New York

Gary Stephan

David Whitney Gallery

Gary Stephan’s work at the Whitney is a reminder that it is currently easier to make art about painting than it is to make good paintings. Stephan’s work might be quite strong if it left us some doubt that it is not painting. What Stephan does is make irregular patterns of colored shapes in polyvinyl chloride. They hold together thanks to the cohesive nature of the material and hang unsupported from the wall. Apparently the last step in making these pieces is cutting holes in the various colored shapes, holes which often echo the shapes they penetrate and which allow the wall to show through in discrete areas.

These compositions seem to be very carefully thought out despite their slapdash look. The shapes are layered according to color; in one piece, for instance, the pink shapes are overlapped by shapes of every other color and gray shapes overlap every other color. This way of ordering the pieces gives the definite impression that some shapes are forward of others, though almost no single shape is the exclusive ground against which another reads as figure.

The cuts exposing patches of wall engage the assemblage and the wall in a competitive figure/ground exchange. When that ambiguity succeeds it draws the wall surface into a kind of illusionism arising from the sense that the same surface is both forward of the composition (the cut white shapes tend to come forward) and behind it as a ground. That this illusionism doesn’t really go anywhere is, I think, due to the fact that these items are not paintings. Stephan has not gained anything on Ron Davis by not making things we would be willing to call paintings, and he does not make the distance between paintings and what his own works are count for anything. He does not, for instance, tell us anything about why it is easier to make art about paintings than to make paintings, or why that question is interesting.

Kenneth Baker