Beyond the shiny surface

The oldest gallery in the Lower East Side of Manhattan has an answer to the international art market that has taken hold of the city. It retains the rigor of postmodern art and goes beyond.

The latest exhibition of Maxwell Stevens at Onetwentyeight Gallery is a rising tide of modernity. It doesn’t despise past or present nor he overstates one particular element of his art in order to make it an absolute or isolated statement nor it brings the viewer to the common places of contemporary art by shaking basic emotions such as discomfort or confusion. Maxwell Stevens relies on nuanced skill, understanding of the history and the state of the art and on the development of elaborated motives and feelings.

In an art scene that has the tendency of reducing the depth of human experience to the most simplistic of its layered dimensions, the surface of the artwork has gained increasing importance as if a text was to be judged by it calligraphy or the mere choosing of a typeface. However surface and superficiality themselves are not to be dismissed or taken for shallowness. The surface gives access to the depths. It’s the portal, the threshold through which you enter the intricacies of an artwork.

The paintings on this “Spring Essence” exhibition do pay attention to the surface, in fact we could say they have payed twelvefold attention to it, which is the number of glaze layers applied to it. Thanks to these shinny surfaces the viewer is transported into the painting. The attentive gaze of the viewer is placed within the painting, the face, the whole body and contextual space of the observer becomes part of an artwork that most appropriately depicts an indoors clear walled space. The surface you see becomes both the frontier that separates and the gate that opens and integrates the outer and the inner spaces. By dramatically increasing the surface tension of the canvases from the apparently chaotic laxitude of the clouds of brushstrokes that remain individually visible underneath, to the bowlike tension of a unified flat and hard mirror like surface, the author has made them most accessible to the viewer.

Once you’re properly placed through reflection within the painting, and I beg the reader to do that exercise, you may have to ask yourself what’s happening in the scene. While the artist said it all brandishing his brush, it is my privilege as transducer or critic to reveal an informed interpretation in the attempt of mediating in the reception of the artwork. I’ll humbly play the role of a Vasari for a Michelangelo or a Ruskin for a Turner.
Maxwell Stevens has been painting professionally for over twenty years, and has been looking at intimate Vermeer like close quarters for the last ten. For this series he has skillfully painted the one scene we observe in three fourths of the exhibition once and again and again: going from the studies to final paintings with minor variations and new creative insights. Destroying many and distilling the right essence along the way. Four of these paintings, three smaller in a row and one larger in front, occupy the main room of the gallery.

It’s a scene of consolation. Husband and wife look at each other in the eye leaning to each other and holding hands over the table. Death has been taking its toll on them with sudden and overwhelming harassment, and even their own health is in question, landing the heavy chance of the death of a spouse. Tribulation grief and uncertainty are formidable rivals in the tragedy of life that Maxwell Stevens faces with art.

That’s the ominous triad that the genre of consolation has been dealing with uninterruptedly spanning hundreds of years, from the classic orations of Crantor to the Flagellation of Christ by Piero de la Francsesca to Briton Rivière or Toulouse-Lautrec paintings or the Virgin of Consolation by Adolphe-William Bouguereau.
It’s not however consolation what we look for in the presence of the well known and categorized phenomena. We seek consolation from those things beyond the city walls that contain order and knowledge, we seek consolation from the absolute contradiction, the ineffable mystery yet permanently present and engulfed in chaos.

This genre shows us a threefold stylistic and conceptual approach that can be seen progressing throughout Maxwell Stevens’ paintings. The first and most immediate element is attested by the significant encounter with the other, brought by half of the painting where Maxwell Sevens portrays himself for the first time in his career. The second element in order of immediacy is the need for answers or reasons or in the limit a sense of meaning, which is the sole privilege of art, shown in the psychological dialog of the characters’ wondering eyes, expecting gesture and supplicant openness. While the third taps even farther into what’s most mysterious by referring to it in its own terms: the presence of the sacred, both in the realm of the characters where the light enters the room through the window, the blinds, and the virginal cloud deflecting through the wife’s hair and illuminating the face and the very act of consolation. Even more importantly we found it in the sole realm of the large abstract gestures overimposed on the upper half of the canvas. They are out of this world in a transcendent layer beyond the three dimensions represented in the painting underneath, yet the abstract has a way to reinterpret the light and comprise the pallet with graze.

Celtic spirituality has left us a specific term to refer to those magnificent places where what’s humanly mundane find a meaningful way to encounter what’s sacred: thin places. Thin places are those where the realms of the sacred and the mundane are closest, and time flows very slowly and awe results from a soothing sense of meaning. Nothing is left to chance in these thin places except for the outburst of the abstract above and beyond. The viewer can observe a set of interlocking patterns of color and shape that evolving from the vanishing point in the husband’s right knee drive our eyes to the female gaze (most delicately nuanced part of the painting), and through its sharing to the intuitive cat that’s a state of mind, and a richly depicted vase in the ground pregnant with the mystery, embedded in our souls, that makes the mundane into thin places.


Places indeed thin as membranes of the world hung on the walls of Onetwetnyeight Gallery.


Manuel Rodríguez

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