For a number of years, Buffalo artist Peter Stephens has been working on a magisterial series of paintings based on the photographs of the Paris photographer Atget. In Stephens' hands, Atget's moody but solid evocations of Paris streets, buildings and interiors are dematerialized by a translucent veil of thin (usually) white pigment -- a device that reduces the photographic image to ghostly evanescence even as it asserts the basic abstract condition of painting.
In "Atget Rococo," Stephens' show of new paintings currently at Nina Freudenheim Gallery, the veiled pigment, once so insubstantial and painterly, has taken on a more literal presence. The amorphous veil has now evolved into something that resembles a sheer, vertically striated "curtain," quite convincing in its presence. At times, the painted striations even imitate the action of real curtains, billowing at the edges or doubling or folding back onto themselves.
This interceding curtain functions much like a theatrical scrim hung between the observer's eye and the action beyond. It fuses details, flattens space and unifies the scene with its milky translucency, just as a scrim would on a theatrical stage. Sometimes, in fact, Stephens draws his curtains aside, as on a proscenium stage, in order to reveal a subject at the center (see the fountain in "Atget Rococo VI," for example).
Spatially speaking, Stephens splits the difference down the middle between photographic illusion and the abstract space of the surface-bound curtain. It is something that he has not done before so emphatically and unapologetically. More than in the past, he seems willing to let the reality depicted in the photographs exist on its own illusionistic terms. Plus, the act of "seeing through," a metaphor in earlier paintings, is here specifically suggested as a physical condition. The curtain is what monitors your vision, allows you to see so much and not more. Though it obscures and distorts vision, it alone is your entry into the painting.
This play between depth and surface may seem a little too pointedly paradoxical. But Stephens is illustrating -- and I think in a brilliant way -- the paradox that exists in all of painting. Naturalistic painting is always one kind of ruse or another, and it is a ruse doubled when it is filtered through the supposed infallibility of photography. Painting is all surface, as modernism demonstrated; but then, put a mark on a blank canvas, and it's immediately apparent that the sensation of space in painting will not be denied.
Stephens, by the calculated duality of these paintings, resoundingly demonstrates that painting is an argument between surface and illusion that never can be completely reconciled.
This isn't to say that these paintings are not unified. On the contrary, they are supremely harmonious creations. "Atget Rococo XI," for example, is a regal tri-part composition that holds the spatial zones on left and right in calm abeyance so that a gray specter of a chair can emerge from an ethereal center stripe. It is a painting that is simultaneously a solid abstraction and an airy transcription of actual space.
Nor is it to say that the subject matter doesn't make itself felt. Many of the paintings tremble with longing for an almost magical reality that stands beyond even visual grasp. Any of the three gorgeous pastels in the show could apply.
The pastels introduce a velvety richness that could never be achieved with the ink, shellac and acrylic of the other works. Voids sink away into a breathless darkness and are only saved from the brink of oblivion (in what seems a last-minute rescue) by the vertical sweep of crisp, parallel pencil lines.
The exhibition sometimes seems like a competition for the most elegantly attired painting. One handsome piece after another shows off its innate grace and stately bearing. There isn't a painting in the show that doesn't radiate cultivation.
This refinement could be fatal in lesser hands. But Stephens works by a process of intelligent restraint (admittedly a not very "Rococo" trait). It is this practiced restraint -- a kind of conscious "sublimation," if there can be such a thing -- that allows the artist to keep "expression," ego, artistic showmanship, nostalgia, craft -- anything that would ruffle the sublime equilibrium of these works -- tamped down to just the right point so that the full grandeur of the larger vision comes through unencumbered.
WHAT: "Atget Rococo," new work by Peter Stephens"
WHEN: Through March 31
WHERE: Nina Freudenheim Gallery, Hotel Lenox, 140 North St.
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