Slyboots : Stephen Schofield and the making of believers by jake moore

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay was written in conjunction with Stephen Schofield on view at CUE Art Foundation September 8 - October 13, 2012.

The "conditional" is a term used to express what would happen given certain events or actions.  Equivalents exist in many languages; in English, additional words are required to put potential into linguistic play.  In French, the conditional is expressed through a form of conjugation, so the potential for a shift is thus inherent, or rather, structural. The things that Stephen Schofield makes are such; his sculptural works, drawings, performance video-his entire oeuvre-manifests as something that 'could be' while asserting an uncanny existence as something that already is, or has been.  The linguistic reference is an apt starting point for a bilingual artist living and working in Montréal, Québec, where language is always at the surface-often as an index of difference. Schofield's use of language is full of care and deeply considered, and parallels his method of engagement with other kinds of making.

With Slyboots at CUE Art Foundation, Schofield offers several of his inflated textile sculptures alongside video and performance. Giddy Cosmonaut, Sailor's Delight, Sexton and Gentle Shade are textile inflatables with direct relationship to the body, sculptural tradition and personal narrative, Ann's Dream-a video-articulates a relationship to material, action and time, Drunken Tutor (for Silenus) exists in both media and will be the focus of this essay for it demonstrates both Schofield's facility and deep understanding of media specificity.  At first, this giant male form seems somewhat awkward. It is sewn from a honey-coloured ultra suede, its hundreds of pattern pieces stitched together with visible seams, like the welds inside the Statue of Liberty. The seams add structure and definition; they delineate the musculature, much like drawings in space, yet uniquely, these lines allow for volume, for when the textile assemblages are inflated with air (from the discharge valve of a vacuum cleaner) and stiffened with sugar, they are equally enlivened and stilled.  The cloth now serves as membrane-a selective barrier between two phases.  It is the separation between inflation and collapse, line and form, hyle [1]and entity.  Dualities all, yet hinged as sites of potential.  Conditional.

This ultra-suede giant performs a unique gesture. Its material nature and construction evoke the domestic, but this is not the note on which Schofield wishes to linger. The figure folds back on itself through an unexpected orifice: a large hand has been threaded through his back and exits his torso to cover his sex.  Or has it become his sex? That a body part could serve as that which both reveals and conceals is at the core of Schofield's work. That the part is not isolated from the whole form but instead knotted within it in a seemingly continuous gesture articulates clearly the complexity of investigation, poetics and material knowledge at work. For Giorgio Agamben, and seemingly Schofield, gesture « is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making the means visible as such." [2]

When we see this giant in video form, the mythical references of its title come into play. Silenus was the teacher and faithful companion of the wine-god Dionysus; he was usually totally drunk and supported by satyrs, the half-goat/half-human male companions of the gods of pleasure. In the video, we see the inflated giant being transported through the cliff-like streets of Barjols, France on the arms and shoulders of young children.  The weight of the mythic creature as well as the unstable ground on which they travel animate the image, connecting its present-day action to histories real and imagined.  Barjols was once the site of many prosperous tanneries, but its industry has failed and its abandoned factories have been transformed into artists' residencies and studios. Watching the children meander down from the scenic hilltops to the town's centre, one has conflicting emotions. Children put into service of any kind raise complex practical and ethical questions, the more so if they are supporting a naked giant.  Is this safe?  Is this folly?  Has a border been breached?

The video also gives new meaning to the ultra-suede skin of the sculpture. No longer upholstery-like, it is now tied to the site of a performance, evoking the leather once produced there. The passage of the children from the rural to the urban suggests an allegorical turn, but the rhetorical gesture is volleyed back when we see the sculpture within the gallery, now still, supported by putti-small cast children, perhaps children turned to stone, like mythical or biblical characters that have set their eyes upon something they were not meant to see. Schofield's determined and clearly articulated gestures have brought the mythical into our sense of the conceivable and indicated that this happens every day-conditionally.

Schofield's facility with modes of expression: whether sculptural, performative, written or spoken, has a civilizing turn. Civility is a complex term; it can be theorized as denial of animality, drawing on codes of conduct, or a kind of politesse.  In Schofield's case, civility instead brings the animal, sexual, and behavioural considerations into a kind of alignment alongside dexterity, plastic ability, and a deep awareness of art historical conduct.  I believe this is deeply polite in the most generous of ways-he avoids direct statements so as not to constrain his audience and to evade finality.  His works are not problems to solve-there is always a possibility to become something else, to be a better version, to be tailored anew as each instance becomes reconsidered in the impossible now.                                                                       


[1] "In philosophy, hyle, from ancient greek, refers to matter or stuff. It can also be the material cause underlying a change in Aristotlian philosophy. The Greeks originally had no word for matter in general, as opposed to raw material suitable for some specific purpose or other, so Aristotle adapted the word for "wood" to this purpose. The idea that everything physical is made of the same basic substance holds up well under modern science although it may be thought of more in terms of energy, or matter/energy."

[2] Agamben, Giorgio Means Without End: Notes on Politics,

University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p.58-57. "The argument here is that gesture rather than the image (he is thinking of cinema) belongs to the realm of politics (and not simply to aesthetics)-evoking Benjamin: like awakening from a dream. Gesture is associated with action, and more particularly set apart from acting and making/producing. He is referring to a distinction made by Varro who is drawing upon Aristotle, as follows: 'For production [poiesis] has an end other than itself, but action [praxis] does not; good action is itself an end.'"