Monday, August 13, 2007

Craig Stephens: Green Grapes

Introduction
Craig Stephens paints mainly still life, often in dark, cool hues. The two most remarkable features in his artwork are the treatment of light and the brushwork. Sometimes, they coincide. His subjects filter the light, which manifests through degrees of transparency and translucency -- but rarely in a pure, pristine form. This quality is best demonstrated in the many depictions of glass and liquids, where he explores effects of refraction and reflection. Sometimes I get the impression that he uses a flashlight to illumine his models. It is as if they are covered by a thick drapery, which he removes for just a second, to point the small focused lamp on the uncovered object and expose it, only to return the veil right after. I would go as far as suggesting the child reading or playing under a blanket allegory, if it wasn't for that sombre, classic mood that permeates Stephen's art. Back to the lighting, the ensuing effect renders the subjects especially precious, fragile and even vulnerable. The general impression is of being let into a secret nook -- where the paintings divulge secrets (they whisper), and where they become secrets. Some of those are innocuous, while others may be sarcastic, and even subversive.

His peculiar brushwork bends the light even further: when it does not pass through, it mixes with the color it falls upon, producing a foggy surface. Due to these evolutions, which absorb most of the light, Stephen's work inevitably gravitates towards the darker tones of the color spectrum. But his brushwork deserves an account on its own merit. It appears that the artist sculpts with the instrument; not by erecting dramatic impasto, but by a more subtle, and even application. He manipulates texture: paint protrudes, and interacts with the canvas -- a stylistic device of micro-sculpting with the substance. Perhaps as a result, various still life appear to be carved out of stone: this could sound as a reprimand, but, not so when the effect is consistent, and obviously deliberate; when it is a part of the artist's vision. Interestingly, allusions to other art forms are also not alien to Stephen's art, as I will try to show in future posts. Sometimes it takes time to accumulate enough visual data to make inferences regarding the painter's style. But here the whole oeuvre appears to be slightly off the axis of the generally accepted pictorial trend, reducing the recognition time to a minimum. This, by itself, is an achievement. Craig Stephens lives in Northern California. He keeps a website and a blog.


Here the brush not only paints, it also takes the role of a chisel -- precisely because the subject is a real fruit. The grapes appear to be made of stone, a semiprecious stone to be more accurate. I find jade to be a probable candidate. The artist mixes the light's white with the green of the berries, so that each color gradates into another, with different levels of sharpness. As a result, he manages to convey various light effects: the grapes positioned closer to the left part of the canvas appear translucent, while those on the right display a deeper green, sometimes nearing black. At the lower part of the canvas, white is interlaced with black and brown, also producing a complex surface.

This painting provides a series of variations on the theme of a single grape: each one is depicted from a different angle, under varying light. In turn, the series can be divided into groups that demonstrate certain commonalities. This grouping serves to remind that the bunch in front of us was also only a part, of a bigger bunch, -- but in the outside world, before the artist intervened. A corresponding aspect touches the process of consuming grapes: I have actually witnessed people trying to keep the bunch's structure intact as they pick out a grape after a grape. Sometimes that demanded tearing out a small cluster, which they would place into their mouth and chew upon gluttonously. Okay, I admit that it was me.

Despite the stony appearance, the bunch seems almost weightless; there is something ethereal in its presence. There are two clearly visible points of contact, while the third is either invisible, covered by the subject itself, or, is concealed by its shadow. In any case, the grapes appear to hover. To my mind, this feature strongly alludes to the taste of the fruit: light and sweet. Consequently, it also reinstates its floral origin, which may have become compromised due to the overwhelming resemblances discussed earlier. In many ways, this painting epitomizes the artist's style. While the black background tends to the classic atmosphere created by the sculptural subject, the latter retains its sweetness due to various pictorial effects. And if this begins to sound too much like a wine description -- perhaps it should.

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