Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 11 - Lest we forget
Log 11 - Lest we forget

Michael Stevenson and Steven Brower interviewed


NZ ex-pat Michael Stevenson and NY artist Steven Brower were joint artists-in-residence at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery earlier this year. The residency culminated with the show Genealogy in which the two artists recreated rooms from their childhood: Brower, his father’s living room, complete with a scale model of his family home, and Stevenson, his high school art class, filled with fake School C portfolios by well-known NZ artists.

Both artists included a number of works by their parents in the show, tracing a lineage of inter-generational creativity. In stark contrast to the morally upright academic studies of the Stevenson clan, Steven Brower’s father William Brower was represented by numerous cartoon satires of everything from Freud having a douche-bag emptied on his head, to Hitler buggering one of his SS officers. In fact, two of Brower Senior’s paintings were removed before the opening of the show, and there was a point at which Genealogy wasn’t even going to make it past the Chief Censor.


Michael: The show was extremely difficult to produce for many reasons. At one stage we were told that the show had the potential to destroy the Govett Brewster Art Gallery. There were two works by Steve’s dad that couldn’t be put in the show, on legal grounds [featuring child abuse].

Log: I really enjoyed those works by William Brower - they were witty.

Well, they made sense of the whole show but not in a way that was easy for people to engage with - they were controversial for all the wrong reasons.

Just plain old crude rather than conceptually challenging?

Yeah, and painted by an old guy who’s "unimportant".

What’s Steve’s dad like?

He just seems like a normal, sweet old guy’

Were your parents OK with being shown in the context of William Brower’s work ?

My parents were fantastic, they were very generous, and it was great to have that level of generosity involved with the show. My parents are very private people, and being shown with William’s work was not something they would normally want to be involved in. But because this was a family situation, they put a lot of things on the line. They’re involved in a deeply Christian environment. So I respected them for that, because it meant we were able to put together this very unique show. I didn’t want any flak to come back on my parents, that wasn’t the idea of the show at all’

Was Steven’s father pleased to be involved?

His father and my parents had the same admirable attitude: "this isn’t our show, we’re just helping out". My parents certainly aren’t seeking any attention. They’re not sitting at home hoping that someone’s going to come around and do a masters thesis on their work or something!

Maybe someone will do that after this show?

I don’t think so. That is the great thing about Steve’s parents and my parents, they’ve both been through art school and involved in art in some sort of way, but they’re not interested in art world structures, or the gallery system, they’ve got other, better things to do.

Some people were reading it as a solely cynical gesture, but I actually felt quite moved, it seemed quite tender.The intensity of the workmanship is quite staggering, it’s hard to read something as cynical when you’re that involved in your creation, because you almost enter the mind-state of these people that you’re portraying. So is it more of a homage than a derisive tactic?

Why is it always one thing or the other? My work is always read like "this is so cynical". But I don’t think it’s ever one thing or the other. The artwork I’ve done more recently, the big question mark over it, has been the question of intent. People can’t deal with not knowing what the intent is. But I think the more ambiguous that is, the better.

The processes of everything I’ve been involved in are much more tender than people would make me out to be. Look at those charcoal drawings, for goodness’ sake - as if you’re going to knock people over in the street with a bit of charcoal! But you spend hours, literally, weeks, on a charcoal drawing. Or transcribing another artist’s music with composers who are intensely interested in musical structure and detail, and then it’s read as only being cynical! The amount of extra energy that’s been put in to make these things that are invisible amongst other things is incredible.

So what’s the mentality behind craftsmanship when you live in the age of mechanical reproduction?

Well, one of the reasons I’m interested in the School C syllabus is it’s the lowest common denominator for art in this country. You’re doing a show in New Plymouth, and you can probably count on one hand the people that have been to art school in New Plymouth, but the number of people that have done School C art is vast by comparison. In the community, general knowledge about art gets developed by people doing School C art, and it’s got nothing to do with mechanical reproduction. It’s about being given a crayon, or a pot of student-grade, smelly acrylic paint, and being told to paint a stylised version of your Nomad shoe. You know exactly what I’m talking about because everyone did it. See?

Are you on some kind of moral highground when you do make all your stuff from scratch?

In terms of those School C folios, you can’t do it mechanically, can you?

What about the charcoal drawings, when you could have used big photographic blow-ups?

Well, it would have been totally different work, that’s all. Some of those musical scores are composed on computer, but it doesn’t make it any less work’there’s still a huge amount of time involved in making that stuff. Steve and I talk about the effect of time on making artwork. I suppose ultimately, it’s going to create some kind of intensity that the other stuff doesn’t have’


If you want to call it that, I guess’The video, Daily Practice [made in collaboration with Danius Kesminas] has that intensity, even though it’s a recording, it’s still hand-made because it’s meticulously scripted and costumed.

