex in process and constantly changing–much like our relationship to modern technology. In this interview Stephen speaks on how this dichotomy of classic and contemporary collides in his work and where the interest in portraiture that he’s known for stems from.

Tempestt Hazel: How would you describe your work to someone who hasn’t seen it before?

Stephen Flemister: My work is a variety of paintings that are loosely based on either popular images of people that we may know or may appear to be similar to individuals that we may pass by and not know. It is primarily created using acrylic, oil pastels, fiber board or paper.

TH: And this is the way you usually work?

SF: For the past two or three years, yes. I’ve been exploring a lot of fiber board, collage, sketching on top of paintings with either graphite or oil pastel.

TH: You wear two different hats. You’re an artist who works with very traditional mediums, but then you have the other side where you work a lot with technology and design. Can you talk about both of those and the areas where they may overlap?

SF: I’ve been most fascinated by the digital technology of today, some of the advancements. The ways that it is replicating life as we all know it. I wanted to begin to find some parallel between my personal interests in painting and the digital realm. I didn’t want to be so literal, but to some extent as a portrait artist it is hard not to be. A lot of my interests have stemmed from the visual images that we see time and time throughout the days as we see digital displays. And as a web developer and designer who deals with a lot of interactive work there is a place where I find myself battling with high-resolution images that need to be compressed into lightweight images. Through that compression the merging of colors, the idea of data being abbreviated to some extent is one that is troubling and in some sense can be interesting.

Installation view at The Silver Room, 2012. (Image Courtesy of Stephen Flemister.)

TH: Do you see this process, the abbreviation of images, as causing the people that are viewing these things to have a lower understanding of quality in images?

SF: I personally think, even though some that I’ve conversed with [about this] may not agree, I believe that portrait work is really received on the same level as more conceptual work or more interactive work in the realm of contemporary art. But to some extent I feel that the loss of realism [through the abbreviation of the image’s definition] becomes more attractive or engaging. I am using different techniques in my work to explore this idea.

TH: One of the central pieces for the show you had at the Silver Room speaks to this. And you said how it is a conglomerate of images of multiple people.

SF: Yes, this piece I’m learning is a favorite [in the show] for many people. I think I may have to consider calling it…what’s that basketball player’s name? Dwyane…

TH: Wade?

SF: [laughs] Yes! I’m obviously not a sports fan. I may have to consider calling it “A.K.A. Dwyane Wade”. But essentially I modeled this painting off of two individuals from the database of the Illinois Correctional Facilities inmate search. This is a series I’ve been playing with for about a year or two. I combined them to try and recreate a different individual. One thing I find most fun and interesting, just thinking about the evening of the opening, one guy raced outside to find me. There were two officers standing in front of it and the guy that raced back said, “You’ve got to prove this to me. Tell me that this is so-and-so….” I can’t recall who he said but [in many cases] someone is often going to think it’s their cousin or Dwyane Wade, or somebody they recognize. To some extent it plays to the whole idea of all Black folks look alike or all Asian folks look alike, you know? But I think in some essence it’s a question I’ve been playing with: digital technology and how it opens the world up to see other people. I question whether it’s the technology merging us together or is it some kind of revelation where we’re seeing that there are other individuals who look like us in the broad of a world. I’m exploring that through the portrait work and hopefully speaking to a particular environment or demographic because I question if I were to take this same portrait down south, to the east coast, to a different part of the country or overseas, would this painting that was taken from two individuals from the Illinois Correctional Facilities who may have a kind of Chicago or regional feature–would that be considered familiar in a different environment? I wonder, is this painting encompassing a certain region?

TH: I have a feeling that you might get similar results in other places. To me, that’s one of the more fascinating things about portraiture–especially if it’s not iconic portraiture where people instantly recognize the subject. People tend to see something familiar in anonymous faces. Do you have any plans to take these portraits to other places?

SF: Absolutely. I feel that I definitely have to challenge this further and I intend to find a way to somehow play the sketch artist of the police department and somehow take memories and thoughts, images and imagination of fictional characters and somehow personify them. I would like to find ways to post them throughout communities in some sense and somehow form a social network through public sculptures, sketches and prints.

But also, touching back on some things, in the show [at the Silver Room] I also have two images that were derived from portraits of Tiger Woods and Michael Jackson and amazingly people questioned who those individuals were. With Tiger Woods some people may have realized it was him through some of the degraded trademarks on his hats, but other than that, if it were not for that the question would be, “Who is this gentleman here?” Michael Jackson was a little bit more familiar with his signature eyes and his facial work.

TH: What are your plans as you move further into this work?

SF: I feel as if it has continuously pushed forward. It started off with portraits where I just took saturated images and distorted the color and values. Recently I began to distort them to make it look as if there is information missing to printing them on some fiberboard and then doing overlays of encaustic and carving into it to reveal imagery underneath. It is a process that I want to push through and push past because eventually I want to create portraits of people as a whole through simple shapes and objects.

