The Hamilton Spectator

Seriously decorative

Stephen Altena’s flower paintings reveal the strength in sentimenta­lity


When it comes to deliciousl­y decorative floral paintings, Stephen Al- tena is hard to beat. And this time, he has actually outdone himself.

In Frolic, his latest exhibition at The Assembly Gallery, the Hamil- ton artist offers a garden of earthly delights, comprising paintings, drawings and two wall reliefs, or installati­ons. The mood, as befits the exhibition’s title, is festive, lightheart­ed and whimsical. But Altena’s art has a serious intent.

His sources of inspiratio­n continue to be the ornamental patterns found in old-fashioned wallpapers and fabrics, the kind of patterns associated with sentimenta­lity and nostalgia.

“Sentimenta­lity and nostalgia are not taken seriously within the art world,” Altena tells me. “To be too emotional, too sentimenta­l, too decorative, too feminine is perceived as a weakness. I wanted to take this perceived weakness and make it a strength.”

“The Frolic Arch” takes over one of the gallery walls. Altena filled this landscape with flowers, some birds and humans, all cut out from earlier paintings and drawings. He’s created a highly textured and relief-like surface by layering some cutouts and suspending others from the ceiling with ribbons.

“I had a basic plan: large works go in the back, smaller pieces and the coloured pencil drawings to the front. Otherwise, the installati­ons are unplanned and spontaneou­s.”

Exhibition­s, like flowers, need nurturing over time.

“Frolic began a year ago, but I didn’t know it was an exhibition at the time,” Altena says. “I had been staring at my old paintings and drawings, wondering how I could reuse and recycle them. I decided to cut them up and turn them into collages. I was not satisfied with the result.

“I began tacking up cut-out flowers on my studio wall. Then I began connecting the cutouts with ribbon — I had a bag of my grandmothe­r’s ribbons and notions — and I let it grow on the wall. I let myself play in the studio, not worried about the result.”

The other wall piece, “The Dainty Woods,” is a work in progress, consisting of new paintings and drawings.

“I wanted the challenge of creating something completely new,” he explains. “It will change and grow during the run of the exhibition.”

Cutouts of trees, some tall and sketchy, and flowers shaped by the mark of the brush, adorn the wall, as does a small vignette of three people in a landscape wearing 18thcentur­y clothing, a nod to Rococo art.

“Rococo’s decorative maximalism is my natural default setting,” Altena says.

The smaller paintings on the remaining walls include fancy florals like “Lilies.” The tops of three lilies take over the space, their pink and magenta petals leaping out against a dark olive background. Altena’s liberal use of thick paint on the petals and leaves is awesome. In “Fox Hunt,” tiny, simplified horses, redclad riders and hounds chase invisible foxes. Some of the figures and trees are cropped, as on a roll of wallpaper.

For the exhibition’s opening, Altena and his art became one. That’s when he wore a Frolicking Suit consisting of a floral jacket, black breeches, stockings, white ruffled shirt, a big neck bow, pearls and rings.

“The installati­on pieces are landscapes, and I began thinking about who would inhabit these landscapes,” he says. “I immediatel­y thought of an 18th-century dandy — there’s that Rococo default setting!”

Just as he had recycled his earlier paintings for “The Frolic Arch,” he repurposed an old suit.

“I cut the pants to make breeches,” he said. “The flowers on the jacket are oil-on-canvas paintings that I cut up and applied with a hot glue gun.

“The Frolicking Suit allowed me to become a piece of art, appearing as if I stepped out of the painting. The Suit is another way for me to push painting off the wall. Paintings are often thought of as being complete, but I have discovered that paintings can have another life, and take up space in a completely new way.”

 ?? STEPHEN ALTENA ?? Stephen Altena posing in his Frolicking Suit in front of “The Frolic Arch.”
STEPHEN ALTENA Stephen Altena posing in his Frolicking Suit in front of “The Frolic Arch.”
 ?? DOUGLAS HAGGO ?? Stephen Altena, “Lilies,” oil on panel, 12 by 12 inches, $350.
DOUGLAS HAGGO Stephen Altena, “Lilies,” oil on panel, 12 by 12 inches, $350.
 ?? ??
 ?? ?? Stephen Altena, “The Fox Hunt,” oil on panel, 36 by 24 inches, $900.
Stephen Altena, “The Fox Hunt,” oil on panel, 36 by 24 inches, $900.
 ?? ?? Stephen Altena, detail from the “The Frolic Arch.”
Stephen Altena, detail from the “The Frolic Arch.”
 ?? ?? Stephen Altena, ‘The Frolic Arch,” wall installati­on.
Stephen Altena, ‘The Frolic Arch,” wall installati­on.

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