Stephen Duren

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Art • Environment • Interview

Stephen Duren Grand Rapids, MI
Interviewed by Dean Pajevic | Web site | Upcoming Shows

Years ago, I worked for Stephen as a studio assistant. We would organize his studio and then take a break to try our hands at baking a soufflé (it started to rise...). Or, frittering away the afternoons sitting in the garden reading from A World Lit Only by Fire and laughing our butts off at the piercingly funny descriptions of medieval life. Working with Stephen gave me an idea of what it may have been like to work with Monet in his garden: A world where good food and friendship were raised to the level of art. I encourage you to view his web site and truly get a feel for the depth and breadth of his work.

Stephen Duren
Power line 24"x35"

DP: Painting the land. It's so raw. So full of history - the history of art, our history, and the history of the world. What does it mean for you to look out at the land and then lay those colors on the canvas?

SD: Whoa! Your question makes me want to hide, or take a nap (same thing I guess). Trust me, I'm not thinking about the history of the world when I'm painting. When I'm enjoying the company of a friend, I rarely think about the struggles of his great great grandfather. Painting, like friendship, is much more personal and immediate for me.

Stephen Duren
California Hills I 76"x117"

DP: Do you worry about the land?

SD: Enough to pay attention to how I vote, but not enough to inhibit my enjoyment of it.

DP: Obsess about it?

SD: No, that would rob me of its gift to me.

Stephen Duren
Untitled 27"x26"

DP: How would you describe your relationship? Awe? Love? Scientific?

SD: There is an aspect to my relationship with the land that some may find odd. I did not have a father in my home, and my mother worked much of the time. As a result, the land that surrounded me in my youth became a kind of surrogate parent. It was always there for me, something my parents could not be. I continue to relate to the land in this way. Ultimately, I find the land more edifying than religion, hence my Pantheistic leanings.

My visual connection to the land has its beginnings in northern California, where I roamed with my dog over the foothills of my grandfather's ranch. I can remember sitting on our gate, watching the movement of light across the hills and fields. My emotions paralleled its passage from late afternoon to twilight. This may be why my more abstracted paintings have a sense of place, or time of day, and often include the various lights, textures and patterns that one associates with nature.

Stephen Duren
Jack's Library 76"x78"

DP: In a way, you are documenting a vanishing world: our farms and the surrounding wilderness. As more and more farm becomes suburb, do you feel like you are painting the end of an era? Capturing some great transition?

SD: Time will tell. Recording history and sending political messages however are not among the reasons why I paint. (I've never really felt very capable of explaining my reasons. There is little I can say on Monday about why I paint that rings true to me on Tuesday morning.)

DP: When I look at your work, I feel time stand still: A heightened moment of seeing the underlying order and meaning in the world.

SD: My work does all of that for you? Wow! Yeah, I feel that way when I view a Diebenkorn. Weeding my garden also puts me in that place.

Stephen Duren
Lake Sonoma Hills 12"x18"

DP: If there was a person, or a group of people in the world whom you think would never see your work, but whom you think need to; who would that be? Why?

SD: Maybe I lack imagination, but I don't see how my work could make a significant difference in the life of anyone. I can't imagine too many people in the world who would actually need to see my work. And I'm not sure it's a good idea to take oneself that seriously.

I don't deny the power of a painting to transport and/or edify the viewer. And I recognize that certain painters in our history have changed the direction of the art world. But I don't put myself in that category (and I don't pursue what Robert Hughes called "cutting edge" ephemera).

My point here is that painting's influence is felt mainly by the world of art, not the world that you and I occupy on a more practical level. Not the world where moneyed developers "steamroll" poorly planned housing projects through agrarian countrysides. Not the world where painting has zero influence on the mindset of an administration bent on war.

Now the art of film is another story... but I digress. Back to your original question. I suppose there is someone out there who may never see my painting, but whose spirits might otherwise receive a transient lift from it. Who? Maybe some young person sitting on a gate at dusk, trying to make sense of the hole in his heart.

Stephen Duren
Chickens 24"x35"

DP: You have been quite prolific - painting since the 1960s. I'm sure you've gone through a lot of questioning, growth and understanding, and then new questions. But today, what most interests you about your painting?

SD: The fact that I can still complete a painting and not know who did it.

DP: Finally, what makes you laugh?

SD: The need to cover up the desire to cry.

...and interview questions that reveal as much, or more about the interviewer as the answers do about the interviewee.

...and almost anything else.

Upcoming Shows 2006

Grand Rapid's Blodgett building

©2006 Mental Contagion • Making Space for Visual Artists & Writers