Peter Stephens: Paris-Buffalo, 1900-2003

at Zolla/Lieberman, through August 21

Thomas Metcalf

at Gescheidle, through August 23

Peter Stephens’s 15 paintings and works on paper at Zolla/Lieberman are based on photographs that have a certain grandeur and are distanced by time: Eugene Atget’s turn-of-the-century documentations of France’s monuments and parks and painterly photographs by Wilbur Porterfield, an Atget contemporary who lived in Buffalo, New York. Atget 06-06 shows a grand outdoor stairway leading to an upper level where one imagines a promenade with cafes. Atget 01-03 depicts a park with elegant classical buildings (“the back side of the Medici fountain in the Luxembourg Garden in Paris,” Stephens says) and a curving walkway. Both compositions have a focused, almost theatrical intensity.

But Stephens’s paintings are far from realistic copies. Starting with a rendering in ink mixed with shellac, he adds thin layers of acrylic to colorize the image faintly, oil stains to create greater density, and white streaks in transparent glazes to suggest a mysterious veil, then covers some areas with thick varnish, which adds the cracking found in old paintings. The distancing effect of these additions of course calls to mind Gerhard Richter, but whereas Richter questioned everything about the artistic enterprise even while reaffirming it, Stephens’s effort is more narrowly focused. Pale streaks and dark stains invoke time but also suggest some sort of disaster–in fact, a secretary in a law office where one of Stephens’s paintings had just been installed once reported with alarm that it had somehow been “ruined.”

Hovering between decay and disaster, Stephens’s surfaces have a dreamy, otherworldly quality that makes the underlying image seem vaguely fantastical. Defining nostalgia as “a memory without a direct experience–memories of times and places that we haven’t been to,” Stephens evokes the mix of feelings his pictures create. The viewer vacillates between fascination with the surface, with its abstracting elements, and attempts to enter the world of the photo image. One wonders what the artist’s role is; as critic Leah Ollman wrote of an earlier exhibit, “Stephens’s images…are innately ambiguous in authorship.”

Born in 1958 in Buffalo, where he was raised and lives today, Stephens was impressed as a child by modernist masterpieces in the Albright-Knox Gallery but was exposed to Renaissance art mostly through reproductions. When he spent a year in Europe at the age of 20, he remembers being “blown away” by Michelangelo works he’d previously seen only in textbooks. A few years after graduating from the School of the Art Institute in 1981, he began making art he identifies with his present direction–paintings from textbook Michelangelo images, suggesting that our “culture of the copy” is another of his subjects.

The apparently repetitive white streaks vary in some paintings. The marks in front of the stairs in Atget 06-06 suggest a delicate screen, emphasizing our removal from the scene–and Stephens says that the white layer is “not as spontaneous as it looks, very fussed with.” The orchard in Porterfield 05-04 is ablaze with diagonals of sunlight evoking the sublime, though the painter’s messy white verticals in front of it assert almost humorously that such a vision is impossible once a modernist acknowledges his materials. In Atget 07-02, which shows a pond framed by a tree at the left, a rectangle of varnish at the center mimics and curiously intensifies the photograph’s format. In fact Stephens crops most of the photos, and his images are tightly framed. Here the rectangle tightens further, focusing attention on the center even as it obscures that center with cracks.

Though Stephens’s work can be compelling, the issues it raises are familiar: the tension between presence and distance, between illusion and materiality, and the ways representation obscures the subjects it seeks to illuminate. Much more startling are Thomas Metcalf’s 12 paintings at Gescheidle–portraits whose poses and lighting evoke religious passion. One is a triptych, six others are small portraits, and all are copies of photographs, in this case taken by the artist. Though Metcalf says he subscribes to no single faith–“the Tao te Ching means as much to me as the Bible”–almost all the subjects in his small portraits face upward. The man in Schroer, who has a beard painted in fine detail, looks a bit Christlike, and Metcalf’s centered, symmetrical composition suggests a crucifix. In Karin, the reflected light on the subject’s face combined with her closed eyes hints that she’s receiving some form of spiritual sustenance; with one exception, these people are not self-sufficient.

Born in Idaho, Metcalf grew up there and in Washington and now lives in Galena. Encouraged by his hippie mom, he pursued art as a kid; like Stephens, Metcalf calls Renaissance art, which he first saw in reproductions in high school, a key influence. During a trip to Europe while in art school, he was impressed by Durer’s portraits: “One single subject could convey so much more than things filled with tons and tons of imagery,” he says. Metcalf also loved the supple surfaces of early Renaissance painters such as van Eyck and van der Weyden and began trying to paint in layers, but he didn’t have the skills–nor were they taught at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, where he earned a BFA in 1996. Then, in 1999 and 2001, he was able to take two workshops taught by painter Patrick Betaudier, who also cites van Eyck and van der Weyden as prime inspirations. Betaudier taught him to paint in transparent layers, and he considers this exhibit, his first one-man show, also his first mature work.

Night shows Metcalf’s two young children sleeping entwined on a bed, surrounded by darkness; the girl’s bare skin reflects light from a hard-to-place source. In fact, light seems to come from within as well as without their bodies, as if they were both receivers and transmitters, open to spiritual forces and generators of them, floating in an indefinable void. As in van Eyck’s art, painting in layers here lifts the image off the physical surface and gives the subjects a profoundly spiritual dimension.

I wouldn’t have guessed that Richter was also an influence on Metcalf, but he says that the recent Richter retrospective made a deep impression. His use of a limited palette in some pictures is one result: when color is removed, he says, representational correctness “is not even part of the equation, opening you up to what the piece is about.” Mother, the triptych, shows Metcalf’s pregnant wife in three poses: with her eyes closed, looking for-ward, and looking up. Nearly monochromatic, these images reveal subtle hints of color in the skin, a tactic that removes the work both from the “realism” of color representations and from the conventions of black-and-white photography: the subject is neither pure flesh nor pure representation. Metcalf intended to refer to the triptychs of Renaissance altarpieces, but I found the three poses intriguing in themselves: the different positions of his wife’s hands on her rounded belly give it the look of a globe, as if an unborn child were a metaphor for the world.

Perhaps the most stunning work is the small portrait One More Time Around, in which the subject stares penetratingly, even frighteningly, at the viewer. This young woman’s long, wavy hair is again reminiscent of Christ portraits, but it’s less precisely painted than the beard in Schroer, and to good effect: while the woman’s magnetic gaze draws the viewer’s attention, the details of her appearance seem to melt away. Both Metcalf and Stephens offer uncertainties rather than answers, but where Stephens creates multiple levels of distance, Metcalf gives his subjects a disturbingly powerful presence.