Steve Russell Exhibition at the Innovation Gallery, London: Communicating Cancer

In September 2004, Steve Russell was diagnosed with cancer. During his treatment, he composed a series of paintings, drawings and collages which are on display from 23 May until 1 June at Innovation Gallery, Central Saint Martins, Procter Street, London WC1. I highly recommend viewing this exceptional range of art. Here is a draft of a piece I wrote on the work, which might give you a sense of my perspective on his work, albeit not from the perspective of an art critic:

Communicating Cancer

Art is a powerful communication technology. Steve Russell is in touch with his feelings and has the ability to convey them to others through his art. He can communicate to us, but also helps us communicate with one another.

His exhibition of painting, prints and drawings, entitled ‘you look well (chemical warfare) brings us into the mental map of an artist diagnosed with cancer – a person who has the courage to confront it with every weapon known to medical science and to destroy it. You sense a person who wins, and who can look back at his battle, not with a sense of victory, but more of amazement and wonder.

His work illuminates the art – the humanity — of everyday artefacts. Maps, planes, boxes and figures in his early work, become computerized tomographic scans, needles, IVs, surgical socks and more anatomical figures during his therapy. Over time his work returns to his maps, his abstract figures, objects and social networks. He is feeling better. Steve is more optimistic, but still haunted by medical technology.

Years ago Steve painted a computer for me as a multidimensional box with a wire appearing to extend from two sides. A computer is a machine — the antithesis of a person, but he used a brush with oil paint in ways that humanized the computer – the box. The computer became a work of art as works of science and engineering are also created and shaped by people.

In similar ways, an ordinary map becomes an artist’s canvas in Steve’s hands. Chemo therapy becomes a connection between people. An IV pole becomes a companion. A telephone line holds the world together.

Of course, the ‘you look well’ refrain captures one manifestation of the difficulties people face in understanding what to say, and what not to say, to anyone fighting cancer. And Steve’s 2005 self-portrait entitled ‘you look well’ might be the most gripping work of this collection. Looking straight at the camera, it has the look of a mug shot of one of the most wanted fugitives from justice against a background of medical prescriptions and labels.

Did I say ‘you look well’? Was I honest?

Steve Russell is honest. He expresses his anger, joy, disappointment. So I am engaged by disturbing images of isolation and death, but heartened by the positive social conviviality of the more recent work. He sense that he must feel well, values his family, network of consultants, friends and work.

In the social sciences, this body of work might be called a set of boundary spanning objects. They will help untold others communicate about cancer.

Bill Dutton, Professor of Internet Studies, University of Oxford, Fellow of Balliol College, and Director of the Oxford Internet Institute, 26 March 2007

3 thoughts on “Steve Russell Exhibition at the Innovation Gallery, London: Communicating Cancer

  1. Malcolm

    Many thanks for your comments. We need a link to some of Steve’s work so that those who were not at the exhibit can get a sense of his art.


  2. I found Steve’s exhibition deeply disturbing because, as Bill says, it deals so honestly and imaginatively not only with the physical corruption of cancer, but also the way it confronts our very notions of what it is to be human and social being and the way we often use language to conceal rather than reveal, as in the title ‘you are looking well (chemical warfare)’. It is disturbing because it is not possible to say what he is saying without disturbing.

    The confrontation begins with the painting that meets you as you enter the main exhibition room ( called ‘you look well’). It is of Steve looking directly at you and ‘looking well’, as he has whenever I have met him since he was diagnosed when each time I probably said that to him.

    The painting I found most disturbing was updownopenup, one of the few others with Steve in it – rather than the ‘Russell human figures’ that are his signature images (as in much of his OII designs). In this, Steve looks ill and edgy in a New York skyscraper with falling shapes coming down on him and two aeroplanes in a clear blue sky. I was surprised to find this was done before he was diagnosed, but obviously when he was receiving messages from his body that it was under attack.

    What most upset me elsewhere was to see the way the cancer had infected his art. Somehow I felt that more deeply than when meeting him because seeing him ‘look well’ allowed suppression of darker thoughts. Thee rounded human ‘Steve figures’ I have grown to see as always warm and welcoming friends in brochure designs I have worked on with Steve over many years were now generally in pain and on fire in bright reds and sometimes black.

    The masterpiece of the exhibition for me was ‘balance’. It has two reclining figures in perfect ‘U shape’ harmony. I understand it is of Steve and a nurse during a long treatment session. But for me it represented a wider balance that seems to have emerged for Steve and his wife Dale and daughter Lucy, who have lived through the turmoil with Steve and have seen how he has transmuted his experience into something that reaches out to others to speak of the spirit of life and humanity that shines through every one of his paintings.

Comments are most welcome