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Review: Steve des Landes, Un-settled, at the Williamson Art Gallery

Steve des Landes, Un-settled
Williamson Art Gallery, until 4th March 2018

Words, Carol Emmas

One of the questions I repeatedly ask myself is, what takes an artist to the next level of artistic professionalism? Of course artistic talent helps. But, we could also say there are two camps; artists who make work to sell and artists who create their work solely for themselves, regardless. Steve Des Landes falls into the latter category. It’s a more daring landscape to navigate, as you are stepping into the untested and the unknown. Here, there are no compromises to be made. On the whole, a lot of artists paint to be agreeable, it’s understandable, who doesn’t want to feel validated? But there can be a trap in creating to please. Likewise, there can be a nervousness in not.

I first came across Des Landes’ work when he most deservedly won the Wirral Open in 2015 with his curious painting, The Sisters.  Seeing the five years’ culmination of work in the Williamson makes for striking colourist array in the Slade School of Art/Stanley Spencer tradition. Until you look closely. Scratch beneath the surface of his upbeat palette and you arrive at something more akin to, Maria Lassnig or Paula Rego in subject matter.

Des Landes’ very distinctive style is about the private, the unspoken, the anxious and the uncomfortable. He’s capturing people from behind the scenes through the awkward banality of life, showing the ungainliness of our bodies and the unpredictability of our minds and actions and how they rarely work in cohesion. Life as never truly restful. What is most unusual about his work is the obvious cognitive dissonance taking place. All the figures seem to be doing or portraying one thing, whilst simultaneously thinking another.

For instance, the Glass Handlers, shows a group of men moving a large pane of glass, but while all have their mind on the job of not breaking the glass, their minds are equally consumed by other issues. There is a connection though the job, but a dis-connect in the minds and the fragility of the glass mirrors the possible fragility and tensions running through all of our personal lives. Through all the workers’ doing their jobs and the people in differing situations in his paintings, Des Landes is looking at all our lives and minds under a magnifying glass and mirroring them back to us.

The few landscapes that pepper the figurative works are also quietly dark in subject matter. The sails stretched across the moonlit churchyard, are striking in their visionary portrayal. They are reminiscent of one those existential ‘if a tree falls in a forest’ moments where you think you’ve seen something, but unless there is someone else to verify it, you’ll never know for sure. The sails are both so in keeping with their surroundings and yet also so very out of place. It’s an eerily beautiful image, once seen, not forgotten. Midnight Pain I and II, portray a naked woman curled up on the floor in pain. We can’t begin to think of where this image stems from. Like a lot of his paintings, they don’t make for easy bed-fellows against soft furnishings. Therefore, his work is more likely to settle in a more serious art collectors’ audience.

‘Un-settled’ is the chosen title for this exhibition. Our day-to-day lives are rarely restful or comfortable and Des Landes leaves few chinks in his armour to see what he’s really about as he closely looks at his family, his friends, his locality, both here and in Wales. He also gives a serious nod to Spencer-like religious scenes from the gospels that tip into everyday life. He obviously has a very strong subliminal message to deliver. But, it is this that makes his work different, makes it stand out from the other fashionable works that do the rounds in many commercial galleries. All very nice, but they  can begin to look and feel very similar, with a; ‘seen one, you’ve seen them all’ familiarity.

Des Landes is defiantly taking the road less travelled and because of his obvious determination to keep to his authentic self and not to run with the pack and the fact he encourages you to think, you’re rooting for him to do well. For us, well, it’s great to have such an unusual and unique talent in our midst.