In September of 2010, Mariam Stephan received a Fulbright to travel to Egypt and study the Fayum mummy portraits. In a talk on her residency and its influence on her work, Stephan said, “When I look at these (mummy) portraits, I see them as mixed media artifacts that combine the varying dialects of representation, abstraction, symbolism and decoration—they are bodies as homes for the present and vessels into the future. They are bridges, boats and islands: they are places in between. They are points in space and time—literally and metaphorically.”
Boats might move us from one place to another but even when they are tightly tethered and moored they are still afloat and in motion. “Boat/Scapes,” Stephan’s new series of paintings, is always aware of, if not challenging, our ideas of stasis—both in time and in space.
Though Stephan’s work had long since explored what she describes as “what is being revealed or concealed,” and has, over time, engaged with the issue of “multiple forms coexisting in the same space, and multiple points in time being revealed at once,” these new paintings, completed since her work in Egypt, are even more concerned with the notion of boundary and limit in both landscape and body. We think, when we hear the word boat, of both submersion and dominance, of the battle against, and a concession to, current. We think of navigation, travel and journey. In these paintings the journeys are never tethered to one idea, one sphere, one plane. They are vessels through time and space, the seen and the unseen, corporeal and spiritual.
The shape of “Boat-Poem” is obviously influenced by Stephan’s study of the Fayum mummy portraits. Like those portraits, which were entombed, never meant to be seen, “Boat-Poem” emphasizes the unseen, and unforeseen: secret spaces, pockets, undergirding, wiring, what exists beyond the walls that seemingly contain us.
A hint of landscape at the top of the painting moves, horizontally and vertically, into excavation. The images and patterns—which I prefer to think of as moments, given the painting’s obvious preoccupation with before, beneath, and beyond—seem at times linear. A rectangle repeated slightly toward the top left of the painting suggests the beginning of pattern, only to be disrupted by raised, stuffed lines that resemble limbs, branches, perhaps an improvised shelter held together by an integrity at once vulnerable and formidable.
The raised moments in the painting appear quilted, but instead of stitches there are staples. This only adds to the viewer’s emotional dislocation, our anxious expectation that some pattern is about to occur and recur, only to encounter this surprising rise from the canvas like a florid ridge from flat desert. (Stephan’s predominant use of desaturated colors in these paintings often suggest, simultaneously, a landscape parched and a sky overcast, the effect of which is a deepening of our desire for something just out of reach.) Here is another moment—one of many in this group of paintings—where we encounter a ambiguous hilarity. Is it the over-upholstered arm of club chair? It is finally a swelling that alerts us to what is beneath, something burgeoning and alive.
In the far left lower corner of the canvas we find a grid in recession, a recurrent idea in this work: the suggestion of containment, the expectation of some order, only to reject the viewer’s desire, thus increasing it.
We’ve encountered the painting as boat, but it is also body. Rather than merely represent the body, it reveals what’s beyond the flesh: not only soul and spirit but viscera, capillary, artery and vein. Exposure is beauty: in these paintings we pay dearly (through the thwarting of our desire for something different, some clear resolution or even destination) to view the wiring, the plumbing, the life beneath the manhole, beyond the walls of the subway tunnels.
At first, “Porthole Garden” seems an oddity among these unconventionally shaped paintings. So many of the other paintings defy any formal shape that might encourage containment. What then do we make of this oval with the border? It is named after a window from which a traveler at sea might view an expanse predominantly monochromatic but always in motion. As we peer through the porthole we consider that traveling by boat is surely the most inefficient mode of travel available to us now, for anyone who chooses to cross an ocean by boat is choosing to slow time, to experience it as it was when travel by boat was the quickest (and only) means to move from island to island, island to continent, shore to shore.
Of course this is only one of many ways to read the painting, and the title, with its evocation of both water and flourishing nature, only encourages us to further focus on the painting’s perspectives. Often I swim in a pool with underwater windows. The windows open into what appears to be a huge boiler room; the view is of pipes, ducts, valves, spigots, rust, concrete floors and walls. Since the pool is nearly a century old, the purpose of these windows is hard for the modern lap swimmer to comprehend. Were they put there to observe, the swimmers’ form? It can be a distracting place to swim, for it’s hard to ignore those windows, with their view of pumps, of what makes the pool operative, of what allows you to move through water as if it were air, and not wonder if you are being watched, evaluated, found somehow wanting. And yet, after so many years of swimming in that pool, I have grown to love those windows. The question has shifted from, “Why would I want to see through, or be seen through, those windows?” to “Who and where might I be if I were denied that vista, or if what lies beyond the glass were denied the same?”
“I want to hold onto painting’s history as window and wall,” Stephan has said. Is “Porthole Garden” a vista framed by the artist to allow access to the complex and unsettling surprises of color and texture, of disruption and interruption, of the creation and suspension of desire? Or is it the viewer who is being studied? Is the frame there to question the notion of landscape as static, or to allow the landscape movement and evolution by framing the viewer’s assumptions about borders, about containment, about edges?
The border itself at first suggests reinforcement is necessary, as if the garden is struggling to break beyond its walls, but in fact the border is but another landscape, another recession, another extension of time and space. Stephan, in what seems to be her most conventionally shaped painting, here boldly exposes what is beneath and underneath, and the thrill of seeing a thing not meant to be seen.
We might want to dissociate our viewing of “Bittersweet Jubilee” from its title at first, though it is further evidence of the artist’s sense of painting as deeply serious play. The title might strike us as somewhat frivolous, since the word “bittersweet,” has long been rendered threadbare by critics who want to suggest that, however much darkness and trauma we experience, light pierces through in the end. “Bittersweet” is akin to the equally bankrupt term “life affirming,” as if any honest—if even badly executed—attempt at art is not in and of itself an affirmation of life.
But here there is actual and honest affirmation. The painting is split into two panels, and hung so that an inch or so separates the panels at the far left. The slight space between narrows so that, at the far right, the top panel rests upon the bottom. Viewed from across the room, the separation recedes: the fissure is there only to emphasize the wholeness of the image, its cumulative power, its unity. The corresponding colors—predominantly purples and saturated greens—are broken by the banded pockets, which here are more gathered, wrinkly, suggesting skin, reminding us that the body is landscape, that earth is epidermis.
The raised border at the top of the lower panel is alarmingly limb-like, its swaddling stretching out into tightness as if to mimic the process of aging. But is at the bottom right side of the lower panel that the painting seems most disturbingly alive. A trio of puffy ribs is flanked on one side by a quiet recession into patterned mounds, and on the other by a lateral infinity.
And at the bottom hangs a pouch of sequined balls, draped in a swath of crepe. If there is any truth left in the term “bittersweet,” it would be this pouch—its crudely aligned balls suggesting eggs in the womb– that would revive it from cliché. But the balls are sequined, and misshapen and discolored, like something disposable collected from the curb after a carnival. What is bitter here and what is sweet? The painting is broken and yet its wholeness is more noticeable than those paintings of a single field. Stephan, as always, challenges the border, the edge, that point where the mind desires such vessels as bodies and landscapes to be considered separate and discrete.