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Paintings by Peter Stephens at Nina Freudenheim Gallery

Color Lines

Peter Stephens’s paintings currently on show at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery are abstractions that get you thinking about how abstractions are abstractions of something. Some original imagery, usually. Or perhaps some idea, some concept, something already abstract, which the painting attempts to represent in imagery.

The works on display started out as planet Mars exploration topographic photos that were then computer-manipulated—abstracted in some way or ways—and the results copied and reinterpreted in paintings.

"Phase Shift" by Peter Stephens
"Science Fiction Painting" by Peter Stephens

In a written statement, Stephens talks about how his interest—as an artist not a scientist—in the fields of high-energy physics and cosmology “opened up my conception of landscape into an abstract space of mathematics, theoretical physics, and the imaginable but invisible. The extremes of scale, from the infinitesimal of the sub-atomic world to the infinite of the multiverse are for me the most compelling aspects of the sublime.” The artistic product he considers a new kind of landscape painting.

The paintings on display feature overlays or juxtapositions of surface relief patterns, sometimes of terrain—landforms that could be surface contours on Mars or the ridges surf water creates on underwater sand—sometimes of what are likely man-made materials in microscopic view.

A large work called Reaction-Diffusion presents an elegant oil-on-water swirl pattern of meandering parallels over more regular pattern of terrain ridges, all in seductive tones of silvery opal and yellow. Art history references—after you stare at the piece for a time—seem to be to Jasper Johns in his scatter array of little parallel markings phase and Keith Haring with his frenetic perpetual motion human figures. Wider world references to labyrinths, American Indian mound builder remnants, computer chip circuitry, human brain circuitry.

Another painting is said in the artist’s statement to recall or refer somehow to an unspecified work by Titian. The Stephens work consists of three panels, of deep green below, red above, and a strip of pale blue to one side. The Titian reference seems mainly to have to do with color. Titian was a supreme colorist, reveling in the new media of the era of oil paint on canvas. One imagines a religious scene, with figures in costumes in intense reds and greens, Venetian blue sky above.

More Renaissance-era reference—in the title, anyway—in the painting called The Age of Exploration. Reference to the intrepid voyaging and New World explorations of the likes of Columbus and Cortez. But then also to current-era explorations into space and the genome and particle constituents of the atom. And in art historical terms, to a key work of abstract expressionism, the radical abstractionist predecessor art to Stephens’s art. According to the artist’s statement, the color scheme of this work is based on Mark Rothko’s iconic Orange and Yellow, 1956, in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. But more than just the color scheme. His characteristic use in this and many of these paintings of large single-color blocks in juxtaposition.

Sometimes the abstraction is to the point of mathematical. Pure geometry. As in the work called October that translates the number of the eighth month—until Augustus Caesar added July and August to the calendar to honor his stepfather Julius and himself—into an octahedron, double pyramids, glued bottom to bottom.

In one case the reference seems to be to Asian art. The work called Li, consisting of interlocked parentheticals, one green, one brown, around a central blue rectangle. The sturdy little painting/sculpture gives the sense of an ancient Chinese bronze ritual vessel, squarish and embellished with relief elements of now obscure significance.

The Peter Stephens exhibit continues through November 28.

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