Stephen Westfall in his AAR studio
On Friday 12 March 2010 (6-8 PM) the American Academy in Rome will see the opening of a new solo show “Pavimentazione sul Muro” by noted geometric abstract painter Stephen Westfall. Westfall is currently the Jules Guerin/John Armstrong Chaloner Rome Prize Fellow in Visual Arts at the American Academy. He came to the Academy as Assistant Professor in the Visual Arts at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, and Painting Co-chair at the Milton Avery School of the Arts at Bard College. Westfall’s show will be on exhibit at the AAR through Friday 23 April.
Stephen Westfall has been exploring and reacting to the intricate designs of the medieval cosmatesque floors that decorate many Roman churches and which make extensive use of triangles of colored marble. He has also been deeply impressed by the muscular geometries of ancient Roman mosaics and Baroque marble floors, Modernist Italian graphic design, and the distinctive lines and grids of Rationalist architecture.
In 2007, inspired by the scale of a stained glass project he was working on, Westfall exhibited a sequence of large wall paintings at Solvent Space, an experimental installation space in Richmond, Virginia. This project integrated his post-Pop/Minimalist imagery with the scale and proportions of a free standing, two story brick building with two garage doors. The doors were held open for the life of the exhibition, for the first time in the gallery’s history, and the open view turned the building into a giant Fabergé egg—if the Fabergé workshop had been trained by Walter Gropius and Roy Lichtenstein. Westfall executed another wall painting as a centerpiece to his exhibition at the Lennon, Weinberg Gallery in New York, at the end of 2008.
Stephen Westfall’s show at the American Academy will be his most completely integrated exhibition of paintings on canvas, wall paintings, and works on paper to date. Along with three large scale wall paintings, Westfall is presenting four paintings on canvas, which were completed during the first half of his stay in Rome, and two gouaches.
Six photos above: credit Rachele Biagini
The interspersing of scale and surface between the formats is a direct response to the flow of space in the gallery—in such a way that the resonance between the images and the historical environment of Rome will also be felt as a concrete condition of the specific architectural features of the site.
Above, Stephen Westfall; ‘Pavimentazione’ painting assistants Diana Mellon and (current Fellow) Kiel Moe; AAR installer Stefano Silvia
Westfall’s color and patterns tend to project forward into space as much as they open up to illusionist pictorial depths. The two rooms of the AAR Gallery will be felt as salons for the contemplation of joyful and historically resonant geometries and optical spatial dynamics. After the Friday 12 March opening, the exhibition can be visited by appointment only. For that, call Giulia Barra at 06/5846459.
AAR Arts and Humanities intern Diana Mellon contributed to this report; special thanks to Luca Nostri and (for all photos below) Rachele Biagini
Thirteen photos above: credit Rachele Biagini
The work of onetime Bay Area, now Los Angeles, painter Marie Thibeault at Room for Painting Room for Paper manifests one of art's paradoxes: its capacity to make something elevating of downbeat stuff, without false consolation.
We may associate this sort of transfiguration more with literary than with visual art. Think of modern writers such as Primo Levi, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, even Samuel Beckett. Visual artists who attempt it tend to be photographers, videomakers or conceptual artists, such as Alfredo Jaar, Chris Burden and Bill Viola.
Thibeault began making the paintings on view by gleaning from the Internet various images of disaster, projecting them on canvas and tracing some of their details to serve as armatures for improvisation.
Her "Arena" (2008) conveys the sense of a vast structure mostly in ruins. Despite its title, it never settles into description. So, despite what look like the ghosts of vehicles and architecture, the picture remains open to reading as the evocation of, say, an ideology or a social program in tatters. Or think of the unswept floor of a stock exchange, where a banner day's litter may look no different from that of a day of upheaval.
The eye can forget what it knows of reference - or not - once it enters the artificial paradise of aesthetic detail that Thibeault has contrived with color and shape.
Viewers expecting veiled social critique in Thibeault's paintings, such as they might detect in Julie Mehretu's work, may exit dissatisfied.
I find Thibeault's work a heartening refusal to let the never-ending crisis-consciousness that we call history deny us immediate pleasure in life. In this sense, her paintings come out against spite, and I admire them for it.
In the gallery's Room for Paper, New York painter and critic Stephen Westfall presents abstract gouaches that, like much of his work, attest to his unusually keen sense of cultural orientation.
Systematic patterns of evenly colored stripes, running edge to edge on floated pages, Westfall's works contain ambiguities that illuminate the context in which we seek meaning for them.
Might we mistake "Reign" (2009) for a rejected, or merely forgotten, idea for a mid-'60s color-field painting by Kenneth Noland? Or for a late work of Sol LeWitt (1928-2007)?
