Stephen Westfall: Persephone
New York, NYAlexandre Gallery
November 4 – December 22, 2021
Stephen Westfall practices a mode of abstraction I’d term “typiographic,” meaning its simple and direct topology is derived from lifelong study of multifarious categories of recurring formal tropes. In the past these have included references to used car lot/grand opening pennants and classic airmail hash marks. I recall a specific example of this attitude coming up during a studio visit. He discussed how the signs displayed by national parks in the American West gained a particular formal familiarity in his memory, and that, from such a memorial archive, one might derive an aesthetic that could trace a specific, local experience and, simultaneously, a more general formal territory. His pragmatic observation correlates with Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic theory of the immediate, dynamic, and final interpretants. Peirce’s final interpretant doesn’t emphasize the way in which any mind acts but in the way that every mind might act.1 This relates directly to an experience of abstraction not as reductive but generative of infinite variation, especially if it’s recognized that such variation is contained within a generic continuum. Considered in this light, Westfall’s is an inherently flat-footed approach (in the best, general sense) to abstract painting, a trait shared with painters such as James Little, Karl Benjamin, and Harriet Korman, each idiosyncratically bowing to their own universal corners. Westfall further defines such a position in a previous statement, “My painting is about abstract painting’s precarious and target-rich environment of referring to its own history and serving as signs for the ‘real’ world.”
In these latest paintings, Westfall breaks freer from the asymmetric diagonal grid that has lent previous bodies of his work a kind of cock-eyed consistency and, by doing so, he amps up their vectoral dynamism. The grid isn’t completely banished in these newest works, it’s just on a wild walkabout. The extremely facile device of crisscrossing diagonal lines to map alternating color areas is a generic type of abstract construction. I’ve seen this same strategy often in student work, particularly when encouraged to explore abstraction for the first time, but that doesn’t necessarily rate it as a secondary category of visual experience. The same can be seen in the loopy compositions of Klee and Miró, whose shared ambition toward universal simplicity in art could result in quite complex (and unique) visual statements. It’s hard not to love how dumb these paintings are in their sophistication.2
One is greeted at the outset by a wall painting titled Fling (2021), in which some of the recurring palette and formal elements of the canvas-bound compositions in the show appear thrown like confetti at a fête for Ellsworth Kelly and Matisse alike. It’s a fitting preface to the overall celebratory mood of common signification and complex art historical reference permeating the show. Moving through the works I was impressed with the constant variation on this double theme; Westfall’s obvious epicurean knowledge of high and low formal tropes was very apparent but cannily distributed, never overcooking this heady mix of metaphors in any given work. Certain themes nevertheless do emerge. Persephone’s Lava Lite, Eurydice, and Song (all 2021) share the aforementioned format of crisscrossed lines colored in alternative hues that appear to perpetually twist and shout in abstract helixes. The painting’s titles invoke two mythical Greek personifications of life-and-death duality and the artful music that might transcend such irrevocable bounds—the artist’s sly nod to his own, not so trivial, pursuit of straddling the vital present with the persistent past. In a related painting, Samba da Lua (2021), two double helical structures of contrasting hues of yellow ochre, crimson, pink, and violet arise between zig-zag brackets of deep indigo and black. So crowded, the composition’s light-blue center takes on an immense depth, a super-graphic crack of sky. Eurydice’s euphonious lover is summoned in the samba reference to the scoring of Marcel Camus’s great 1959 adaptation of the Greek myth set during Brazilian Carnival, Black Orpheus. Big Tango (2021) makes another obvious musical reference, this time in the sharper and more staccato cadence characteristic of that Argentine form. This painting’s line-broken hash marks of secondary hues, dominated by a primary triad, are bracing in their back-and-forth stride.
Atelier II (2021) is one of the more compositionally complex paintings in the show, in terms of its mix of internal scale relationships and diagonal structures. Considering its spatial complexity, I first thought of Picasso’s The Studio (1928) but then, when apprised of the artist’s own initial referent in a Braque composition, I thought that made better sense. Braque, especially in his later works, tended to be more local in his taste of subject matter overall (think of the vectoral parlor game of his late billiard table paintings). Stuart Davis once sardonically titled a painting Colonial Cubism (1954) to head off any critique that his abstracted popular derivations might be subjunctive to Picasso or Braque’s Cubist quotidian. Westfall’s work surely agrees up with such a self-qualified statement. Like Davis, he too leaves his studio door wide open to life’s vagrant signs, synthesizing their disparate accumulation into a kind of Grand Type abstraction.
- C.S. Peirce’s concept of infinite semiosis, in which an infinity of further signs both precedes and proceeds from any given sign, tracks well with Paul Klee’s notion of abstract signification as a universal prehistory of vision. Both the philosopher and artist posit a virtual plane of consistency that essentially predicts a fourth dimension of experience.
- Duchamp’s stated weariness with the colloquial French pejorative “stupid as a painter” comes to mind, not as the term was originally applied, nor as Duchamp’s reaction (an ideal of a more intellectual art), but perhaps as a way to reinvent form as content-eliding Content. This, too, likely relates to what C.S. Peirce was referring to in his concept of the “quasi-mind.”