In January, the painter Jason Stopa, an occasional contributor to these pages, published a post in Hyperallergic Weekend titled “Painting as Total Environment,” in which he explored the art of Laura Owens, Keltie Ferris, Rachel Rossin, and Trudy Benson, artists whose works, as he phrased it, “engage with several forms of tactility, illusion, and physical depth.”
With the exception of Owens’s installations, in which she incorporates her paintings into a faux-bedroom (a concept developed almost 25 years ago by David Reed), the term “total environment” was meant metaphorically: while the works of Ferris, Rossin, and Benson embrace conceptual and performative practices intended to deepen painting’s interaction with the real world, they remain by and large discrete objects whose ideas are contained within the four edges of the picture plane (or, in the case of Rossin, the parameters of a VR headset).
The article’s premise rested instead on the notion of “expanded painting,” the topic of the book Expanded Painting: Ontological Aesthetics and the Essence of Colour (2017) by Mark Titmarsh. The difference between traditional and expanded painting, Stopa writes, is that abstraction, which “could once only reach out to what it constitutes on a material level, […] can now reference everything it is not: sculpture, photography, digital media, video, performance, VR, and so forth.”
At the conclusion of his thumbnail history of the concept, which begins with the Gutai group of postwar Japan and Support/Surface in France, and runs through Frank Stella, Elizabeth Murray, Jonathan Lasker, Bram Bogart, and Peter Halley, he cites Halley’s recent installation at Greene Naftali — where the “walls of the first two rooms were painted in varying colors,” accented by “distinct lighting effects” — and lets drop, almost as an aside:
My own work often employs a similar language — a painted wall or “stage” that will hold individual canvases while altering the spatial relationship between them, even as it references the imagery found in the paintings.
With The Gate, Stopa’s current show at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects on the Lower East Side, the artist puts into action the ideas he has been turning over in his head before and after the essay. While he has hung paintings on a hand-painted wall as part of a group show at the same gallery (this is his first solo here), and his website offers views of a studio mockup from 2017 incorporating similar work, his complete takeover of the space — bright yellow walls sectioned off with a red diamond pattern suggestive of cyclone fencing, which are overlaid with seven individual paintings — makes a statement that goes beyond establishing a formal and thematic context for the work.
Stopa is a smart and ambitious painter whose ideas and references have tended to fall just this side of the literal. But his candied pigments, kinetic brushwork, and creamy textures have always landed such a direct hit on your pleasure zone that in a painting like “Watermelon with KB #2” (2013), where a field of swirling violet-pink brushstrokes, bordered by a ring of tube-squeezed cadmium green, is uniformly scattered with realistic watermelon seeds, the conceptual disconnect between abstraction and illusion manages to slip under the radar.
That the black seeds seem to be patterned after the dots in an early-60s Larry Poons underscores the sense that you’re dealing with a historically savvy artist whose approach to Pop Formalism can cut either way, toward reflexive irony or, as he would put it, an expanded employment of the language of paint.
The Gate puts Stopa decisively on the side of the latter. Incongruities remain, but they are sublimated into a more holistic field. You no longer feel the pinch of parts that don’t quite fit, but rather the tautness of styles that run smoothly together even though they shouldn’t.
Take “Johari Window” (2018), which is composed of three main parts. The ground is red with yellow stripes, which are vertical in the upper three quarters of the canvas but diamond-shaped along the bottom edge, partitioned off by a horizontal line. Across the midsection, Stopa has laid two vertical rectangles, one gradient green and the other gradient blue, as if they were mini-paintings inside an inverted mini-version of the red-on-yellow environment he’s created in the front room of the gallery (which, it should be noted, is a shoebox-style LES storefront almost entirely devoid of flat, unbroken walls — the long north wall swerves inward, while its opposite number is interrupted by a slight recess — giving the installation an unusually organic feel).
The green and blue rectangles each feature an additional layer of paint — brushy squiggles in violet-pink on the green gradient and four white lines squeezed from the tube to form a diamond shape atop the blue. What’s interesting, though most probably unintended, about this painting is the way it transmutes the main motif of an earlier work, “Four Straws” (2015), in which the four straws of the title (actually, four narrow white lines each bearing a thin red stripe) create a diamond that lies against loops of cadmium green bleeding into lemon yellow. (The composition is also adorned, in the dead center, with a jarringly realistic pair of cherries, while the number “7” sits in the two bottom corners and the word “UP” in the two top ones. The painting, appropriately, is part of Stopa’s series High Fructose.)
The contrast between “Johari Window” (the title refers to a psychological profiling procedure) and “Four Straws” reveals the extent to which Stopa has brought the real-world motifs of his earlier work to a much higher level of abstraction. It is a development that plays out across all the paintings in The Gate, with the pictorial ambiguities that arise from streamlined form leading to a succession of intricate meanings.
“Syrian Damask Rose (Mushroom Cloud)” (2018), named for a species of rose threatened by the violence of the Syrian civil war, consists of a cadmium red ground gradating into a dusky rose color, overlaid by rows of curved green lines. The lines can be read, if viewed flat against the picture plane, as interlocking basketball backboards — Stopa has explored basketball as a theme for years, frequently manifested in diagrams of courts and cross-hatched images of nets — or, if viewed as receding in space, as seats in an auditorium.
The backboard shape reappears as the commanding element of the piece, rendered in thick white outlines against a two-toned blue rectangle near the lower left quadrant, while four smaller rectangles — yellow with black lines, three of them depicting Matissean flora, the fourth a mesh of overlapping curves — float upwards from the lower middle region to the upper right corner.
“Syrian Damask Rose” and the other individual works in the exhibition can undoubtedly stand on their own outside of the installation, which attains an uneasy balance between painted object and painted wall, quite a feat for an environment rife with bright primaries and clashing patterns. The canvases play with space in striking ways, countervailing the assertiveness of the yellow walls through their gradient colors, which open like windows into atmospheric depths, turning the intensity of their pigments into relief for the eye — another coup.
But, from another perspective, the red-on-yellow chain-link wall pattern generates a series of linkages that enable us to envision these seven works as station stops along the way to a genre of abstraction that retains its real-world baggage, so to speak, in quasi-pictorial terms — a vessel for distilling personal preoccupations and artistic influences into pure paint, impurely deployed. (In the gallery’s back room, Stopa has curated a small show of kindred spirits whose work also flickers between the abstract and the real, including a knockout early painting by Jan Müller, impossibly blue ceramics by Meghan Brady, and delicate abstractions from Clare Grill and Alison Hall.)
The formal concerns of a painting like “Syrian Damask Rose (Mushroom Cloud),” however, should not distract from the unexpectedly sinister reading of the white-on-blue backboard suggested by the title, a conceptual shift that complicates the work with layered and paradoxical meanings, and cracks open a bewitchingly colored canvas to the agony of the Middle East, while ginning up anxiety on how it could all end up.
If individual elements refrain from calling attention to themselves, in contrast to the watermelon seeds, straws, cherries, and 7 Up logo in the earlier paintings, it is not because they are subsumed in homogeneity; rather, they are asserting a different kind of specificity, in shapes and colors that radiate outward, echoing across the individual compositions and bouncing around the room. With The Gate, Stopa has not shied away from putting his painterly gifts and formal inquisitiveness on bravura display. That he is also willing to put them at the service of complexity and contradiction is a measure of an artist coming fully into his own.
Jason Stopa: The Gate continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 31.