New York

Gary Stephan

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

Acknowledging Alexander Pope’s dictum that an artist’s freedom lies within the framework of convention and rule, Gary Stephan constructs all of the imagery in his new paintings from a limited set of three curvilinear templates. Their true scale and shape are visible in the painting Mantle (all works 1989) and in the upper registers of Interior with Window, where Stephan presents their silhouettes as if they had been stenciled on the canvas’ surface. From this finite vocabulary Stephan generates infinite pictorial possibilities.

The templates have no intrinsic symbolic meaning, nor are they treated as autonomous things in themselves; they generate signification only through their interaction with each other, the surface plane, and color. Even in Mantle, where Stephan presents the three templates as an index of his painting’s vocabulary, the final composition is more than a catalogue of formal components. The scalloped shape on the far right is a compound construction formed by combining the exterior edges of several templates to generate an enclosed negative space. As in Stephan’s earlier works which the tension between optical illusion and pictorial construction, void becomes matter. The empty space outside of the templates has been converted into a solid that has as much presence as the templates themselves.

Stephan’s method is akin to collage in that he constructs his images from preexistent forms. His process, however, is not constrained by collage’s materialism. Stephan is able to explore collage’s generative capabilities without littering his surfaces with the residue of actual objects. He exchanges collage’s conventional juxtaposition of fixed matter for the activity of juxtaposition. It is in this context that one can understand the ethereality produced in the more complex paintings like Interior with Window. Below the mantle where the templates are displayed at rest, the atmosphere is luminous and ribbons flutter and curl. These enigmatic shapes are generated with various combinations of edges. The shifting templates which are never fully visible slip, leave a trace, then shift again to leave another. The imprint of their edges visually registers the template’s movement across the painting’s surface. This active use of the template dematerializes Stephan’s fixed vocabulary. The effects compose an ethereality rich with nuance and intuition that is as ungraspable as one’s own shadow.

The process by which Stephan generates an entire cosmology through the simple deployment of several shapes becomes a metaphor for the construction of meaning in painting.

Kirby Gookin