Long-time fans of Andre Stitt’s work may be surprised by the large, abstract canvases on display as part of the Warning! This is Contemporary Art exhibition at the Crescent Art Centre. Stitt memorably burned all his paintings at art school in 1977.
‘It was a dramatic gesture,’ notes Stitt, who went on to teach art himself at the Cardiff School of Art and Design. ‘And it led to me leaving painting behind and starting in performance art.’
The last few years, however, have seen Stitt putting paintbrush to canvas again. In 2009 he created Everyone Knows This is Nowhere, a ‘psychogeographic experience’ of Craigavon, for the Millennium Court Art Centre in Portadown. Working on the exhibition renewed Stitt’s interest in the medium of painting.
‘The painting space is inhabited by my experience as a performance artist,’ he says. ‘It is very action-based and gestural. I go in like it is a performance space and just start moving around and pushing the paint around.’
As part of this current exhibition dedicated to bringing a wide range of non-traditional art to Belfast, an entire room at the Warning Art Gallery has been given over to a selection of Stitt’s canvases created over the last year. They are bright, amoebic and strangely motile, like a snapshot of a microscope slide.
‘I am never sure if it is a micro-view, a macro-view or some kind of expanded view,’ Stitt says, considering one of the paintings. ‘They are cosmic but also really, really miniscule as well. It depends on how you are looking at them.’
The majority of the canvases at the Warning Art Gallery come from one particular collection, inspired by Stitt’s memories of listening to music as a teenager. Music was part of the experience of the Troubles for him, but also a means of escape.
‘I don’t know why, because I wasn’t that into it at the time, but I started to listen to a lot of prog rock – that’s progressive rock – in the studio,’ Stitt says. ‘They were bands like Yes, and when I looked at their lyrics they were really abstract and very strange, quite meaningless. That fascinated me.’
Stitt hesitates to describe his paintings as influenced by the prog rock he listened to. He prefers to see it as a ‘metaphor that allows me to do whatever I want’.
Stitt’s most eye-catching painting in the exhibition is a huge canvas – ‘roughly 3 metres by 2 metres’ – hung on the back wall of the gallery. It is the most recent of the works on display and is a ‘psychedelic landscape of Belfast’ in yellow, red and a dark, smudgy blue.
‘I began painting this after a few trips back to Belfast in November and December 2011,’ Stitt says. ‘I was just looking out of George Best airport at the Black Mountain, Cave Hill and all that. There was something brutal in the landscape that has always fascinated me.’
Yet the painting isn’t exactly oppressive. The dark mass might hang over the landscape, but the viewer is looking down at both. For Stitt it is part of the process of breaking into colour and into a new ‘psychological, maybe even spiritual space’.
In the end, though, Stitt’s work remains very anchored in his experiences in Northern Ireland growing up. Even the art he thinks has nothing to do with it. Stitt points out one of the pictures, a tangle of ribbons and tubes on a flat blue background. When he painted it he thought it was about exploring other kinds of space.
When his wife saw it, she said, ‘Your work is all about Northern Ireland isn’t it? This is all you paint, you just paint explosions all the time.’
Warning! This is Contemporary Art is on display at the Warning Art Gallery until June 15.