New York

Gary Stephan

Gary Stephan’s third one-man show, which included drawings, sculpture and paintings, was somewhat disappointing. Stephan’s painting has changed, and the four paintings exhibited here, although respectable enough, indicate that it is still in transition. Stephan has abandoned some of his cerebral elegance and is moving toward “real painting.” After working with one or two shapes painted on otherwise bare, shaped canvases, Stephan has returned to the square format and is covering the entire surface again, almost, it seems, as an investigation of the various methods of putting paint on the canvas. The paintings are pale and two-colored: a central squarish shape surrounded by a generous border (drab green around yellow; red around white). The central shapes are all mildly irregular (their top and bottom edges being slightly curved or angled) and all break through the border color, extending, usually at one corner, to the edge of the canvas itself, as if Stephan were depicting the method by which the shape found its way onto the painting.

These paintings have an initial, head-on simplicity, but reveal all kinds of shifts and contrasts in the way they are painted when examined closely. For example, the border color generally has a very dense, Marden-like surface all along the right side, but thins out so that the left edge finishes with a feathery wash, although the color remains much the same. A similar shift occurs from top to bottom, where the paint is usually dripped. The modulations of line and touch keep the shapes from being predictably concentric, the surfaces from being mechanical or routine; and they keep you looking at the paintings, because none of these things can be taken for granted. But ultimately all these fine adjustments don’t sustain the attention; they simply over-extend a single instant into a fragile event. Stephen reveals a decision-making process without clarifying what’s at stake; his decisions don’t mean much because the results are fuzzy. These paintings have an indefinite, unfinished look to them. Ironically, in Stephan’s sculpture, small upright lumps of bronze, the fine adjustments are indefinite in an opposite way: they go beyond completion. Exquisitely modelled, their delicate swells and hollows are almost invisible to the eye.

Although Stephan now seems to acknowledge the complex potentials of pictorial space and surface more than in previous work, so far he merely lays out a few of them, nonchalantly and ambiguously. His intention, like the results, remain muffled in a thin wavering beauty. It is as if he sees the possibilities of involvement, but is not yet involved.

Roberta Smith