Historical Journal


Stephen Westfall

August 18, 1987
Jerry Saltz

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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.
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