New York

Gary Stephan

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

Gary Stephan’s paintings are a mystery only until your patience runs out. At first, you attempt an impressionistic reading of the forms. Is this irregular shape that floats close to the bottom of the canvas an entrance, a door, from which a kind of mysterious, suffused light is drawn out? No, for there is an arched section on the bottom near the left side. And there is a “table leg” off on the extreme right, which is attached by a small horizontal member from the top.

Are these two forms? Or is the background a third form? Stephan uses a darker version of the defined shape for the background (in most cases). Background might not be the right word. The paintings are so atmospheric that it is useless to conjecture about the relative nearness or distance of the shapes in relation to one another. It all depends, I would think, on the disposition of the viewer. At least you can say that the central shape is not imposed on the painting’s “backdrop.”

This central shape, with its zigzags, seems to lock into the surrounding shape, like a jigsaw-puzzle piece. The thin rectangle attached to the right side, however, gives the form a three-dimensional look, as if we were seeing it from the side. The clue might be the blobby lumps of paint that look like soldering across the horizontal boundary of the figure and ground. The surface is so thick that it looks like sculptural relief. Does this irregularity of surface weld the two shapes back together, as if Stephan knew that both were so atmospheric and vague that there is no logical reason not to do something very drastic to force a relationship between them?

What becomes clear, after studying the paintings for awhile, is that you don’t look at them at all, but you read them. The simplicity leads you to think that you are going to get “results”—the paintings will communicate in some sensible way. But Stephan doesn’t have this in mind, and the simplicity is a trick. This is when patience wears thin, and the paintings can be regarded as vague expressionism, as stifled caprice Nothing in the paintings makes us aware of a coherent attempt to bundle allusions (even though I have read that the colors, for instance, are relatable to Giotto and company); nothing intimates that, within the reductive abstract model which Stephan works under, there will be a lively, pleasurable feeling of his expressionism. There is nowhere to go, and I mean this in an almost literal way, in terms of the painting being a vehicle—painting takes you somewhere. An artist can no longer insist that the paintings are only what they are. As an antidote to this, painting cannot be a solipsistic activity hiding behind a systematized Minimal style to give it the look of severity. If Stephan is expressing something of his feelings in these paintings, how does he think that the forms he chooses to paint are going to carry the expression when they cannot even convince us of their formal unity? If the forms are emotionally derived, how do we know that, by their very ambiguity?

Stephan’s work appeals to a lot of people, and it is, I think, his stylistic obeisance to Minimalism, transformed by a grudgingly romantic sensibility, which they find attractive: having the best of the known and impersonal while catering to the irrational. Or soft-pedaling theory to underline a dreary expressionism. Arbitrariness in itself is not annoying, but in painting it needs to be accompanied by idiosyncrasy, or it doesn’t mean anything. Stephan repeats his format to create a personal trademark: a bland identification card which tells us nothing of himself, while the paintings cannot be read as anything but personal.

Jeff Perrone