BY Dan Adler in Reviews | 01 APR 10
Featured in
Issue 130

Stephen Andrews

Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto, Canada

BY Dan Adler in Reviews | 01 APR 10

Stephen Andrews, The View From Here (Detail), 2009. Oil on canvas trptych, 1.8 x 7.3m.

Stephen Andrews’ wall-sized triptych The View from Here (2009), shown at Paul Petro Contemporary Art, presents an expressive exploration of the means by which individual identities become abstracted for the consumption of the crowd. The three paintings represent sections of spectators seated in stadium stands, perhaps during the halftime entertainment. Some faces in the crowd are depicted with clarity, suggesting a level of characterization that could qualify as portraiture: a couple turn to one another with affection; a group of three watches intently, with genuine appreciation and amusement; another, with arms folded, exhibits a slightly perturbed impatience. Such portrayals, however, compete with those personages who are partially or completely erased by Andrews’ laborious method of applying many coats of oil paint; he gradually replaces and substitutes their presence with mute marks of pigment.

As with much of Andrews’ impressive oeuvre, the primary subject of The View from Here is the process by which people become hazy remnants of their actual selves, who might be remembered only in fragments or understood (if at all) in photographic forms. This process is seductive; it’s like looking across a luscious picture surface, taking in all of its chromatic and tactile complexity. But such pleasures are infected by a slow-burning sense of loss, with benign pastel hues merging with toxic yellows and polluted blacks, some areas appearing to either glow or wither under the effects of a poisonous heat, like slides left to burn in an unattended projector. This sort of tension is reminiscent of Edouard Manet’s paintings of people in café-concerts, which offer a similar range of sociological and psychological observations, while deliciously drawing attention to the medium as a means of reflecting on the human costs of modern spectatorship, whereby alienation – from others and ourselves – may be the end result of bringing people together, for amusement.

In several other works, Andrews allows the medium to bear more of the message about such results, by eliminating explicit representation. 03.01.2009 (2009) initially appears to be a constellation seen at twilight. But closer examination of the individual stars reveals an extraordinarily complicated and layered surface, with multicoloured bits and blotches; like the people in the triptych, each of these motifs has undergone a punishing pressure of some kind – an onslaught that has left it to survive, somehow, as a tiny, twisted artefact, a glowing entity punctuating a darkened, eroded and crowded surface which, while undeniably paint, exhibits a liminal glare that has photographic and pixilated qualities. A group of smaller works are studies of individuals, drawn from the crowd, as it were: You and I and G. (both 2008) feature a single male, the image of whom has undergone this obscuring treatment, consisting of a generalized build-up of pigment layers, and a more focused, bodily onslaught of light, rendered in a fashion seemingly derived from low-quality digital video. In the former work, the subject’s smiling visage is nearly obliterated, while in the latter he confronts an explosive, likely fatal, event. In each case, the men face their fates with utter composure. Yet it isn’t clear where these fates come from, although cosmic forces and media technologies undoubtedly play prominent roles. Andrews’ work is a profound meditation on the consequences and costs of rendering singular souls in broad strokes, in any medium.

Dan Adler is an associate professor of art history at York University, Toronto.