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January 13 - February, 2006 at Jan Baum Gallery, West Hollywood

by Diane Calder

“Destination," 2004, oil/oilstick/
graphite on linen, 37 x 30".

“Isles of Prukinje," 2006, oil/
oilstick on linen, 44 x 40".

“Semiotics (Blue)," 2005,
mixed media on linen, 48 x 40".

“Echo," 2006, oil on linen, 72 x 66".

One of the powers of abstract imagery is the way it opens up representation and allows the mind to rub up against things too vast or vague to be pictured.  With abstraction we can summon mystery itself or an unseen presence, or emotions detached from anything that drives those feelings.  The paintings in Gretel Stephens’ newest exhibition are ethereal abstract works that hum with that kind of purpose.  Each radiates an internal glow or has a veiling accumulation of spattered luminosity.  In those suggestions of internal warmth and sprawling cosmic light there is a palpable sense of something vibrant and alive.

The artist stresses the ambiguity of that animating warmth by alternately clarifying the pictorial field or masking it in stellar lights.  Images like the oil on linen painting “Ecco” are clear and seemingly simple.  That painting features a flat, softly glowing white egg form resting in a large oval orange shape that itself rests on a lightly colored but radiant pink field.  Suggestive of fecundity and peace, warmth pours from the image in colors reminiscent of translucent, healthy, blood-infused tissue.

Less clear but no less suggestive of something dynamically alive is the glowing, cool colored image in the “Isles of Purkinje”.  The painting is a divided foggy sea of broken greenish-white shapes parted unequally into four soft quarters by a large radiating white cruciform shape.  That form is so luminous it seems on the verge of dissolving or absorbing the entire image.  Stretching across its surface, and almost lost in its glow, is a fine linear orange cross.  This second delicate shape lines-up like the cross-hairs of a laser gun-sight searching vainly for a target in a fog; it pinpoints a small circle that sits just off-center.  Amazingly, that circle glows even brighter than the large cross behind it.  Inherent power seems to radiate from the overwhelming brightness that the entire image projects.  It is the diminutive gesture of a small circle that makes us ponder the question of scale and might.

Many of Stephens’ paintings make scale an issue.  Often they seem to shift the longer you look at them.  It is highly ambiguous whether the abstract forms she paints come from the world of microbiology or astronomy, or if what they suggest represents a god-like perspective or scientific detachment.  This dichotomy resonates throughout.  The bejeweled white explosion in “Destination” largely obscures a neutral ground saturated with large, oval red puddles.  It’s a little like looking at a magnified slide of red blood cells through the celestial glare of a huge telescope aimed at the Crab Nebula. While we mentally flip between seeing the macro in the micro, the whole inter-related nature of matter and life force begins to rumble like a train through our thinking.  Abstraction certainly lets you pack a lot into one image.

Not all her paintings lead to such grandiose thoughts. In most the artist uses radiance and suggestions of galaxies as a beguiling mask whose significance we feel no need to ponder. We never wonder about the glowing fog in “Semiotics” that seems on the verge of disappearing even as we notice that in fading it barely shrouds a pale Mondrian-like grid lying within.  In the delightful “Go” several flat cadmium orange egg shapes and outlines are dusted by a sweeping cosmic wind whose significance seems less important than the dynamic balance of the composition. We are content to let the ovals rise and fall within the shining stylized mist while below sits a small patch of flat open space, a single, truncated large orange bulge and a dangling strand of a dull white line.  Visual energy is held in check by a quiet, ordered, formal balance that makes for an immensely satisfying duality.

“Echo” is a large, transparent verdant field over-painted on a darker brownish ground.  The now familiar egg shape, here a pale, glowing presence, sits vibrating softly in the upper right quarter of the painting, while a very faint doppelganger of the same form rests in the middle near the top edge.  With nothing else to see the two ovals function as image and retinal after-image.  After a time their visual fluctuation feels more real than simulated and this suggestion begins a tug of war of feelings around vision’s capacity to endure and the inherent ephemerality of memory.

Stephens’ paintings repeatedly hold out these kinds of visual memory tied to physical impressions as well as sights of sheer, awe inducing radiance.  As such they treat abstract painting as a kind of visual metaphor for encounters with the dynamic force of living, pulsing life.  It is that vision which illuminates her cool fogs, humid atmospheres and glowing celestial spatters and makes these paintings sing.