Do you think your skills are due to your upbringing, the value systems your parents imbued in you?

Well, plenty of people have parents that have been to art school, and it hasn’t had the same effect on them. Here’s a family tree that I made tracing the connections between the artists in the show and my parents and their teachers. It’s pretty stunning because you can go from Jackson Pollock to Lois White.

My parents were taught by Lois White, who was taught by Archie Fisher, who came out from England to run Elam. He ran the joint according to where he came from, which was the Slade school. He was taught by Augustus John. And it all gets filtered down to my parents who start making this art that looks like Thomas Hart Benton, but they don’t know who Benton is, because they’ve only been taught about Augustus John. Benton has become famous because he was the teacher of Jackson Pollock, and of course Pollock is connected to Max Gimblett, who taught Steven at the Pratt Institute. And then there are style connections: Pollock and Julian Dashper for instance. My father taught Carole Shepherd at high school, and she now works at Elam. He taught Fiona Clark as well. Get this: in 1970, when the Govett Brewster Art Gallery opened, the guy who did the first show there, which was this sound-light installation called Real Time, Leon Narbey, was on section at my father’s high school art department during the day, and at night he’d go and set up Real Time. So there’s this connection to the gallery via Leon Narbey as well. Christine Hellyer went to Girls High in New Plymouth, and she taught me at Elam. There’s another connection with Paul Hartigan who went to Elam and used to teach at Elam. He was taught at Boys High in New Plymouth by Tom Kriesler, who in turn was taught at Ilam by Rudy Gopas, who went to art school in Lithuania. So there’s a weird Litho-connection going on [Stevenson went there with some nationals last year] - Kaunas, London, Kansas City! Obviously this thing could be arranged in many different ways’

What’s the impetus for seeking out historical ties? Do you want to feel connected, as opposed to out-on-a-limb?

There is such a strict reading about New Zealand art, where it’s come from and where it’s going to go. I just wanted to provide something that’s alternative to that. No matter how much a show like Headlands was supposed to have "rearranged" New Zealand art, it’s still very proscribed. I think the advantage of having not lived here for five years, and then doing this show with an American, is that the show could just be about NZ art, but it’s not just about that. It provides a really different reading on New Zealand art than what is currently available.

Why are you so interested in New Zealand art, rather than just art per se? Why is The Big Picture such a Big Issue for you?

The main starting point for this was to do with my parents, and the fact that there are generations of people who have been through Elam and Ilam who know what goes on in the art world, but they’re not involved in the art world. My parents left Auckland, went to Inglewood and poured all their skills into that local community. When they went to Elam it was the last time that it was a skills-based course. After that, people like Jim Allen came in and said, you don’t need to do all that figurative stuff, you just get a chainsaw and cut down a tree, and that’s art, get chicks to take their clothes off and writhe around in paint, that’s art! And that happened very soon after my parents left’They caught the last of the academic, classical art school education. Everyone then went on to training college and became a high School art teacher, because there were limited options back then.

Did you miss having that classical training when you went to Elam?

When I was there, there were a lot of people talking about how there should have been more training, because it was the ’80s and painting was back in. People were saying, "why did they chuck out all those plaster casts?" that had been ceremoniously trashed 15 or 20 years earlier. That whole trans-avant garde thing was in, and people had to race up to the Auckland Museum to draw the discus thrower and the dying centurion, because it was all cool all over again, see?

Do you think that the art world constitutes a kind of global family?

Not one that I’d want to be a part of’

It’s interesting the whole idea of genetic vs memetic family tree, because the family tree you’ve drawn up seems to be more about the art world than about family’

I guess I’m interested in the idea of communities. So is Steven - he’s made work about Buckminster Fuller, and Black Mountain. I guess he’s interested in the way that communities function or don’t. I guess I have been involved in serious communities, and the art world is only disappointing in comparison to that.

Why do you put so much effort into it then?

Well it’s this Utopic notion of what a community should be, so you can only ever be disappointed by it. The art world pretends in lots of different ways to be some weird kind of a community, but the kind of community I was involved in was one where if you’re moving house, you don’t even need to phone, and ten mates come around in the morning to help you shift. Now, in the art world, ten artists don’t drop in on my joint when I need to shift house.

In Steven’s room there’s a bookshelf where Freud’s Totem and Taboo is prominently displayed. According to Freud, every son has to metaphorically kill and eat his father, so that he can have all the females of the pack to himself. Is that what you and Steven were getting at with Genealogy?

