Stephanie Hightower at Cheryl McGinnis Gallery


Stephanie Hightower, Balcony (2009), oil and gesso on paper, 30″ x 22″; courtesy Cheryl McGinnis Gallery
* * *
The artist who waits for inspiration risks permanent inactivity.   Work is the thing:  When it comes to creativity, nothing comes to he who waits.  But inspiration also requires an artist receptive to its caprices.  Forget lightning striking:  What if lightning isn’t recognized in the first place?  Inspiration can be contrary and surprising.

Stephanie Hightower’s paintings trace their origins to modernist abstraction, a tradition typified by earnest principles and noble aspirations.  Certainly, that was the case with Joan Miro, Arshile Gorky and Philip Guston–painters whom Hightower points to as pivotal figures in the formation of her own vision.  So what does it mean when a serious student of history and painter of no mean ambition gets her aesthetic batteries charged by the artless illustrations found in something titled The Sailor’s Handbook?  It means Hightower takes inspiration where she finds it.  She knows lightning when it hits her.

An attraction to “how to” pictures may seem counterintuitive for a painter whose art is a covert form of biography.  Diagrams are designed for ready understanding and practical purpose; they’re generic.  So are the engineering drawings Hightower happened upon while shuttling through the stacks at the Strand.  Not much that is personal there.  But the logic of a particular resource is less important than the sparks it sets off or the associations it can engender.  “The more mundane the motif”, Hightower tells, “the greater the potential return.”  Motifs have included her Lower East Side neighborhood, a visit to the Guinness beer factory and topographical maps found in The Atlas of Holy Places.

Hightower’s fascination with schematic pictures points to the vital role drawing plays in her art.  Whether engaging in automatist exercises or delineating the contours of a particular object, she relishes the medium’s concision:  How a single line can simultaneously build form, intimate space and shimmy independent of descriptive function.  In the recent pieces, scrabbled ideograms hover over, punctuate and dance on textured expanses of somber, glowing color.  Some of Hightower’s icons are recognizable–a wheel is a recurring motif; so, too, are arrows–but most are fleetingly stated.  Images, the work suggests, gain authority not so much by what they show us, but by what they are.

Hightower begins an image by applying scrubby washes of oil color–icy blue, say, or dusky purple and burnished, smoky yellow–over a ground of textured gesso.  An inviting sense of space having been established, she sets about inhabiting it with ideograms.   While there is a rebus-like quality to the paintings, a sense of their containing a displaced language, Hightower’s calligraphic forms attain substantive pictorial and, however obscured, symbolic heft through a pithy approach.  Her hand, whether it’s wielding a brush or a palette knife, makes no excuses for its brusque or unfettered demeanor.  The paintings bluntly announce their own making.  We see them being built from the ground up.  It’s exciting to watch.

As an artist, Hightower believes that the hardest questions–the slipperiest questions, really–are the only ones worth asking.  You see it in surfaces rich with decisions made, questioned, re-stated and abandoned altogether; or in beguiling jumbles of emblematic forms that cohere almost in spite of themselves.  Whether the final image is simply stated–as in the weirdly anthropomorphic industrial fragment that is Esplanade–or is spatially complex and chromatically charged like Workhorse, Hightower’s drive and focus are palpable.  Navigating the arbitrary and the specific, abstraction and representation, intuition and conscious thought, she knows that art is nothing if it doesn’t embrace extremes.  Hightower’s gift is that she embodies paradox with humble, good humored and searching aplomb.

(c) 2009 Mario Naves

Originally published in the catalogue accompany the exhibition More Questions at Cheryl McGinnis Gallery.

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