Monday, February 22, 2010

Art: Stephen Westfall

For nearly two thousand years, Rome has been a Mecca for visual artists throughout the Western world. The city is filled to the brim with the potential for inspiration. The physical spaces created by thousands of years of cultural production are downright magical and often mysterious. For a visual artist, spending any amount of time in Rome is a challenge. It's impossible to go there and not be visually impacted. She demands you to strike a balance between her beauty and your personal aesthetics.

During my journey through the Eternal City, I had the pleasure of meeting internationally renowned American artist, Stephen Westfall. Stephen won the American Academy's Rome Prize for Visual Arts in 2009 and has been living and working in Rome since the summer. If you're not familiar with his work, Stephen brilliantly employs color and pattern to destabilize and unground the viewer's perception. His paintings defy the concept of art as object, and instead enter the realm of art as a continuous visual encounter. His entirely new body of work arises from his time spent in Rome. In a recent interview, I asked Stephen about his personal relationship with Rome and his art making.

How has Rome impacted your artwork as opposed to New York or elsewhere? What's new about the paintings you've created in Rome and what has been your inspiration while working on this new body of work?

I think these two questions are almost the same so I’m going to answer here. I’m a somewhat Poppish, post-minimalist geometric painter. My visual imagination was fueled by architecture and the use of color on an architectural scale (Barragan, le Corbusier, billboards, etc.) well before I ever seriously entertained the possibility of becoming a serious painter. Rome is an architectural National Park, so to speak, as is New York. But the fresco tradition and the long history of inlaid marble floors and walls here was clearly on my mind when I applied for the Rome Prize. I was also looking forward to encountering the Rationalist style of fascist architecture, and the bold graphic design of the post war period. Of course I found all that here, and more. My most recent paintings are responding the Cosmatesque and Baroque floors of the churches and palazzos, the gridding of Rationalist facades, and even some of the window mullion patterns I’ve seen here. The show I’m mounting at the American Academy will feature the most complete integration of paintings on canvas, wall paintings, and works on paper that I’ve ever done. It will also invoke specific source material that I’ve already mentioned, from all over Rome, and it’s also calibrated as an installation response to the specific architectural features of the two room gallery.

Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?

I am chiefly concerned with abstract sign space, where planes of color both create spatial illusion and project into real space. Along with this real energy in the first encounter with the image there is also the sense that the image has a memory of all the historical manifestations and uses of geometry. Amy Sillman described my paintings as images of painting stretched to the exact size of the painting itself. I loved that. I paint in oil on canvas and, contrary to viewers’ first impressions I don’t use tape. I want the paintings to give a sense of the hand fitting these planes together.

When I paint on the wall I use good quality latex acrylic house paint. I do use tape here because it’s really the only way to get the job done at that scale and under the inevitable time constraints I’m working with. Somehow, it matters less at that scale anyway. The results still look crafted and good.

The Arts Section is all about recommending things. Have you seen, heard, or read anything that you would like to recommend to our readers (film, art, music, literature)?

In Rome? Go to the Vatican Museum in winter, visit the pinacoteca first and hit the Raphael rooms and the Sistine Chapel after 4:30. You’ll never be there again with so few other people. Bliss. Make a tour of the Cosmatesque floors of some the major churches. Two standouts are Santa Maria in Trastevere and Santa Maria in Cosmadin. The broken Roman bridge at the south end of the island in the Tiber offers perspectives worthy of Piranesi, especially at night. And the Capitoline Museum annex in Montemartini sets stunning Roman sculpture against the spectacular backdrop of the giant turbines of the first public power station in Rome. Then there’s the great third floor of the Palazzo Massimo. And on and on.

In literature, I’m reading the Nicholas Fox Weber biography of Le Corbusier and his recent book on the Bauhaus Group. As for music, I listen to everything. I’m lately all about the Avett Brothers. Monteverdi in Rome is a revelation. The thing that has mesmerized is that I’ve put this broad collect of jazz, classical, folk, alternative rock, reggae, soul, electronica, etc. on itunes, about 1700 cds so far. When I put it on shuffle it becomes the greatest radio station in the world.

As for art you can never see too much Matisse or Ellsworth Kelly. Or my friends, Polly Apfelbaum, Amy Sillman, Chris Martin, Mary Heilmann, MaryWeatherford, and Rebecca Morris. Rebecca may be the most exciting painter you’ve never heard of.

What are your plans after completing your fellowship in Rome?

I go back to teaching at Rutgers and the Bard MFA program in the summer. I have shows at George Lawson Gallery in San Francisco in the fall and at Lennon Weinberg Gallery in New York in the spring. Many of the paintings in both shows will have been completed here.

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Stephen Westfall's newest works will be on display at the American Academy in Rome from March 12th thru April 30th, 2010.