It’s not as straight-forward as that. Obviously Freudian readings of that show abound’ even with the School C folios, they are full of that stuff. You can read the student/teacher relationship as a father/son relationship. The hardest thing about making those School C folios wasn’t trying to make work that correlated to the artist’s current work, it was remembering that the person who you were trying to be had all these hormones flowing through their body at that time, that was making them do things that you can’t even remember what it feels like to be feeling! Seriously, it’s all about hormones!


Log: How did you meet Michael, and when did the two of you decide to work together? Was it the coincidences in your lives and work that made you decide to collaborate, or did the coincidences come out afterwards?

Steven Brower: Mike and I show at the same gallery and we met when he came over for an exhibition. We got along pretty well and I figure when you like someone you always find similarities between yourselves. At one point we went down to West Virginia and Mike mentioned that there were many aspects in common with NZ

How did your parents react to the premise of Genealogy?

My dad laughed. My mom figured I was blowing up.

What did your mother mean that you were "blowing up"?

Oh, she didn’t say "blowing up"; that’s like a skater/slacker term for career advancement, as in "yo, yo, homes is blowin up". That’s my way of being funny or something, you know, putting my mom’s sentiments into terms like that

One of the most overwhelming things about the show is that you are both such consummate craftsmen/artisans. Do you feel that really good art has to be "made"?


OK, if you don't think good artwork has to be "made", what makes you "make"?

I’m personally interested in making things, and I find the study of how things are made rewarding. It has very little to do with art. I make this artwork which is intrinsically about that, but I don’t think art has to have anything to do with it. I’m just interested in it. I know that most people couldn’t care less about how things are made, and that late-capitalist-style consumption obviates the need to be familiar with the origins of commodities. Artists are consumers as well as producers, and many artists find the process of consumption an interesting replacement for production. I have no problem with that since it’s a prevailing attitude in the world.

I have very few consistent criteria for determining what good art is; I’ve liked all kinds of stuff. I’ve thought many things I would never want to make myself are very good artworks - films for instance; abstract expressionist paintings; urinal cake sculptures, performances, street interventions, altarpieces, dresses, things made of wax, dirt, and stuffed animals.

What makes me "make" is the lack of being able to do anything else that’s satisfying to me. It has nothing to do with art. It’s just that the structure that exists for the reception of art has accepted the things I make to some extent. I would do it without that acceptance. I am happy to have a place for my things sometimes, and what I choose to make is often determined by the availability of a place to put the product. But my motive for making stuff is something else.

When I first had the show described to me I thought it had the potential of being quite exploitative (of your respective families). When I saw the show, though, I was actually quite moved. Nevertheless, you walk a fine line. How would you respond to criticism that you’re manipulating your family histories in a cynical fashion for the sake of your careers?

Would anyone say that? I wonder. I did another show of art work made by people in my family and that didn’t significantly impact my career. I don’t expect this show to either. In fact, I have a personal interest in this subject, and I almost see it as being adjacent to my "career", which, by the way, isn’t really substantial enough to benefit from cynical manipulation on my part. I can easily leave that to others.

The similarities in the show between the two of you and your respective upbringings are astounding. But the differences are huge too. Do you think the harshness of William Brower’s vision, compared to the morally upright Stevensons, has something to do with geographic location? Is it a relic of war? What’s going on? It’s fantastic stuff!

I don’t think location has much to do with my dad’s choice in subject matter. It’s the juxtaposition of these bodies of work which calls location to attention, and that doesn’t have much to do with the moral viewpoint inherent in the work. It does have something to do with the development of moral viewpoints of course, but this particular comparison is quite synthetic. I guess location is a factor only because there was a kind of relative indifference to the subject in all their work. It has more to do with isolation than location. As for war relics, I’d say the aftermath of the second world war as witnessed in Germany by my dad has something to do with his development and personality, and therefore interests.

What about the censorship of some of William’s work. Did this piss you off? How important was it to have those works in the show, do you think? How would it have changed the reading of the work as a whole (given that they portrayed scenes of incest and that the whole orientation of Genealogy is "familial").

I brought those works over specifically because of the subject matter. I was unaware that NZ even had censorship when I came. I’m not interested in breaking the law or forcing people to look at things or subjecting unsuspecting viewers to something shocking or any of that. The only thing that pissed me off was a kind of indecisiveness on the part of the institution that presented the show. I wasn’t fully aware of their concerns until the day before the opening. Had I known about the various factors, I would have figured out a more satisfactory way of dealing with the problem. As for censorship, I personally think the practice as it applied in this case is a waste of time, and is sort of more a bureaucratic formality than a protective measure.

Do the two of you plan to collaborate any more in future, and where can you possibly go from here?

We don’t have any plans at the moment as far as I know. But I could be wrong about that. I’m making a spaceship.


Michael Stevenson is an expatriate New Zealand artist presently undertaking a residency in Berlin. Steven Brower is an artist living in New York.



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room