Northern Soul’s Rich Jevons talks to Tai Shan Schierenberg about his show Habitat at Cartwright Hall in Bradford, an absorbing presentation of diptychs that pair landscapes and portraits together, giving readings of the work that go beyond the sum of its parts.
“I started out as a portrait painter,” Schierenberg explains. “I was painting landscapes and I like the freedom of that. But then I felt that landscapes are not only external but internal, you carry landscapes around with you. When the theme for this show [Habitat] came about I was thinking of this juxtaposition between portraits and landscapes, trying to make a connection. Some of them are real, some of them are invented connections.”
The combination of Schierenberg’s portrait of a young boy and the Cow and Calf in Ilkley came after walks around the area and a suggestion by curator Sonja Kielty to visit the rocks that make up a natural monument of mother and child. “Its physical features are what grabbed me. It’s difficult to paint a tourist spot that’s so well known but it reminded me of the boy and his mother when he sat in the studio. I thought it would be a relation of his inner state when he was painted.”
Then there is the portrait of a taxi driver next to Nocturne, a painting of a dual carriageway at night. “This cab driver was telling me that the best fares are airport fares as there’s no traffic and he makes a lot of money on them. So it was the loneliness of the long distance cab driver! It’s his place of work, in a sense, that I’m trying to evoke.”
Many of Schierenberg’s works contain references to Greek or Roman mythology, like Icarus, a self-portrait of the ill-fated hero, next to Air & Earth. “When I was a kid instead of going to school I was given a book on the mythologies and told to get on with it. So that’s what became my reference as a child. All these fables and mythologies are very important to me and they resonate for me.
“I like the idea of types and the idea of a story that becomes a type. So [with Icarus] I was thinking of the grandness just before it goes horribly wrong. As we reach for freedom and sky and nothing’s the limit then the clouds and the ground is really where it’s all happening. The aspirations and actual reality. I wanted strong sunlight and it’s all very heroic. But in Icarus’s flight at full extension was where he was at most danger.”
Der Mond is a portrait of artist Pete Moss as a man in the moon. “In nearly every other European language the moon is female but in German it’s a man. A lot of people think [the portrait is of] a woman and the play on words in the title [Mond = Monde] is that it’s like a round planet but it’s also like the man in the moon.”
He describes his diptych of A Girl and Water as “very much a psychological state, she’s reflecting – it was a state of mind. She seemed to be off in her own little world”. How much of it is abstracted? “All my paintings are about the brush mark and what it suggests – the abstraction within it. As a painter I like to render and it’s the joy of painting.”
Schierenberg’s paintings are very bold and three-dimensional. “They’re very sculptural in the way they’ve been built. Through painting a remaking what you see it’s an investigation of the subject you’re painting. So it works with the subject matter as well.”
He has also selected from the Bradford Museums & Galleries Collection, starting with John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Mrs Ernest Hills. “For a portrait painter Sargent is top of the pops. Interestingly, we were just talking about the paint quality [in my work] and I’m not as fluid but the same invention happens here [points to a detail in the folds of the sitter’s dress] where in reinventing what he’s seeing makes it very interesting. It’s a joy to look at that brush mark [up close] and step back and see it’s a shiny silk-lined coat – it’s fantastic.”
Is this a case of post-portrait embellishment? “I know quite a few artists who insist that the sitter is there because of the tones of what’s in their face and hands.” Are you that pedantic? “No, but sometimes you work on a background and find it doesn’t work and you need to get the model in. But it really is about the joy of recreating something anew.”
In another of Schierenberg’s selections, William Rothenstein’s The Old Gardener, “there’s no flamboyance, it’s very dry – it’s like journalism. I like that. It’s nothing about the artist. It’s all about the sitter. He has a flat cap and flat eyes from just sitting there, stupefied – that’s what happens to sitters.”
Did you select it as quintessentially Bradfordian? “Is there a typical Bradford type? The idea of the North [to a Southerner] is another country and it’s all very romantic. So it could be construed as an archetypal Northerner.”
Another choice is Gwen John’s Girl in a Blue Dress. “Interestingly I’ve painted a lot of men and very few women – maybe it’s because I can’t do women. Here I enjoy the colour palette that is very muted and beautiful. Also it’s a very slow painting, but it’s a fantastic evocation of a young woman who looks slightly worried. The light and colour are beautiful.”
Alongside this is Schierenberg’s own Titus, an oil painting on wood panel of a terrace house in Saltaire, twinned with Jay, a portrait of a family friend that uses thick daubs of paint to depict the old man’s wrinkled visage, to create a “romantic narrative” of an old Saltaire mill labourer in his worker’s cottage under the philanthropy of Titus Salt.
And in Oz he takes a critical look at the Westfield development of the long-delayed retail site of Broadway. “What is happening there? Somebody is telling you that it is going to be magical. I hope it is. But I found it lacking in imagination.”
This link between places and ideas goes right back to his earlier exhibition Psychogeography: “My progression as an artist started with painting just the physical thing, be it people or places. So then it’s about finding subject matter that means something beyond its physical state, finding resonance and ways to explain that. Isn’t all landscape, in a sense, psychogeography?”
We also discuss the Nietzschean notion of the Apollonian (or rational) versus the Dionysian (irrational) approach to art. “At art college I painted one painting when I was pissed and stoned and it came off but I’ve never done it since because it never comes off.
“Painting is a very scientific process, it’s an intellectual process as well. I sometimes don’t go from route A to B, I’ll take the long way round and that’s opening up to mistakes and for other things to happen – the Dionysian spirit.”
At this point I leave Schierenberg to finish his glass of Dionysian wine before he takes in a curry in Bradford (winner of Curry Capital of Britain last year for the third year in a row) and then trains it back to London where he has a studio in Camden.
It is a powerful show that asks as many questions as it answers, and there is no doubt that Schierenberg has an incredible talent for both portrait and landscape mediums. And it’s on a slow burn. Take some time to consider the tangential connections that are, as he readily admits, there for the viewer to make or invent as much as those made or invented by the artist.