Steven Xue is a designer and visual artist based in Portland, Oregon. Steven is interested in intersections between art and design, art and technology, and art and culture. He is interested in sensory perception. He is interested in language and form. He is interested in logical systems. He is interested in immateriality of concepts and ideas. He is interested in contradictions. He is interested in new cliches. He is interested in the uncommon sense. His work is a manifestation of these interests and applying them to solve problems and to create experiences. He currently works a day job as a designer at Nike and daydreams when he’s not working.
Jen Bacon: Hi Steven, thanks so much for taking the time to work with us on this interview. We’ve had great feedback from our new readers of OTC Features and we’re so happy to be working with you through this process! Let’s just start with the go-to questions on what you’re currently working on. What is your current medium of choice and what choices led you to where you are now with your materials, techniques, scale, etc.?
Steven Xue: Currently, I’m working on some spring/summer projects at work and a project for Design Week at PNCA (now postponed). I just self-released a typeface I've been working on and off for about a year (It’s free. You can download it here and try it out). And now I’m exploring some new ideas with type occasionally. I’ve also been shooting a bit for myself and loosely working towards a photo project. I started to walk around different neighborhoods documenting houses, old cars, structures of all kinds, light and color etc., and how all these things come together. In a way, it’s the frame of our urban environment in which we live. The pictures are themselves without actual human presence. They are somewhat influenced by the New Topographics movement in the 1970s, but this is really the first time I’m rationalizing and thinking deeply about this work. More than anything, they are just things I’ve gravitated towards at this time.
JB:What is it about the absences of human figures mean for the work as your project evolves? What do you think is emerging as the theme of that work?
SX: The absence of human figures wasn’t so much of a conscious effort of avoiding humans in the photographs, but simply because of the situations that lent them that way. I've also done mostly portraits in the last couple years photographically, so this was a way of doing something different. Whereas previously the focus was on the person, with the environment as a backdrop. Now the main “subject,” if you will, is the environment. It tells a collective human story whether there is anybody in the frame or not. (Sort of like, once you have the ground, the figure will always be there.)
As I move forward, I can see this project develop towards my relationship with structures, systems, time, and age. As I make these photographs, sometimes I am surprised that we are already living in the 2020s. There is a real anachronistic feeling to all this. And a clash between the comfort of seeking what might feel like the past, while knowing that we live in an increasingly automated and virtual world. Past and future seem to exist in parallel, and “now” is the resistance and clash of the two.
JB: What artists are you looking at right now? Who is/has inspired you in your art-making processes? Who do you think we should be looking at/following? How have they, if at all, impacted your work and your own ideas?
SX: I don’t know how cliché this might sound, but I’m forever inspired by the lineage of work founded by Malevich and his Constructivism. From early abstract and concrete art, to minimalism, to conceptual art, to contemporary. Right now, I’ve been reading into Charlotte Posenenske and Imi Knoebel. I love the way they thought about art; of art expanding beyond the canvas into real experiences; and how they thought of the viewer as an integral part of the work, but in a different way than their American contemporaries. I’m also inspired by Irma Boom, a Dutch book designer whose work I recently looked into. I love her work and more importantly, I love her approach: to give yourself the ultimate artistic freedom to follow an idea through to the end, and not bend to the opinions of clients, collaborators, or colleagues.
JB: With those influences, where do you see the path of your work and own thoughts about art leading you to? What are your overall goals, achievements you’d like to tackle? What do you foresee for your art career and what resources will you utilize along that path?
SX: I think I’m at the very beginning of my journey here, finding my own working definition of art and figuring out in what avenues I want to pursue that. I believe that as the world moves forward to become more structured with the help of technology and automation, life and art will have an increasingly technical basis. At the same time, art is expanding into more varied forms and a life of experiences. What is important is to bring the feeling, the thinking, the perceptual, and the uniquely human parts that don’t quite make logical sense to our world of experiences. I just want to be a part of that, in whichever form or medium.
JB: What are you most excited about right now? Could you give our readers some advice, where in Portland, Oregon is the best place to find inspiration? Where do you feel like you get the most work done for your art practice?
SX: I get excited about big patches of color and being in the presence of good light. And lately, I find myself looking more closely at “common” things. I’ve never felt it as much as now, that inspiration truly is everywhere, but specifically in the places and things that we learned to ignore or disregard. I remember Robert Irwin talked about his first experiences of being in an anechoic chamber in his book, that after those experiences of absolute silence and total darkness, you start to realize just how much sensory information we are taking in in the real world, and how much we immediately disregard because we very quickly place a learned value judgment on that sensory information. Anyway, for me, I find myself looking more closely at the shadow of things, traffic signs, street marks, fine print labels, tags, receipts, etc. The way they are made and designed; the way they function; the way they tend to become the backdrop of our daily activities. Sounds rather mundane, yet looking at these things with a totally different mindset — let’s say phenomenologically, or through an abstract point-of-view — they become a different experience. That’s very exciting for me.
JB: What is the best advice you could/would give to an art student? Or, if you could go back to the start of your collegiate experience at PNCA, what would you tell yourself?
SX: Be open to new ideas and new mediums. Absorb as much as you can. It’s easy in any situation to complain, to say that ‘x’ isn’t as good or ‘y’ is stupid and doesn’t help me with what I want to do, or that “I should just move to New York or LA.” I’m sure people have their reasoning in their convictions but I think one of the greatest gifts of art education is to have your beliefs disrupted, unfixed, and developed anew. Art education teaches you not just how to see the world logically, but also visually, experientially, and without predetermined logic. I hope that makes sense. In any case, be open to change. Question yourself as well as your professors. Question everything.
JB: Finally, what is next for you!? What projects are you working on and where can our readers see you or your next exhibition/show?
SX: At the moment just working on the projects mentioned earlier and taking some time work on being a generally better person. I think sometimes I can get so into one or several things so much for so long that it pigeonholes who you are and your general perceptions of things. It’s great but you also have to course correct.
Eventually, I’d like to get back into more studio practice doing more personal projects, maybe even more light sculptures and installations. Until then, I’m trying to do tons of research, sometimes creating a fun one-off thing or two. Sometimes physical, and sometimes purely conceptual (existing only in text form). Maybe one day I’ll convince a gallery to realize an idea of mine. Until then, you can find me on the internet, or hit me up for a chat.