“What a lot of rubbish!”, I thought, looking at Steve Lopes Encountered – not the paintings but the subject matter. Lopes shows us a world covered in litter. His pictures are filled with dead leaves, bits of paper, fragments of rock or broken tile, the odd bottle, and lots of small, coloured patches that might be stones or plastic objects.
This tendency reaches its peak in Bei Gao – Still Life (2014), in which Lopes, in China, has avoided all the famous beauty spots in favour of something more typical. In an anonymous, bricked-in corner we find a garbage dump decorated with the serpentine forms of broken lead pipes. Nature is represented by the scarred trunks of two trees growing out of this morass. A battered door with a neat little lion-face badge adds a quirky touch.
I start with this off-beat image because it shows how hard it is to be an original figurative painter today. If Lopes were to paint glorious sunsets, gum trees, billabongs, or vases of flowers, he might sell more pictures, but lose the hard-won contemporary ‘edge’ that comes from looking beyond the conventionally beautiful. It’s the sort of thing one only notices when a large body of work is brought together in a survey exhibition.
This mid-career overview has been curated by Kon Gouriotis for the Orange Regional Gallery but is making its debut in Sydney. Lopes himself is based in Kogarah but spends considerable time out west, where he has a bolthole. The show coincides with his 50th birthday.
The sheer quantity of paintings – which Lopes says is only the tip of the iceberg – reveals an artist who believes that all good things will accrue to those who work hard. I travelled with Lopes and a group of other artists to Gallipoli in 2014 and can testify to his dedication and unflappable good spirits. He has planted his flag in that corner of the art world inhabited by the most dogged painters – figures such as Euan Macleod, Elisabeth Cummings, Luke Sciberras, Angus Nivision and John R. Walker, to name only a few. If Lopes is less fluent than most of them, he loses nothing in terms of commitment.
Having paid his way through art school by working as a newspaper cartoonist, Lopes’s work retains a strong graphic quality. Through constant study, both formally and privately, he has trained himself to be a painter. He’s one of those artists who wouldn’t be ashamed to call himself a lifelong student whose work is constantly developing.
Lopes’s attitude is partly a reflection of his family background as the son of Sicilian migrants. Among so-called New Australians there was always a tremendous work ethos, as families strove to make the most of their opportunities. Nino Culotta’s best-selling novel, They’re a Weird Mob (1957) may have been a feelgood fantasy for true-blue Aussies, but it also captured a few truths about the migrant experience.
It’s a dismal fact that today we hardly speak about migrants, only refugees, asylum seekers, and detainees. It’s no longer of a story of dreams and aspirations, but an ugly game of political opportunism in which human beings are treated like pawns.
One of the abiding features of Lopes’s work is its powerful humanism. He is interested in the everyday rather than the exceptional. He tries to get under the skin of a place by looking at the way ordinary people go about their daily activities.
In Australia, Italy, China and other parts of the world, he has painted images of people going about their business. They may be dressed in shabby clothes or living in dirty, rundown wastelands, but each of them retains a certain dignity.
In Dirt Market (2015), a group of Chinese, swaddled against the cold, examine a pile of books arranged for sale on a blanket. In Railway Club (2020) a man sleeps in a chair alongside a a set of mops that he has presumably just finished using. One of Lopes’s most poignant images is Sleeping Syrian – Paris (2018), which shows a figure in a doorway, wrapped so tightly in blankets that not a single feature is visible. We are looking at a coccoon from which the occupant won’t be bursting forth like a butterfly.
In other works, figures stand stiffly, as if posing for the camera. In Hunter, Filicudi (2016), a sportsman proudly displays two dead rabbits. Framework Figure (2022) shows a man standing alongside a frame construction that’s either an unfinished building or a complicated sculpture.
As with so many scenes by Lopes, the characters in these paintings leap out with an unnatural sharpness from the background. This stylistic quirk may be deliberate, but it gives the impression that the artist has struggled to reconcile figure and ground. It’s not an issue with his small, quickly painted oil sketches, only the more finished works. In canvases such as Uncommon Figures (2020) or Red Flag Figures (2019) the men in the centre of each composition look as if they’ve been cut out and collaged onto the picture plane.
In his portrait of musician, Warren Ellis, the background has been fudged so as not distract from Eliis’s face and violin. But it’s a problem that should have been solved in the planning, not when the picture was almost completed.
One of the strangest works is The Eggman (2017), in which Lopes adopts an ambitious, front-on view of a vendor’s motorbike. The work arranges itself into a series of flat planes, dominated by a solid block of eggs in paper trays. The severe geometry is emphasised by a backdrop of earth and sky reduced to abstract smudges of blue and brown.
Whenever Lopes opts for a landscape without figures the paintings become less problematic. There’s no longer that unsettling awkwardness that may or may not be deliberate, no longer a guessing game as to what stories lie behind each fragment of narrative. The most purely lyrical painting in the show is Exposed Wood, Mont St. Quentin (2017), a World War One battlefield that still bears testament to the past in its grassy undulations. With the setting sun seen through leafless trees, a pink glow on the horizon, and a characteristic scattering of small bits of paper, its elegaic tone tells us everything we need to know.
Steve Lopes Encountered
S.H. Ervin Gallery, 26 March – 9 May, 2022
Orange Regional Gallery, 21 May – 17 July, 2022
NOT Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 16 April, 2022