Movements in art can often seem like excuses for inertia. Once an idea gets shared by enough minds — thus entering a kind of public domain — it often turns into a foregone conclusion, an effect to be reproduced, an aesthetic dead end. And the challenge to art’s long-distance runners has always been one of renewal, of peeling off stylistic labels — surrealism, abstraction, pop, etc. — in order to arrive at that “something else” that’s the real but always evasive destination of art.
The current show at Lemberg Gallery in Ferndale, “Stephen Magsig: New Paintings and Works on Paper,” is a bracing reminder of these very issues. In it, a painter with decades of perfecting his craft behind him expands his conceptual vocabulary — at the same time that his technical virtuosity lets him explore subtler aspects of a style that might seem all too familiar to us.
It would be easy to lump Magsig’s way of seeing into the ubiquitous, undifferentiated category of photo-realism. Snapshots of buildings, parked cars, streets and skylines are a first step in his compositional process and his final results retain something of the photographic uncanny: This red door was once this way. We’re sure of it, in the same way we “believe” a picture of Aunt Mary is true to life, or at least to a life that once was. But if that’s all we see in Magsig’s canvases, then we’re missing the bulk of their specific revelation.
The Lemberg show presents a poetic range of Magsig’s new work, paintings of a striking illumination that turn the “real” world into an imaginary one. There are no people in this human universe, just the signs of their having been there. This physical evidence in most cases outlasts its creators and original inhabitants, lending the works an aura of ironic existentialism, a lonely radiance in which sunshine brightens each scene of eternal passing away, not with optimism but with clarity — which, of course, are two very different notions.
35 White St. (a recent oil on linen, pictured) displays Magsig’s approach in all of its subtle formalism and complexity. On the surface, it’s a simple enough work, representing the facade of one of the older buildings below Canal Street in Manhattan. But for anyone who stops to look, it’s a natural landscape crawling with detail. Shadows promise that something important will emerge from their depths. The brilliant light creates modernist sculptural forms, rhythms and contrasts: A rising series of cornice slabs takes us all the way to minimalism a la Donald Judd while a centrally placed circular shape (an exhaust fan?) becomes a strange hybrid of Third Reich bunker architecture and one of Lee Bontecou’s mysterious holes.
Whether Magsig “intended” any of this is irrelevant. Rather, he has put a great deal of evocative information where anyone can get at it. And this in picture after picture, as variously as possible, with a totally sensual palette and an unassuming generosity that leaves all the room in the world for the viewer.
As if this weren’t enough, the show also includes a series of gutsy departures for this artist, in which he investigates the absence of light, or its interaction with darkness, and the lack of solidity or clarity that such a relationship entails. Beginning with a suite of small oil-on-paper compositions, Magsig goes quietly into the night, looking up at glowing third-story windows, capturing the blurry emanations of headlights and streetlights, store window displays, cars approaching and passing. Some of these, entitled City Lights and numbered consecutively, led him to City Lights #15, a larger painting that opens up a whole new, endless “something else,” one in which “reality” is seen in terms of our always arbitrary position within it. It’s shockingly good.
“Stephen Magsig: New Paintings and Works on Paper” is at Lemberg Gallery, 23241 Woodward Ave., Ferndale, through June 1. Call 248-591-6623.George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org