Might it be a snatch of foreign traffic signage, its meaning known only to the locals? A generic warning sign of Westfall's own invention? An obscure new national flag from the postcolonial world?
These uncertainties tell us something of where we stand in cultural space, as does the fact that none of them seems inherent in the work itself.
Westfall's work presents a pictorial intelligence disinterested in seduction but keenly alert to the pressures on visual interpretation.
David M. Roth
Synergy is one of the most overworked words in the American vocabulary. Yet when it actually strikes, as it does here with Stephen Westfall and Marie Thibeault– two painters who couldn’t be more unalike – the effect is galvanizing. Their individual achievements and the “conversation” they spark by their appearance in the same space make this a singular event. Each artist wrestles with similar issues and arrives at different conclusions. What they share is a belief in art that is rooted in bodily experience.
Westfall, the renowned New York painter and critic, creates gouache-on-paper abstractions that appear to be operating in the space defined decades ago by Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland and other so-called “stripe” painters. While his vocabulary of chevron-shaped forms feels all-too familiar, the range of optical and emotional effects telegraphed by these highly focused interrogations of color and geometry seems wide-open. As with most painting of this sort, “form” and “ground” become interchangeable elements, which when adjudicated by colliding colors, yield highly specific evocations that demonstrate how even the smallest modulations can affect perception. How else to explain the myriad associations conjured by vertically bifurcated pictures that, for the most part, rely solely on downward facing stripes?
Westfall does drop some clues. Unlike geometric abstractionists who mask off lines with tape, Westfall applies pigment by hand, producing quavering lines that are only slightly opaque. He also tends to avoid conjoining sharp edges; his sometimes meet, but mostly they’re askew. But more than anything, Westfall’s off-kilter color sense is his most potent signifier: The
combinations he employs suggest many things without ever quite describing them. Thus, when you read titles like “Wrecking Ball”, “Fever”, “Lighthouse” and “Anthem”, feelings you
couldn’t put a name to come into sharp focus, proving yet again just how literal “pure” abstraction can really be. (Small surprise that Westfall is this year’s recipient of the Prix de Rome award.)
Marie Thibeault — who hails from LA and creates complex, multi-layered, gestural abstract oil paintings based on photographs of natural disasters — takes the opposite approach: Where Westfall moves from the general to the specific, her works begin with tangible, physical events and build out into metaphysical puzzles that are cheerfully apocalyptic.
She begins by projecting news photographs onto canvas and then sketching the “architecture” that results from the superimposition of one picture atop another. She adds color swatches that, while frequently bright and multi-hued, read as monochromatic – a rather strange transformation whose origins probably lie in Hans Hofmann’s “push-pull” theory, which holds that colors, when correctly juxtaposed, can represent space just as effectively as conventional illusionist techniques – and wreak havoc with color perception, as they do here. Thibeault, who teaches painting at CSU Long Beach, has these tricks down. But she takes Hofmann’s teachings further. She uses sweeping (and sometimes very subtle) gestural marks to outline specific objects (cars, houses, buildings, swimming pools) and to create splintered geometric forms that define labyrinthine spatial relationships that mirror the shattered reality of places like New Orleans, the model for this series. In Thibeault’s rendering, as in real life, the surviving structures stand as shells; everything else is either kindling wood or under water.
At a superficial level, Thibeault brings to mind similarly inclined deep-space travelers like Julie Mehretu and David Hamill. But where those artists use the views enabled by computer-assisted architectural drawing (CAD) as jumping-off points to construct fantastical universes, Thibeault’s improvisations are based in fact. They take the all-too-real abstractions created by natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and explode them. Each of her pictures, while pictorially “whole” at a distance looks, up-close, like a series of inchoate marks. You can enter wherever you please and traverse their interiors, but there are few guideposts: The pictures unfold kaleidoscopically, with no obvious entry or exit points, just layers of continuously unfolding space.
Thibeault approaches the world phenomenologically, as something knowable through the senses, but the complexity of her work suggests there’s more out there than meets the eye. This show positions her among painting’s most adventurous explorers of that realm.
Stephen Westfall is a painter's painter but he is also a viewer's painter. Often, especially in his enigmatic yet playful non -aligned grid paintings, he paints creamy muted half tones of distant shimmering colors hovering mysteriously within a framework of carefully yet not -too -carefully worked and reworked lines. He portrays complex emanations of pure light rendered in paint which sometimes takes on the consistency of salve or lotion and other times the flickering effervescence of sunlight and haze rendered in sensuous unfathomable unnamable colors.