For instance, one of my fascinations right now are boats. I would like to find a way to create portrait work of a Black history through boats versus the facial portraits. I’ve been doing realist portraits for so long that as much as they are challenging, I find them to be limiting in some ways. But I do want to explore portraits a little bit more because I feel there are things I still want to learn and experience before I move on. Not to say I would never return to them.

Stephen Flemister in the Chicago Artists Coalition and Patrón “Simply Perfect” Art Project studio on Chicago Ave, December 2011. (Image Credit: Tempestt Hazel.)

TH: What got you into doing portraits in the first place?

SF: I started with portrait work at the age of eight because it was one of the more challenging things to do. Trees, vehicles, landscapes were fairly simple to me. But to capture the essence of someone, their expressions and emotions, is challenging-especially to have it really resemble them. I was trying to perfect [my technique] and be as accurate as possible. It is a great exercise and a study that I continued for years. I can’t say that I’ve mastered it, but I try to keep it as entertaining as possible for myself.

[Recently] I’ve been asking myself how can I really talk with this work? How can I begin to explore the ideas that constantly think of instead of just having an image of someone? Adding a little bit more story [to them]. I’m putting [my work] through a kind of quality assurance test with some of the inspirations of my own. Does the work stand up to the same things I love about these individuals?

TH: Briefly you spoke about using encaustic in some of your most recent work. Why did you decide to move in this direction?

SF: There are a series of discussions that I’ve had with a number of individuals, including yourself, regarding archiving. As we begin to see libraries disappear, the resources, funding, printed paper books, there is the question of what the new library looks like. There are debates that my girlfriend [Krista Franklin] and I have had about how if print has always been the archival way, does that naturally make anything digital the opposite? Even though [digital archives] are not iron-clad, I think that in this day if you were to print something there’s a chance that it could burn, but something digital and online is almost impossible to remove [and easier to access].

Take, for instance, the portrait of the individuals taken from the database of the correctional facilities. If I couldn’t search for their names online I would have had to do some kind of historical query. Sure, we could canvas the neighborhoods, speak to the families and if they had photos that would be fantastic. But I think one of the more prevalent things for some [people] is to be able to easily tap into databases that capture a piece of the identity of individuals. I find that interesting and it makes me wonder where do we exist in history? What will be represented of myself and others twenty years from now? Of course I would like to have paintings around, but history has shown that things happen. Art is stolen, damaged, destroyed.

So, with the encaustic, the idea is that I can print an image and have it transferred in encaustic, then the wave of a warm surface or object can melt it, make it disappear, degrade it, transform it or just shift it into something else. Commonly today with digital technology we tend to go on Facebook or other social networks to recreate ourselves through public images we project to the world. I love the idea of how encaustic is something that is also malleable [like these public personas]. I can take a chisel or a hot iron to it, press it, move the pigment around in different ways and it settles.

TH: The title of your most recent show at the Silver Room was Profiles, Hallucinations and Tokens. Where did this title come from?

SF: It is a general description of the body of work I’ve been exploring for the past two years where I use these voyeuristic tactics to take these public images and use them as a base to create mythical individuals. What I wanted to do is use profiles as a visual embodiment where I focus on features, their placement on the face and what is most quickly identifiable and associated with race. I wanted to take these [features] and play…not hot potato but…

TH: Mr. Potato Head?

SF: [laughs] Yes, play Mr. Potato Head in some sense. I wanted to sample these images that I’ve been accumulating and create these profiles. Hallucinations is a term I’ve been researching recently. It is the process of taking a degraded, low-resolution image and some algorithm attempting to recreate and enhance that image from that original structure. So, it is trying to guess based on the information it is provided how that individual looks. I found that to be interesting. What does that database look like? Then I started thinking about police artists. How do you begin to describe me, or yourself? How do you begin to describe the width of a nose or a mouth? The idea of profiling is very much in affect. I’m not saying it’s negative or positive. I’m more interested in the practice of it. It is a common, daily activity of our internet and digital life. You can’t escape it.

Then the tokens. To some extent, we are one avatar, one icon of a larger picture. We are bits of information at the end of the day when talking about the digital world. I’m only speaking of the digital world because it’s so new. It’s always changing.

Stephen’s work has recently been featured at The Silver Room and as part of the Chicago Artists’ Coalition’s ‘Simply Perfect’ Project. See more of Stephen Flemister’s work by visiting his website,  Also, save the date for May 11, 2012 when his two-person show Involuntary. Loss(y). Privacy. with Julian Williams opens at Blanc Gallery.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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1 Response to " Profiles, Hallucinations and Tokens: A Conversation with Stephen Flemister "

  1. Dee Johnson says:

    I am a fan of Stephen Flemister’s artistry. He pushes the envelope and has a very unique way of defining and capturing realism and abstraction in his work. Bravo!

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