Journeys of a Curious Mind: The art & lives of Stephen Spurrier

Ugg Boot Press: It’s a long story
Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery

In 1998 Stephen Spurrier took up the position of lecturer in printmaking at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), Toowoomba. Spurrier’s first exhibition was held in 1966 in his hometown of Melbourne. In late 2016, to mark the fifty year milestone of the artist’s practice and his contribution to USQ as well as to the wider community, the Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery (TRAG) mounted not one but two significant exhibitions: Journeys of a Curious Mind: The art & lives of Stephen Spurrier and Ugg Boot Press: It’s a long story. Curated by Tiffany Shafran, Coordinator of Exhibitions and Public Programs at TRAG, both shows signalled the Gallery’s approach to exhibition programming which engages directly with artists to produce gallery-based projects. The exhibitions were timed to coincide with the celebrations of fifty years of the Print Council of Australia.

Journeys of a Curious Mind: The art & lives of Stephen Spurrier takes traveling as its structural core. Although the exhibition of prints, paintings and drawings unfolds chronologically from early-career to current work, it is the notion of the artist making work in various places that leads the viewer through the exhibition. The exhibition consists of over one hundred works hung densely in the large gallery space, giving a strong sense of a prolific and enduring practice.

Spurrier is an inveterate traveller, setting up temporary or semi-permanent studios in locations such as Barcelona, New Delhi and Magnetic Island. Each journey brings something new to his practice, but these are decidedly not place-making works. Rather, Spurrier’s travelling delivers culturally-determined dimensions to his ongoing exploration of the inner psychological workings of the human mind within the context of a limitless cosmos.

This theme of intimate scale within the monumental is evident throughout the exhibition, threading its way from his earliest prints, such as Man cloud II (1969) to the current Cosmos #3, (2014-16). It is perhaps only when we see bodies of work made over a long period of time that we can recognise these threads.

Spurrier’s appetite for travel has to an extent determined the direction of his practice. Many of the works are of a scale that can be rolled into a cylinder or packed into a rucksack and, significantly, many of the works use mixed media, collage, watercolour, gouache. Although Spurrier trained as a printmaker, his printing press and silkscreens remained at home while he roamed. However, screenprinted layers were added to works made in his transient studios, and etchings developed after his return. The larger scale paintings, such as Bleeding moon (2014), were also developed at his home studio, but as reflections on his journeying. Spurrier suggests that his works might ‘remind us of our own transience and frailty in a very large universe’.

In the mid-1990s Spurrier’s visual language found a new outlet in artist’s books, and the second exhibition is built around these. His first endeavours were unique hand-crafted concertina books made in an almost square format using collage, screenprint and rubber-stamps. Two series were produced: the ‘Horizontally Unfolding Concertina Books’ to be viewed by hand, and the ‘Vertically Unfolding Concertina Books’ recommended to be viewed hanging, to emphasise their sculptural quality. By 1999 production had expanded to editioning books. Titles multiplied at such an alarming pace that a name had to be found for the press. The footwear of choice worn by Toowoomba’s locals provided the city’s first artists’ books press with the name, Ugg Boot Press.

Printmaking processes, particularly the technique of layering used in etching and screenprinting, were developed in printing from the photocopier. ‘Chapbooks’, published in editions of one hundred from a single A4 sheet photocopied on both sides and then cut and folded to produce 16-page books, were the first to roll off the photocopier. Editions were initially printed black and white but soon evolved to include colour. With the stream of artist’s books being produced from the photocopier, Spurrier developed reference terms, such as ghosting, veiling, dragging and whooping, for his techniques.

The ‘How Not To’ series employed a combination of offset printing and laser copying. With titles such as, The book of hand tools…and how not to use them (1999) and The book of home surgery…and how not to do it (2000), these books mimic instructional textbook manuals and guide us along the path to misunderstanding. As can be seen in this particular favourite, Art Procedures IIV (2000), which includes a special supplement ‘Art can damage your brain’, they also parody the experiences of our struggle to balance new and old technologies and skills at the dawn of the new millennium.

Also included in this exhibition are some of the books from Spurrier’s through-the-post artist book collaborative achievement little treasures (1998-2001), which were shown in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Together the two exhibitions, accompanied by a generous catalogue, demonstrate Spurrier’s prolific and enduring practice and his increasingly focused pursuit of an understanding of his place in the world.

Stephen Spurrier, Six titles from The How Not To series, 1999–2000. Offset lithography on paper, AP, edition of 80. Cover developed in collaboration with Don Hildred. Published by Ugg Boot Press. Photograph Carl Warner. Images courtesy the artist and Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery.

Stephen Spurrier, Man cloud II, 1969. Woodcut with screenprint on paper, 61 x 53cm. Images courtesy the artist and Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery.

Stephen Spurrier, Cosmos #3, 2014-16. Hand-coloured multi plate etching and screenprint on paper, 40 x 29.5cm.  

Stephen Spurrier, Art procedures IIV with special supplement “Art can damage your brain” (open), 2000. Detail. Offset lithography on paper, AP edition of 80. Cover developed in collaboration with Don Hildred. Photography Carl Warner.