What of shoes? What, shoes? Whose are the shoes? What are they made of? And even, who are they? – Jacques Derrida, Restitutions, 1978
Brussels. It’s grey, wet. The city is grim, dreary. Charming for some, unappealing for others. A shadow emerges, yet we can’t quite make out the figure. A platform boot crashes into the frame, the sound of the collision between the sole of the shoe and the damp asphalt resonates in the space.
This scene that unfolds across the city of Brussels is now transported to Paris. The backdrop is the GALERIE CHLOE SALGADO, the director, Stevie Dix, who presents us with this abstracted depiction of a promenade through a city dear to her. However here, the cityscape is obscured, the human figure, absent. For Stevie Dix has focused on one element from her repertoire of symbols–– the shoe. Striding across a new series of paintings appears a herd of platform boots, each isolated against a black background entrusting them with power that goes way beyond that of a fashion accessory. Here, the exaggeratingly large boots play the lead role in the show materialising before us. Trapped somewhere between the footsteps and the gallery floor, the visitor is placed below, looking up at these exquisite creatures marching by. The nearer the ground, the louder it sounds.
The canvases presented are a departure from the artist’s often colourful works filled with objects in abstract compositions. Here, the object at question is enlarged, isolated, set against dark landscapes of heavy impasto. If the compositions evoke a certain uneasiness it is because the narrative before us is rooted in the artist’s personal history, evoking emotions of teenage angst, nostalgia, and the desire to escape. Shoes are “transmitters of power and stories, markers of status achieved [...] potent carriers of emotionality.”1 It is precisely this emotionality that Stevie Dix explores with her new series of paintings of platform boots that seem to be suspended in their march. Having grown up in an industrial city in Belgium, Stevie Dix would rummage through second hand shops collecting clothing and accessories from the 1970s, finding ways to escape banal everyday life through dressing up. Fascinated by the glam rock and punk movements, the artist would compose outfits in a home-grown cool2 style and venture to the Belgian capital to forget, albeit briefly, about the confinement that hometowns represent when we are young. To Stevie Dix, the platform boot was the vehicle to escapism.
This staging of the self evokes a certain theatricality that permeates through the exhibition with the repetition of gesture in a choreographed march. The multiple, heavy brushstrokes mimic the repetitive steps of the shoes they compose that reverberate in the space. Yet, this reverberation is not one of calmness. It evokes the anxiety ridden pulsation of the city. “The definition of true madness is repetition,” the artist claimed when speaking of her paintings. Far from a psychoanalysis of the self, this statement is rather a reference to the various characters and elements that make up delirious3 cityscapes, at times irrational, incomprehensible, yet omnipresent. The boots become monuments, skyscrapers towering over the viewer, penetrating the gallery-become-cityscape. And the city is the perfect environment in which one can escape, where one becomes at once anonymous and individual, where the act of walking alone allows for self-transformation. “A lone walker is both present and detached, more than an audience but less than a participant. Walking assuages or legitimizes this alienation.”4 This alienation is emphasized by the absence of the body, allowing for interpretation: these boots can be read as portraits of the artist, as anonymous individuals, and/or the collective self.
This question of anonymity and shoes in painting is one that has already marked the history of art. Vincent Van Gogh’s various paintings of shoes produced in the 1880s evoked various responses throughout the twentieth century. This debate began with Martin Heidegger’s analysis of the paintings as a way to illustrate the nature of art as a disclosure of truth. For Heidegger, the shoes represented the peasant; for Meyer Shapiro, they were the artist himself; for Jacques Derrida, anyone at all.5 Yet, what of truth? Or as Jacques Derrida questioned, what of shoes? This questioning of who the shoe represents seems far from relevant in the world portrayed by Stevie Dix as, here, the shoes are characters in and of themselves, at once containers, content and contained within their canvases. Indeed, they evoke the artist herself, as the act of painting is highly personal. Yet, they also represent various generations and people. These shoes are thus beings themselves, they are Stevie Dix, they are no one, they are everyone.
In The nearer the ground, the louder it sounds, the artist does not just transport us to an abstracted Belgian cityscape through the presence of platform boots, she also introduces elements that are derived from the material environment in which they wander. Little known and easily missed by passers-by, ceramic door handles embellish various buildings across Belgian cities. Flat like tiles, these ceramics are often decorated with abstract motifs from the mid-twentieth century. Inspired by these both decorative and functional elements from her home country, Stevie Dix’s first exploration of the ceramic medium has transformed the function of these objects to play a role in setting the stage alongside her monumental shoes.
“Walkers are 'practitioners of the city,' for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities.”6 Stevie Dix presents us with a visual language, like a city, composed of boots and ceramics, an intimate perspective of the built environment. As visitors, or walkers, we navigate the space, inventing ways to interpret and reinterpret the cityscape that unfolds before us.
Words by Katia Porro