A lost city

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It is unlikely that there is a city, other than Athens or Rome, that has celebrated its ruins as much as Detroit. Painters, photographers and installation artists have thrived on — even built careers around — calling attention to the derelict condition of Detroit’s urban industrial landscape. Without guilt, artists have pilfered materials from a sacred ruin to make a sculpture or installation piece. Such works are celebrated in the best galleries and museums locally and across the country. The haunting, ironic beauty of decay and the degradation that smolders has inspired such fine Detroit-based artists as Cay Bahnmiller, Gordon Newton, Clinton Snyder, Lowell Boileau, Scott Hocking and Tyree Guyton. Internationally renowned artists have visited and, by taking photos and shooting video, have taken a piece of the city with them, including Stan Douglas, Robert Klyne, Peter Williams and Leonardo Drew, to name only a few.

These artists incorporate the Detroit nightmare into their work, but none have made images that resound with such confidence and authority as the poetic paintings of James Stephens. Ecotone, as Stephens has named his series of 12 new paintings on view at the Lemberg Gallery, “refers to a transitional area between two or more dissimilar ecosystems.” The work seduces with its kitschy, decorative dance of marvelous painting and enigmatic explorations featuring urban industrial fragments. Embedded in the formal experimentation of Stephens’ landscapes is a mix of gorgeous painterly passages, deft mark-making and an accomplished compositional vision that compresses time and space into a challenging, if not somewhat flamboyant, complex.

Stephens’ skies serve as arena-like backdrops in front of which his magic plays out. Each sky is daring and magnificently unique. In “Campsite,” clouds are dappled like a horse. His skies are a place to return to repeatedly while grappling with his invented landscapes.

A simple one-point perspective usually establishes Stephens’ small-scale works, while the larger paintings combine multiple, coalescing perspectives. Within the canopy of the sky, the artist modulates foreground with varying painterly gestures all aimed at building a moody space that translates as a forgotten world.

The centralized swath of river in “Campsite,” with its sagging dock pilings, is reminiscent of a cemetery, and the rock outcroppings in “Hammond Spring” as well as the leaning rock in “Lot 67” look especially like toppling gravestones. In the middle ground of Stephens’ paintings, there is a telling absence, a past that cannot be remembered or recaptured. This ethereal world, in particular, looks polluted or desiccated. The middle ground in “Bogg,” for example, is a dead wetland, and fallen pine trees punctuate the central passage of “Landscape with Toys.”

Where is nature in Stephens’ landscapes? Visually, it doesn’t exist on his canvas. But it is implied, as is the presence of people, like a civilization that existed once but disappeared. Nature exists as an idea, the signifier being a desiccated tree or a murky chemical pool. And the most beautiful Stephens’ skies seem to be hybrids of man’s insidious collaboration with nature, their coloration a combination of toxic byproducts and air. In “Borderlands,” the atmosphere is tinted a gorgeously sickening sulfurous yellow.

Yet Stephens’ art is never that simple; each painting provides an enigma in a peculiar form. In the foreground of nearly every landscape there is an inscrutable object stepping forward as if performing onstage. Often it is a modernist sculpture-like form that stands out because of its location and the care with which he paints it. By contrast to the rest of the landscape, the objects are transcendently beautiful. In “Hammond Spring,” the object is a hybrid between a birdhouse and flying saucer. In “Bluff,” it looks like a sky-blue space pod, along with two deer wrapped in teal blue tape. In “Bogg,” it is something like a phonograph speaker, colored green and resting on an arm. Regardless of what the object is, its inscrutable presence asserts a philosophical independence and contains, almost as a time capsule does, a promise of the future. It is here that Stephens allows for optimism — a fundamental faith in art and in the healing power of beauty.


James Stephens: Ecotone/New Paintings runs through Dec. 3 at Lemberg Gallery, 23241 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-591-6623.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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