Steve Alderton Captures the Blurred Emotions of Memory

March 3, 2017

Memoryscapes – Blurry Lines III is the third and final installment of a series of increasingly abstracted landscapes—but at first glance, these paintings don’t look like landscapes at all. Rather than displaying the appearance of a classically rendered landscape, each work captures precisely how artist Steve Alderton felt at a particular place and time.

Memories are not static aspects of the mind; in contrast, they are dynamic echoes of the past that grow and change with their owner. Likewise, Alderton’s Memoryscapes changes dramatically over the course of the three installments, dropping image details until only the core essence of the artist’s emotional memory remains. Blurry Lines I consists of Expressionist paintings of nature. Broad and visible brush strokes mold pastel blue, purple, and green acrylic paint into foggy, roughly outlined portrayals of trees, ponds, and skylines. The paintings in Blurry Lines II are still clearly landscapes, but more simplistic than the first series. The landscapes in this series are constructed of bold blocks of solid or slightly mottled color, and outlines are no longer present.

In the third installment of Blurry Lines, all visual realism has faded away, leaving emotion to shine in its full authenticity. The blocks of color that previously formed landscapes now stand abstractly on their own, allowing basic color and form to convey the emotion of memory. Alderton explained that as he paints, he recalls growing up in the midwest: a land full of farms that appear as patchwork colors when viewed from airplanes above. Even so, the paintings lack the clear-cut edges of farmland. The rough, blurred edges of the color blocks contrast structure with messiness—mirroring the disorder that exists within the regulated city of Washington, D.C. Alderton has lived and worked in a studio on Capitol Hill for over 20 years, and surmises that the city’s ordered chaos has impacted his artwork in this way.

Steve Alderton

Alderton has worked with a paintbrush for the majority of his two decade long career as an artist, but he challenged himself to paint with sponge rollers to create the textured blocks of Blurry Lines III. The rollers came in different sizes and textures, such that each applied paint in unique and often unexpected ways. “For an artist, it’s all about the surprise,” Alderton said. Once, the deep holes of a sponge roller created a variation of light and dark paint within a block of color—a beautiful, spontaneous effect that Alderton could not purposefully recreate.

Each painting is not merely a unique season, but a specific day and time. To portray a February afternoon, Alderton painted blocks of purple, white, and black, like a hazy winter sky over snow and shining asphalt. The image is blurred, but the emotion is precise. “I’ve never met a purple I didn’t like,” Alderton said with a smile.

Once Alderton begins to lay paint on canvas, the practice becomes an emotional release: a mix of memories and the present moment. For this reason, an after-the-fact decision to change a single aspect of the painting requires Alderton to completely cover the old painting with a new one, for the time and emotion have since changed. Alderton pointed to the beauty of this process with the Italian word pentimento, which means the painting below a painting. Layer upon layer of paint coat the surface of each panel, forming a thick accumulation of texture over canvases that Alderon may have built nearly 20 years ago, long before the paintings were inspired. In this way, each painting of memory is laden with memories of its own from the history that each canvas has experienced. Older versions of each piece are visible at the edges of the canvas and between color blocks, building depth and demonstrating how old memories permeate daily life.

Steve Alderton

Blurry Lines III invites audiences to develop their own interpretations of each piece, embarking on a personal emotional journey. “I’ve forged my own language,” said Alderton in explaining how the paintings speak for themselves. None of the paintings have titles, enabling viewers to contemplate meaning independent from exterior direction. “When I’m working on a painting, it’s mine,” said Alderton. “When I’m done with it, it’s yours.”

For Alderton, the presentation of a series is as much an artform as the act of painting. The order of the paintings de-
termines how audiences perceive the underlying story, one that Alderton may not discover himself until he sets out to select an order. In the Touchstone Gallery, Blurry Lines III grows steadily darker as the paintings progress, opening with a bright portrayal of spring, and transitioning to darker representations of rainy summer days. The final painting, however, is an ode to summer, a collection of bright blue and purple hues. With this organization, Alderton realized that the series might have a spiritual symbolism for life, death, and rebirth, or for enduring hope after darker times.

Courtesy of Touchstone Gallery

As a whole, the Memoryscapes – Blurry Lines collection is a mirror of life, from the experience of vivid landscapes to the emotional footprints of lifelong memories. Alderton has lived on Capitol Hill since the 1980s, but he continues to carry fond memories of his hometown in Wisconsin. Likewise, his work reflects memories in the way that Alderton felt them in the moment of painting: a unification of past and present experience. During the painting process, he enters a sort of “trance,” as Alderton called it, or complete immersion into the artistic process. The abstract paintings capture the very essence of memory and emotion, and in this way, they are even more realistic than photographs.

Emily Jaster
Emily Jaster is the former features editor and former Halftime Leisure editor for The Georgetown Voice. When she's not writing for the Voice, you can usually find her writing poetry or wandering around art galleries and concert halls.

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