The grid paintings are often small of scale and have a light-sensitive presence, and the feel of Modernist Manuscript illuminations. They are made with the dreamy loving touch of the miniaturist or the watercolorist. Like the water colorist Westfall paints beautiful, amorphous passages of subtly shifting, almost immaterial color and form. There is an odd interiority to these skewed and staggered paintings. These crooked shapes barely fitted awkwardly, yet earnestly together, have the quality of a cockeyed jigsaw puzzle and the equilibrium of a ship on choppy seas. But more than anything they really want to be paintings. Westfall employs a patient (if a tad edgy) steady hand - but one which is open to the possibilities of chance and delight. Westfall wants painting to be a probe, not only into the outer world of phenomenology and change, but the inner world of revelation and ecstasy, nervousness and wonder.
It is possible at first to think that Westfall's paintings are primarily about translating certain fascinating atmospheric effects deftly into paint. But the longer one looks at these works the more one senses that they might be about much more than that. Westfall is never heavy handed or didactic in his attempt to open up abstraction and painting and allow it to reveal what it can of its own making as well as the person who made it. This is not to say that Westfall is the subject of these paintings. He maintains a dignified reticence and a knowing sense of humor about him. No clown, the paintings are somehow clown - like. And again we sense this once removed, hard -to -know inwardness - as if, in spite of all the painting's best intentions and like to -get-to-know-you friendliness, they're shy and a little private.
If his grid paintings were a character they would be Gilles, the hero of Jean-Antoine Watteau's painting of the same name. They have that same unknowable, yearning, poignant, tears-of -a-clown stance. Their irregularity and striving to-be-moreness also echoes the paint handling, light and color of Watteau's glowing masterpiece. They're not exactly lustrous but quirkily painted, and like Watteau's painting, they often contain knockout passages of white and off -whites. The surfaces can become quietly fluorescent or quivering pale and dry, carrying something of the phosphorescent tones of Ryman, or when they are glazes, something of the frozen shimmeriness of Mondrian -although they are" never as opaque.
But there is an underlying drama to them as well. They're not simply formalist forays into form, surface and color. For in as much as many of the grid paintings are miniature they are also muscular and sassy, big and thunderbolt simple, clumsy even dumb -but not in a bad sense. The story Watteau may have wanted to tell is how people are detached from other people. Westfall's grid paintings would want to suggest that how we get detached and disconnected from the inherent sensuousness of what a painting is, is what stops us from ever really knowing painting: how they change from moment to moment, how they are both ephemeral and concrete objects of delectation. Westfall teases the viewer, implying a full frontal formalist grid, but rending it askew, even wacky- as if things were just sort of slipping into or out of place. He seems to want to say "Look how a painting can be more than one place at a time - how open it can be!" These paintings want to come to you. They're not angst-ridden portraits of uncertainty, nor are they strident illustrations of theory. They're unassuming, almost self-effacing, modest nonrestrictive excursions into the secret structural life of painting.
But we may be able to glimpse a bit of Westfall in the smiling gracefulness, the 'aw shucks' sweetness of the work. Westfall's grids may never 'get the girl' but they keep trying little tramp style. In the end Westfall's grid paintings, like Watteau's Gilles, are no longer mysterious strangers but infectious, exploratory looks into the presence of absence -the there of not-thereness. Why more artists have not taken up the irregular grid may provide a crucial clue to Westfall's melodic paintings. The grid is an endlessly fascinating organizational device. But it also seems tapped out, used up. Westfall bumps it, knocks it a bit off kilter, tinkers with it like some earnest would-be inventor. He's trying, in spite of all advice otherwise, to invent a 'better mousetrap.' He enters into a kind of controlled, almost deliberate freefall. Liberating and exhilarating, he hopes the parachute of style will save him before he hits the ground. His gentle vision and satiny touch cause us to enter into this freefall with him -to get up close and really gawk at these paintings to see just how radical they are -these visions of unrelatedness.
Oddly enough the structure of the paintings recall the divisions of space implied in Oriental screens. These border -to -border, edge-to-edge, yearning -to -be -free, little engine that could paintings evolve into scroll -like things which seem to suggest they have more to tell, if only you would unroll them a bit more. This all-over gridness breaks down further until each compartment or area is a separate incident -an event filled with its own latent possibilities. Each area gives the suggestion that it too could permutate and disgorge a whole other painting separate from, but genetically related to, the 'parent' painting. But there is no one central point to these elusive works, no ocular eye around which the paintings appear to be grouped. There are a lot of paintings inside each one of Westfall's grid paintings. Usually when this happens in art, it disintegrates into confusion and boredom. Somehow Westfall navigates around this, avoiding visual schizophrenia, and makes it safely to a joyful, full, illuminating experience. One that, in the end, like games, play and pleasure we can't get enough of. These paintings become placards, slabs and shop signs tell us of the presence of a human heart and a place where people and the world they live in are the true subjects of contemplation.