“I’m a real irritable asshole; I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t share a studio space with anyone else. I need to masturbate; I need to do crazy things like pee into cups,” shouts Stevie Hanley, the intense young man to me, from the other end of his expansive art studio, as he busies himself looking for a (hopefully clean) coffee cup so we can have a brew.
I cast my eye around the room. It’s hard to settle on one particular thing amongst the colourful detritus strewn across every available surface. Half-finished paintings and drawings plaster the walls; open sketchbooks lie on the floor; a tall but flimsy metal structure in the middle of the room creates a Francis Bacon-esque, three-dimensional frame around the space beyond. To my left, a dizzying heap of lenticular plastic, cut into amorphous shapes, cascades off a sizeable, wooden workbench. Any spare gap between these works of art is filled with pots of paint and brushes. It’s overwhelming to step into this Aladdin’s cave, rich in colour and detail. It feels like being inside someone’s subconscious.
I first met the Californian-born, Latino artist in Berlin some six or seven years ago – neither of us could quite remember the exact date. As an avid supporter of queer artists and collector of their work, I was duty-bound to fill my boots with the bountiful creativity that was exploding in the city. At the time, it was the city of choice for young creatives from all over the world, drawn in by cheap rents and a defiant sense of freedom that had blossomed there in the decades following the fall of the wall. The energy was palpable. Stevie was one of a group of young creatives who I had gathered together for a shoot in a Neukölln squat. Back then, the whole area was still yet to be gentrified and it felt quite edgy. So, it made perfect sense to find Stevie’s current studio in a converted industrial factory, in an area with a similar vibe, albeit some 7,000 miles away in East Garfield Park, Chicago, Illinois.
“The area houses a lot of cutting-edge artists and galleries,” Stevie explains. “There are probably 120 artists in this building alone, which is one of just three on this street. The galleries, mostly artist-run, are all non-commercial project spaces.”
But while someareas of Chicago are gentrifying, Fulton Market, Pilson, Logan Square and (so far) East Garfield Park have resisted the familiar cycle that has befallen so many other similar post-industrial, artist-heavy districts around the world.
“That’s perhaps because this is a predominately African-American neighbourhood. I think a lot of white people are wary of coming here. Sadly there are a lot of artists here who do not engage with the local community, but for me, that’s a big part of the attraction. I teach part-time at the local school right around the corner, and I try to be involved in the neighbourhood; I go to the community centre across the street and eat in the local restaurants. Something which I have been ridiculed for doing. But I honestly feel that if you respect people, you smile at them, treat everyone you meet like human beings, they will reciprocate and accept you.”
It saddens me to hear that other artists come into East Garfield Park and act like they are going to Mars, as Stevie puts it. They drive in and drive out again, without really talking to or interacting with the local community.
“I’ve had no problems in this neighbourhood. I feel safe. But I’m also a man; so perhaps it might be different if I were female, I guess. I also look Latino, or possibly even Middle Eastern, so maybe that helps me to blend into a place that is full of people of colour. I feel like I’m putting my foot in my mouth when I talk about racism to outsiders, but I would rather say something offensive than not talk about it at all. I think it’s important to have these conversations. Race is a huge and polarising issue in this country and I don’t think it does any good not talking about it. I’m a part of this society which is systematically racist and sexist, and I want to transcend that. The only way to do that is to put it out there.”
This passionate response is typical of this intense and earnest young man. While so many of his contemporaries are happy to game the system to move on up, Stevie has far more integrity, a quality which has led him to this current stage in his career.
“One reason I left Berlin was that I was afraid I was getting too commercial. I was selling work, and I was becoming known for my corner paintings. I was making most of my living off my work, but I saw myself selling it just to feed myself and listening to collectors. I feared that I was being pigeonholed. Coming here was almost like starting over. Becoming a student again was a humbling experience.”
Stevie won a scholarship to do a Masters in Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), where he now teaches.
“In Chicago, there is a solid painting community, much of which is concerned with abstraction. Which I think has a lot of that has to do with the SAIC. They are real champions for contemporary abstraction. And that’s probably one of the main reasons I was accepted on to the course. I guess my work fits into the tradition of artists like Robert Rauschenberg.”
But moving back to the States wasn’t without its challenges. He had a hard time, and in his first year destroyed everything and rebooted his work.
“I wanted to explore more sculptural aspects, but I hadn’t explicitly studied sculpture so was lacking confidence and skills. I discussed this with one of my first advisors here, Michiko Itatani, who told me to just make a series of bad sculptures, which was very freeing. I stopped worrying about making perfect, finished pieces of work and started experimenting and learning new skills. Her words reminded me of what my old professor said years ago – about how a good physicist can have three ideas every day, but at the end of the year, only one might prove successful. I think you have to have that sort of mentality to be an artist. To give yourself licence to just throw the ideas out there. To acknowledge that there are no bad ideas. Having my studio is a big part of that; it is my safe space, where anything can happen. A lot of it is total shit, but I think if an artist is inhibited, it shows. People can sense that you’re making moves you aren’t confident with.”