When fire tore through Steve Salo’s studio in Torquay he was devastated. Inside the artist’s studio were approximately 70 of his paintings, and 80 drawings and sketchbooks, some of which he had treasured since a child. Every single one was destroyed. His art materials and tools were obliterated along with reference books and a cherished drawing case from his childhood. The blaze consumed everything, a lifetime of irreplaceable work reduced to ashes.
“I find it quite hard to talk about it now. The best thing for me is to put it behind me and not ponder over it,” Steve says, clearly still coming to terms with the emotional impact of the disaster that occurred nearly a year ago.
After the fire Steve says it felt like time stood still, “almost like a surreal dream”. He was overcome with confusion, disbelief and grief. For the next couple of months Steve had no desire to paint, unable to motivate himself to even pick up a paintbrush. Eventually, however, the urge to create returned and he began to paint, not with brushes but with his fingers. It was an important step in the healing process.
“I painted and painted like a madman. I painted every day, at all hours in the day. Sometimes three paintings a day,” Steve says. “Holding anger I squeezed paint directly into my palm and slapped it onto the canvas! I mixed the paint with my fingers sculpting faces from my inner visions. I felt a raw, strong energy painting this way. I loved the change. I was releasing the pain, the anger and all the hurt.”
Steve moved into a new studio in Newtown’s arts precinct and began painting in earnest. He relished the thick buttery impasto of the oil paint, using his hands or a palette knife to trowel it onto the canvas. The loose, expressionistic way of working was a liberating experience for the 40 year old artist who had previously painted in a more measured and realistic style, or as Steve more colourfully puts it: “In my younger years of painting I was as tight as an Italian tenor’s trousers.”
For his subject Steve took his cue from art history and chose to paint portraits of well-known artists such as Francis Bacon, Gustave Courbet, Jackson Pollock, Lloyd Rees and Brett Whiteley, to mention just a few. These gestural oil painting portraits, almost brutal in the application of paint are contrasted with acrylic works, rendered with brushes, in a softer, more sensitive style.
Steve Salo works in some paint on his Brett Whiteley portrait. (He usually wears disposable rubber gloves).
“I am interested in exploring the human psyche in the portrait,” Steve says, “The portrait gives a more emotional quality to me than other genres of painting. I am intrigued by the human head and the complexities of human expression.”
It is clear that Steve has vented his emotions on the canvas and his enjoyment of the pure physicality of the paint is readily apparent. As the fictional character Basil Hallward commented in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”
Steve’s recent work will be on display in a forthcoming exhibition at Metropolis Gallery (1 March – 15 March 2014). The exhibition marks an important milestone for the artist as he explores a new direction in his art. He’s learnt that painting is as much about experimenting and taking risks as it is about finishing the work.
“The fire may have been the best thing that has happened to me as I’ve produced all new expressive works and gone through months of experimenting and solid, solid painting,” Steve reflects. “I don’t think I’ve ever painted so consistently in my life. It has also produced what seems to be a new me.”