The Portraits of Stephanie Rose

By James K. Kettlewell

Essay For The Eternal Return: Stephanie Rose | Portraits,
Exhibition Catalogue, Albany Institute of History & Art, 2012, pp.7-9.

The extraordinary art of Stephanie Rose occupies a critical place in Modern/Postmodern art history. Utterly original, her style effects a perfect synthesis between these two opposing philosophies of art. In Hegel’s terms, Rose’s style could be described as founded on the Modern past as thesis. It absorbs the Postmodern present as antithesis, and, as synthesis, fuses the Modern and the Postmodern into a single manner, anticipating the future evolution of easel painting. While Postmodern art is more about content than form, it does have a style of sorts. Postmodernism occurs in Rose’s art in the apparent disjunction of the forms: for example, in the disconnect of the two symbols present in almost all of her work, an organically conceived curtain which acts in opposition to the sharp-edged geometry of a floating rectangle. The effect is a kind of visual deconstruction, both in the surface design, and in its opposition to the elaborately coordinated patterns which characterized Modern abstract painting from Analytical Cubism to Jackson Pollock. Modern abstract art was all about exalted design. (That is, design exalted by emotional expression.) By contrast, the pictorial surfaces of Rose’s paintings are broken apart by highly disparate elements. A powerful tension is generated by the contrast of diverse forms. But then, surreptitiously, on another level, she pulls her compositions together into a design, a formalist system as coordinated as that of any Modern work of art. She effects this principally by establishing a harmony in the visual intensity of her images; and by carefully placing them in the picture environment in terms of the rectangle of the picture surface. The vivid contrasts in her work achieve the power of great art. The perfect design mediates between the observer and the painting’s forms, introducing that pleasure principle present in most of the art which finds its way onto museum walls.

Stephanie Rose conceives of her paintings as staged dramas. Her curtain symbol is a constant reminder that the boundaries of her paintings function as prosceniums. As in the sculptures of David Smith, with whom she had both personal and artistic ties, her forms have what could be called anthropomorphic values. Rose is highly sensitive to the personalities and emotional qualities inherent in shapes. (In her latest paintings, the main protagonist is a Victorian chair.) Her diverse shapes play off of each other with all the energy of skilled actors. One always has the sense that there is a strong meaning present in her work, a story line of sorts, which can be accessed by careful observation over a period of time. Content is intimately bound to form. These paintings, like the plays of Shakespeare, can never be exhausted — they are constantly renewed as different aspects reveal themselves to the experienced observer.

Perhaps the most “Old Master” aspect of Stephanie Rose’s work is the quite delectable surface treatment. Her rich brush work can be related to the paintings of Titian or of Rembrandt, or to the brushed metal of David Smith’s late sculptures in stainless steel. In her paintings Stephanie Rose achieves Cezanne’s proclaimed ambition; she has created a great art that is “like the art of the museums.” In any museum it could hold its own against any art of the past.