Stephen Westfall at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.

Stephen Westfall, Summer (2001), oil on canvas, 60″ x 60″; courtesy Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.

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Prior to the opening of Stephen Westfall’s current exhibition of paintings, I was informed by an acquaintance–an acquaintance familiar with the artist’s as-yet-unexhibited pictures–that not only had Mr. Westfall reached a “Zen” plateau in his art, but that his recent geometric abstractions were “kick-ass.” Having visited Lennon, Weinberg Inc., where the paintings are on display, I’m inclined to concur with this assessment–only if it’s understood that each term cuts into, rather than complements, the other.

Mr. Westfall is, as an artist, too studied to set off major sparks, yet he sets off enough sparks to stop us in our tracks. There’s no doubting that he has, in recent years, come into his own as a painter. His 1999 show at this same venue was nothing short of a breakthrough–one that saw him complicating and concentrating his signature grids to impressive effect. With their fidgety juxtapositions of line and space, the pictures simultaneously popped the eye and declared themselves with a clean composure. Kick-ass Zen was, at that point, already in effect.

The new paintings are gratifyingly restless. Testing the self-imposed limits of his art, Mr. Westfall is seen poking around in post-breakthrough mode-overlapping monumental grids on skeletal ones, breaking up the pictorial field, pursuing avenues unknown and peculiar. The work generates interest more for what it intimates than for what it fulfills.

We ask our artists for fulfillment, of course, but as good as Summer (2000) is–of the nine canvases on view it’s the only one that’s complete–it’s more a coda than a continuation. The pictures in the entry gallery, Germantown and Bye Bye Blackbird (both 2000), are the ones that really excite. These at-odds-with-themselves experiments hint at a wily and off-kilter abstraction we have yet to imagine. Whether the artist can imagine it is the real question.

Notwithstanding Mr. Westfall’s gaffes with color–someone tell him to go easy on the green–and a touch so unprepossessing it skirts the drab, he remains a painter up to the task.

© 2001 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 11, 2001 edition of The New York Observer.


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