Stephanie Rose: Upstage

By Carter Ratcliff

Essay For The Eternal Return: Stephanie Rose | Portraits,
Exhibition Catalogue, Albany Institute of History & Art, 2012, pp.21-24.

Our texts for today’s sermon are tow in number.  One is from the art criticism of Charles Baudelaire, the poet.  The other is from a Jean Harlow movie.  They go as follows:

“I prefer looking at the backdrop paintings of the stage, where I find my favorite dreams treated with consummate skill and tragic concision. Those things, so completely false, are for that reason much closer to the truth, whereas the majority of our landscape painters are liars, precisely because they fail to lie.”
–Charles Baudelaire, “Landscape,” The Salon of 1859

 “So, these legit hams blow into town and before you know it, they’re trying to upstage everybody all over the set.”
Jean Harlow, in Bombshell, 1933 

Everyone has seen Platinum Blonde, of a few years earlier, in which Harlow plays the same role—herself—but this movie is much better.  One of the best movies of the 20th century.  An unknown masterpiece, a chef d’ouevre inconnu, to borrow the title of a story published by Honoré Balzac in 1837 . . .  a troubling story . . .

 At any rate: “these legit hams blow into town and before you know it, they’re trying to upstage everybody all over the set.”

The town is Hollywood.  The “legit hams” are actors in the legitimate theater—on Broadway—or so they would like the denizens of Hollywood to believe.

As for “upstage,” this word begins as a noun and morphs into a verb.  “Upstage” the noun refers the part of the stage nearest the footlights and thus the audience.  As a verb, it refers to bad behavior on the part of an actor—to maneuvers of the kind by which one actor trumps another actor.  Wins the battle for the audience’s attention.   To upstage is to play a mean trick.

I mention this because, in the theater of Rose’s art, everyone is always trying to upstage everyone else—or, rather, every image tries, tirelessly, to upstage every other.  This is the twist, the amazing thing:  they all succeed. 

Again, on stage or in show biz generally, to upstage another is to defeat a rival.  It is to win in a game driven by egos at their most primitive.  It is Darwinism in a theatrical mode.  It is entirely different in Rose’s art.  Here, as the elements of a painting talk to one another, as they enter into the pictorial conversation that generates the image, all the egos involved—starting with the artist’s and going on to include all the egos, personages, personalities implied by her forms—all of them are indefatigably generous.  Upstaging is to everyone’s benefit.

That is because, in Rose’s paintings, every form, every nuance of form, is as perspicuous—as vividly present—as every other.   Thus she insinuates, in pictorial form, a social ideal.  Her very idea of painting, of high art, follows from this social ideal.  And this ideal follows from a metaphor: the space of the painting, pictorial space, as theatrical space, which becomes the metaphor of theatrical space, the habitat provided by the stage, as an image of social space, the environment where we do our best to evolve toward the clarity and vividness and individuality of Rose’s forms.

I invoke Jean Harlow for another reason: she serves as a repoussoir figure pointing to the wide panorama of Rose’s taste, which ranges from modernist theater to the movies.  From Baroque music of the highest seriousness to pop music of the past half-century plus.  From fashion and design to the grand traditions of modernist painting and sculpture.  What Rose likes she knows, so the range of her taste is the range of her knowledge.  The reds and purples and blues that come together in her paintings simply wouldn’t occur to a sensibility that not kept track, as Rose has done, of the wilder shores on which fashion wandered during the 1960s.

In her art, memories of the best work in all mediums are all trying to upstage each other all the time.  High art wins out.  Rose is a painter of the highest seriousness, but I don’t mean to suggest that she uses art to put the other mediums, other traditions—from pop music to the movies—in mediums in their places.  Or in their several, hierarchically arrayed places.  Rather, her art offers a place upstage for everything she loves—everything from the designs of modern utopians to the spectacles created by lighting designers.  Memories, echoes, reflections of it all are to be glimpsed in her pictures.  For what is the blue slat leaning against the wall to the left of Evening but an element of a 20th-century utopia wondering where the party went?  Of course, it is many other things, including an element of pure art.  In art, no one interpretation of any detail is ever exhaustive, ever the one right reading. 

“I prefer looking at the backdrop paintings of the stage where I find my favorite dreams treated with consummate skill and tragic concision. Those things, so completely false, are for that reason much closer to the truth, whereas the majority of our landscape painters are liars, precisely because they fail to lie.”
–Charles Baudelaire, “Landscape,” The Salon of 1859

I quote Baudelaire to invoke the artist’s self-awareness, which shows in her full understanding that her fictions are fictive.  After all, she couldn’t possibly be offering these pictures as images of the way things ordinarily look.  She makes things up, on purpose—consciously.  Her self-awareness is a sign of her social awareness, of that sense of social responsibility which drives her self-awareness.  The artist is aware of herself because she knows what it is to be aware of others, to come to understand us as her audience.  This coming to understand is a dramatic process that Rose enacts in the theatrical spaces of her pictures.  Enacts for us.  And thus she leads us to the social, even utopian meaning of her art.

It all has to do with order, which is, in itself, neither one thing nor another.  Order can be oppressive or beside the point or the means a means to a beneficent end.

I said that Balzac’s Le Chef d’Ouevre Inconnu is a troubling story.  It tells of Frenhofer, a 17th-century painter who works for years, decades, on a single painting, pouring all his energy into this one work.  He refuses to show it to anyone, though of course there would be no story—no shape to this situation—if two of his friends did not manage to talk their way into the studio.  When they do, they discover that the “unknown masterpiece” is a dense tangle of unintelligible lines.
This image always reminds me of the frantic, compulsive scribbling of the child—the unhappy Stevie—in Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent.  An emblem, no doubt, for the anarchy, or the anarchist ideal, that drives this glum and slightly hysterical story to its grim conclusion.

