“The Great Pleasure of Surprise”: Stephen Maine’s Residue Paintings
Stephen Maine: New Paintings at Five Points Gallery
November 16 to December 29, 2018
33 Main St., Torrington CT
For some years, Stephen Maine has been making paintings in layers applied by printing techniques of his own devising. In so doing, he focuses attention on color and surface rather than hand-manipulated authorship and control. The recent display in Connecticut of what the artist calls Residue paintings (a genus begun in 2014) constitutes his most impressive exhibition, both optically and conceptually, to date. Five imposing canvasses, all 100 x 80 inches, were spaciously installed in a window-wrapped corner storefront gallery. While the paintings’ luminous crackle of oppositional colors was immediately striking, the gallery’s abundant indirect light slowly revealed, more subtly, the paintings’ shifting interplay of translucency and opacity. Moreover, the serial installation of the five works allowed one to discover that, while diverging radically in chroma and texture, the paintings were uncannily interrelated – each sharing a DNA of seemingly random scratches, pits and puddles, like quintuplets separated at birth.
Maine has published lucid and penetrating criticism for many years, and his concise explanation of his method and intentions is worth quoting in full:
Some years ago, it occurred to me that conveying paint to canvas by means of a system that uses printing plates instead of brushes would save a lot of time and trouble. This indirect, intentionally imprecise production method yields the great pleasure of surprise while providing a concrete way to think about color, surface, scale, seriality, figure/ground, original/copy, and the psychology of visual perception.
Maine implies by omission that the intaglio of gouges and markings with which he incises his Styrofoam plates, while perhaps hands-on, is by no means invested with the mystic graphology of Cy Twombly, or with the elegant violence of Lucio Fontana. Rather, the artist seems to be cultivating the “calculated crappiness” (as he put it in a recent rave review of Ryan Crotty’s process-oriented abstractions) which helps “avoid the slick seamlessness that sucks the life out of so many pseudo-minimalist paintings, and gives reductivist pictorial strategies everywhere a bad name.”
One painting in the current exhibition, P18-1001 (all works 2018), seemed both the shiftiest and the most plainspoken, being the result of a single printing of taxicab yellow over an intensely tinted baby blue ground of varying density. In context, this painting constituted a statement of the theme, the printed yellow image hovering as a coherent layer over the distant blue like a thought experiment.
The other four paintings embroider the image in layers of vibrant, interfering color. P18-0714 comprises a highly satisfying, coruscating variation produced by misregistered printings of harsh green, yellow and pink over a volcanic orange base. Maine pays close attention to the properties of pigment, and the phthalo green dye used here is unpredictably transparent, a kind of anti-color that can amplify underlying layers or go venomously black. The crucial factor in the interaction of Maine’s colors, however, is the “intentionally imprecise” slop in registration, which tends to outline bits of pattern illusionistically, as if they were cut from a wafer and raked with light. The hysterical contrasts of color at these edges is informational and arresting, like computer-enhanced microphotography.
Rather easier on the eyes is P18-0724, a luscious concoction of subdued orange over a ground of bluish-green you might see at an aquarium on a bright day. The opaque orange mass flows in places into sensuous pockets of purple, pink and violet underlayers, blending more liquidly than in neighboring works. A small area of patterned dots along the left side is also distinctive, more visible here than elsewhere. This anomalous patch of regularity seems to be a holdover from Maine’s previous Smoke pictures and Halftone paintings, closer-to-the-vest bodies of work which restricted themselves entirely to nuances teased from cryptic dot matrices.
The Ben-Day associations in those earlier paintings inevitably evoked Roy Lichtenstein’s and Sigmar Polke’s antipodal versions of Pop, while dissolving those associations in an acid bath of what Yve-Alain Bois has called Non-Composition. Maine’s Residue paintings, by contrast, are extrovert dynamos of color and surface whose image-matter is just scratchy enough to goad one’s eyeballs – while steering clear of various camps (including camp). Neither beautiful nor ugly in themselves, the images incised onto Maine’s Styrofoam plates resist symmetry, representation, indexical process, symbolic language, and anything that can comfortably be called “expression.”
Maine seeks the philosopher’s stone of painting by maintaining a nimble skepticism, hedging all bets, and ruling nothing entirely out – not even tactical content. In addition to the patterned dots, Maine distributes several larger, emphatically geometric circles around the image that in several paintings resemble, with their shadows of misregistration, crisp Warholian silkscreens of a typewriter period. Maine places these cryptographs before us as if he were Ishmael describing harpoon scars on the physiognomy of the ineffable. Like the prodigiously erudite narrator of Moby Dick, the artist pleads ignorance, asking, in effect, “How may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale’s brow? I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can.”