Raphael Rubinstein originally wrote this essay for Gary Stephan‘s solo exhibition, on view through April 23, 2016, at Susan Inglett. / Some paintings pick arguments with art history. Some paintings pick arguments with their materials. Some paintings pick arguments with the other paintings around them in the artist’s studio. Some paintings pick arguments with the world at large. All these types of argumentative artworks can be incredibly engaging, and many of history’s masterpieces can be found among their number, but for me there is one particular type of argumentative painting that is the most stimulating, the most rewarding, the most exemplary: the painting that picks an argument with itself, and at the present moment it’s hard to think of another painter who exemplifies this kind of painting better than Gary Stephan.
[Image at top: Gary Stephan, Abednego, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 20 inches.]
At the heart of his pictorial disputes is the fact that every painting invites multiple, contradictory readings: in a moment, a flat figure/ground structure can shift to an illusionistic composition in which a geometric shape seems to be floating above the ground. Similar perceptual flips happen with parts and whole as internal framing devices isolate segments of the larger composition, but never definitively. To look at any of Stephan’s paintings is to experience constant oscillation and undecideability.
Anyone familiar with Stephan’s career will know that his art has long been an arena for the staging of vigorous oppositions, in particular between the seductive voids of illusionistic space and the blunt materiality of paint, between fiction and fact. A second binary weaving through his work, especially of late, is the cleavage (and strange interdependence) between the mark and the symbol. I’m thinking, now, of certain forms embedded in two recent paintings: Abednego and David Rising. Viewed among the ensemble of this show, these paintings may not immediately unveil their iconography, due in no small part to the artist’s canny skill at breaking up pictorial space, but once the iconography emerges, there is no chance of plausible denial. I’m talking, of course, about the swastikas formed by the configuration of vertical and horizontal segments. In both cases, this hyper-charged symbol shares the 20-square-inch surface with other elements: the white swastika in Abednego is ringed by a quartet of irregular black shapes derived from the “Template” forms that were a prominent feature of Stephan’s work in the 1980s; in David Rising, a pale blue shape, vaguely suggestive of a cookie cutter, surrounds the central area, delaying, perhaps, recognition of the swastika.
What happens “next” (I place this chronological term in quotation marks since no two viewings of a painting, even by the same person, necessarily follow the same perceptual sequence, which is not to say that they can’t and, often, do) is wholly unexpected and audacious. As the triangular internal sides of the blue shape isolate sections of the gray swastika and yellow ground, a new shape suddenly emerges from the painting: a six-pointed star or Star of David, that ancient symbol of Jewish identity. But here it’s a mostly yellow star, which, even without the word German word “Jude,” can be nothing else than the yellow star the Nazis and their collaborators required that all Jews wear when venturing into public.
In the past, Stephan has rarely allowed these kinds of highly charged symbols into his work, but for some reason they seem to be irrupting, intentionally or not, into some of the recent paintings. In a fascinating Brooklyn Rail conversation with Phong Bui, Stephan mentions an early instance in 2012 painting titled The Spine of the Book in which an image came out “unconsciously.” Having completed the painting Stephan “realized how much it looked like a crucifix with little splashes of blood on the bottom of Christ’s feet while his whole body is twisted a little.” Given that Stephan is an artist well-known for being acutely aware of every historical allusion and conceptual twist of his paintings, it seems almost out of character for him to court and accept the intrusion of unconscious images. And, in fact, Stephan never relinquishes absolute control of his paintings. Rather, he follows wherever their logic (pictorial logic, logic of process) leads. And if this logic leads to an unsettling, disruptive icon, so much the better insofar as it introduces yet another degree of oscillation and undecideability into the painting.
It’s crucial to understand how the swastikas emerge from two basic structural conditions of Stephan’s painterly procedures: first, the woven grids that he lays down with thinned out paint as he initiates each canvas; second, the rotational procedure that is fundamental to Stephan’s practice, facilitated by the self-designed, wall-mounted rotating easel that occupies a central place in his Lower Manhattan studio. In many, if not most, of the seventeen 20 by 20 paintings in this show (displayed in this show as a group in three staggered rows in what I think of as a variant on a haiku stanza: 6,5,6 instead of 5,7,5), the compositional movement is explicitly rotational as blocks of color and surrounding shapes lead the eye around the perimeter of the support. In one case (the painting in the upper left corner) the title, Sides 2/3/4 Clockwise @ 11/2/6 explicitly points to the rotational structure. The use of implied rotation as a compositional device is fairly uncommon in abstract painting, although it is a venerable format (think of the cycles of episodes in countless paintings depicting the lives of religious figures) that offers, to artist and viewer alike, a unique combination of instability and continuous motion.
Irregular shapes in several of the paintings (CN1 and CN7) suggest floor plans, and thus connect to one of Stephan’s recurring themes, architecture. In a recent larger painting, E-1027, the artist creates a brilliant homage to Eileen Gray’s legendary modernist house. His focus on E-1027 is related to his fascination with Le Corbusier, whose buildings have been an object of pilgrimage for Stephan and his wife Suzanne Joelson for many years, including the National Museum of Western Art (1959) in Tokyo. There’s a striking resemblance between the patterns on the concrete façade of Museum of Western Art and the abutting gray brushstrokes in many of Stephan’s recent paintings. (Note to self: explore, in the manner of Duncan Smith, the persistence of the word “gray” in Stephan’s work: it is not only his most favored color, but also the last name of one of his inspirations—Eileen Gray—and an anagram of his own first name.) Stephan’s use of buildings as protagonists in his art suddenly reminds me of another instance of an artist appropriating an iconic piece of 20th century architecture: Jean-Luc Godard’s filming long sections of Le Mépris (Contempt) in the Casa Malaparte on the island of Capri. Like E-1027, the Casa Malaparte (designed by writer Curzio Malaparte) is a highly personal and deeply eccentric house that overlooks the Mediterranean and features large windows facing the sea. Thinking about Godard and Stephan, two creators who seem impelled to over-determine their art (to highly productive ends), a phrase comes to mind that Godard once used to describe Le Mépris. The film was, he said, a story about “survivors from the shipwreck of modernity.” I think the same might well be said of Gary Stephan’s paintings.
“Gary Stephan,” Susan Inglett, Chelsea, New York, NY. Through April 23, 2016. Also on view are several small floor pieces by Alina Tenser. Note: On Saturday, April 9 at 4pm, Alexi Worth will be moderating a conversation between Gary Stephan and Alina Tenser at the gallery.
Author bio: Raphael Rubinstein is a New York-based poet, art critic, and professor of critical studies at the University of Houston. He writes the award-winning art blog The Silo.