Stevie’s scribbled drawings remind me, in turn, of the dripped and poured images of Jackson Pollock, which looked anarchic to many when they first were seen.  No doubt many still see them as anarchic.  They are not, of course, for Pollock supplies his images with local incidents of order.  Having seen this, one sees that these local incidents could go on forever.  The edges of the canvas are arbitrary.

The contrast is with most painting in Western culture, which looks for a way to conclude the image, to bring it into a taut and intelligible relation with the frame.  This is called composition.  It is called the same thing in music and in narrative fiction—in the plays and screenplays of the movies and the theater, for example. 

As Aristotle said, a properly composed play has a beginning, middle, and an end.   Likewise, a properly composed picture has a foreground, a middle ground, and a background.  Just as, in Rose’s pictures, there is an upstage and a downstage and a lot of space—virtual space—in between.  And the characters, the pictorial presences, in her paintings are to be found in every corner of the theatrical habitats she invents.  This observation leads me back to the puzzle posed by Rose’s art.  Forms downstage do not modestly accept subordinate roles, and this is difficult to understand, for subordination of that sort is precisely what the idea of composition would lead up to expect.  A hierarchy, a subordination of small to large, of secondary to primary.   This is not what we see in Rose’s art.  Nonetheless, the theatrical situation—the action on the imaginary stage of the painting—preserves its coherence.  Rather than total anarchy or even the modified anarchy of allover painting, there is structure in Rose paintings.  Composition.  A balanced and stable order.  There are difficult presences, even gothic passages in these paintings, yet order prevails. 

It is not clear just how this can be so.  Doesn’t order require some to be upstaged as others to the upstaging?  How can every actor in the drama be upstage?

In his Preface to Shakespeare, 1783, Samuel Johnson argues that the characteristics that define a character as rich or poor, as a native of this or that country, are unimportant—the traits, for example, that define Othello as a Moor, for example, or define Prospero as originally Neapolitan.  Such details are incidental, says Johnson, for high drama concerns essences and archetypes or, if you like, ideal types.   Such pronouncements are the foundation of 18th-century neoclassicism.  Hardcore Augustan esthetics: elevated and refined and not to the point, really, except that Johnson makes his point this way, declaring that “a poet overlooks the casual distinction of country and condition, as a painter, satisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.”  

This leapt out at me, when I read it recently, with Rose’s painting on my mind, for, of course, she does not neglect the drapery.   The drapery has a leading role, as does everything else in her theatrical art—a paradox, when I put it that way, but not when you look at what goes on these pictures.  At the way each and every form makes an equally intense claim on your attention.

In Rasselas, 1759, Johnson advises the painter not “to number the streaks on the tulip.”  Paint the general tulip.  Or render in paint the “general nature” of all flowers—an ornament of the “general nature” that Johnson’s friend, Joshua Reynolds, lectured on, year in and year out, at the Royal Academy.  Like neoclassicists everywhere, they were arguing for transcendent generality, against the particularity that became an ideal with the flowering of High Romanticism.  The hero looming over this scenario is William Blake, every muscle straining and every sinew taut in the great struggle for particularity.

The struggle continues, as it must, for we are all prone to fall back on the comforts of the general, the unformed, the ultimately empty.  This may not be fair to Johnson, Reynolds, and other neoclassicists of the 18th century, and yet I don’t see much effort devoted, these days, to the grand and marmoreal generality they favored.  For us it is particularity or just about nothing, the near meaninglessness of style and concept-driven imagery.  And the individuality, the sheer and unabashed individuality, of Rose’s forms makes her an anti-Johnsonian par excellence.  If she were to paint tulips, they would be thoroughly streaked and she would number them—that is to say, render them—fastidiously. 

As it is, she renders the folds of her drapery with exquisite care.  She details the convolutions of here quasi-abstract forms as if they were the features of a face to which her memory has devoted herself.  In her portraiture, facial features have the clarity of hallucinations, as do the details of her chairs—these stand-ins for actors, which or, it might be better to say, so give pictorial form the function of defining a personality, a presence, a part in the pictorial drama. 

Metaphor aside, look at the clarity of the details that constitute these objects—the ornamentation of the chair, for instance, and the subtleties of its form.  Look at the particularity of her fabrics, at the textures of the various upholsteries and of the aforementioned draperies.

Disinclined to paint tulips, streaked or otherwise, she nonetheless she renders with fanatic particularity the feel of velvet, not to mention the feel of silk and of the translucent fabric that hovers around the chair in Evening as ectoplasm might hover around a favored attendee at a séance.

For Samuel Johnson and the other Augustans—figures to whom we owe a hardly ever acknowledged debt, for they gave the idea of imaginative order a clarity that still sustains us—for  Johnson, Reynolds, and the other neoclassicists, the ideal of particularity was in the future.  That is to say, it is an ideal that animates the present.  Our present.  Our extended present, the one that begins with Romanticism, carries on through the avant-garde and high modernism, and is to be found, now, in the art of those who are able to do two things at once: grasp the history that begins with Romanticism and—here is the tricky part—feel that history as fresh and immediate 

For this is what true artists do: they immerse themselves in history, each reinventing a personal and therefore entirely relevant version of the past, and they live this past as if it were present.  And of course it is, because of the imaginative power that brings the past forward, into the artist’s every waking moment, and no doubt into her sleeping moments as well, because much that happens in these paintings of Rose’s seems to have been prompted by dreams.  Past and present are unified, but not on equal terms. 

The present wins out, and that is why these paintings are so vividly alive, now and for us, in the moment of coming face to face with them.