In Stephen Westfall’s recent show, a dozen geometric abstractions revealed an artist who finds limitless possibilities in an evolving repertoire of constraints. Concentric diamond structures predominate in the nine canvases (all oil and alkyd), two gouaches and one large wall painting on view. These extend Westfall’s earlier investigations of the chevron, further pushing ambiguities of flatness and dimension and the optical effects of color. The diamond motif was also inspired by mosaic floor patterns of churches in Italy, where Westfall recently completed a Rome Prize residency. (Several works in the show were executed in Rome; all are 2010 or ’11.)
Many of the canvases share not only compositional elements but also a palette of fundamental spectrum colors: the bluest blue, orangest orange, greenest green and so on. Source and Live for Tomorrow (both 47 by 59 inches) bear these traits, but the former is comparatively placid, with thin colored stripes isolated (and seemingly purified) by a white that reads alternately as substance and void. In Live for Tomorrow, the diamond functions as a whole yet fragments and buckles through the play of compositionally discontinuous colors in quadrants that appear to shift.
Westfall’s sensuous touch individualizes and animates every canvas, providing a counterpoint to all the hard edges. Semitransparent ultramarine blues and violets show his hand especially. And no color is truly the same from picture to picture, due, often, to subtle underpainting, which lends one black a purple character, another a charred essence.
The wall painting, Ariel (104 inches square), reverberates in kinship with several similarly composed, diamond-motif canvases. At the same time, it’s distinct in Westfall’s use of flatter, less saturated, rolled-on house paint, an architectural scale and its location on the recessed back wall, something like a fresco in a church apse.
One of the few paintings not employing the diamond, Thrum (48 by 36 inches), displays features nonetheless salient in all the work: compositional tensions and chromatic temperatures that defy expectation. Lapis blue triangles push in from the sides and emerald green zigzags through the center, projecting in front of other zigzags of ocher yellow and Venetian red. Look again, though, and the warm colors leap ahead of the cool.
The title canvas of the show, Seraphim (59 inches square), is made up of many segments suggesting diamond patterns. But because the compositional elements share sides, no one unit is complete. The painting remains open, as if inviting the viewer to resolve it. In fact, to view the whole show was to engage—as Westfall must have, to a greater degree—in infinite comparison, relative relationships and myriad interpretations. Perhaps that’s a reason the paintings compel as individuals and electrify in aggregate.
Photos: Stephen Westfall: Ariel (left), 2011, acrylic wall painting, and Source (right), 2010, oil and alkyd on canvas; at Lennon, Weinberg.
Stephen Westfall is a veteran abstractionist, a kind of practicing Mondrianist and one of the few artists still able to get fresh juice from a formalist approach to painting. His latest show further refines the major themes of his recent work. All the paintings in the show are oil and alkyd on canvas and of a small to medium size, except for a 104-inch-square wall painting in bold acrylic, The Truth is Marching On (For Albert Ayler), 2008.
Westfall’s paintings remind the viewer of some other piece of art, or of something often seen (window, door, billboard) or otherwise strangely familiar. These associations prove to be short-lived or even false as one slowly realizes that the work rests on shifting ground and will not be pinned down by expectation or philosophy. Westfall is an aficionado of most forms of Western culture (including pop songs and improvisational jazz) as well as an admirer of Eastern (particularly Buddhist) thought and visual art. This combination of knowledge of art history and philosophical curiosity contributes to visual experiences marked by edgy stasis or prolonged elation. He doesn’t hesitate to imbue the layout of a ’60s Frank Stella with stunning mandalalike presence.
Several paintings in the show operate using the repeating chevron device familiar from late-1960s post-painterly abstraction. But Westfall’s paintings always perform with unexpected shifts. Edges don’t quite square up, “horizon” lines toggle up and down, and meaning jiggles. Too Much Love, Within You and Without You and Dharma (all 2008) similarly position the chevron in a composition divided into four quarters. Bands alternate in color and angles point toward the center. The chevron arrangement is then overlaid with a system of concentric squares made up of mostly single-color bands. Determining what is underneath and what’s on top quickly becomes a dizzying conundrum as hues and values shift between the stripes and the system of squares. The paintings are like mad heraldry.
Especially distinctive is the artist’s deployment of color. What might be just another skillful hard-edge painting is often made magical and always musical by his concentrated mixing and application of amazingly specific and odd hues. No color in the paintings is what it first appears to be. White is never exactly white; it lists toward buff or blue. Reds go strangely orange, and blues feel brownish. Westfall’s working knowledge of the interaction of color makes for a singular experience that sneaks up wearing an ordinary disguise.
Above: Too Much Love, 2008, oil on canvas, 30 inches square; at Lennon, Weinberg.