Just as novelists are always searching for signs of character, and poets are fascinated by verbs, so landscape painters pay close attention to the angle of the sun, the way its highlights and shadows give shape to the world, and just how the horizon cuts through and separates below from above. Stephen Foss, an enamel painter from San Francisco, calls his current exhibition, a dozen medium-sized paintings at the Julie Nester Gallery in Park City, Beyond the Horizon. The title is as much autobiography of the artist as it is description of the work.
Few good painters, and certainly not Foss, want viewers to pay primary attention to the mechanics of their work. One should first grasp, and be engaged by, the unity and totality, and maybe then, on closer approach, possibly see how it was done. A review that dwells too closely on the how rather than the what may awaken suspicion that the what is lacking. It’s a conclusion a hasty viewer might draw here regardless, given the literally mundane subjects that obsess Foss. While these panels have in common that they lie closer to abstraction than to representation, even before reading the titles the presence of images is apparent, as is the emphasis on subtle differentiation rather than bold drama. Tilled earth, parallel waves on unbroken water surfaces, blue skies with traces of cloud—these and other inevitably familiar tropes bring to mind neither specific narratives nor scenes of tension. The panels are either square or conventionally rectangular, and often either cut nearly in half between sky and land, or filled completely by a pattern that excludes the sky. Beyond the horizon, indeed. Why do we take that to mean the sky, when it can just as well mean more of the earth? Yet they draw us in to examine them more closely, and few leave the gallery without forming an emotional attachment.
Foss’s enamels are an esoteric and unbelievably intractable medium. To see why this matters, it helps to have two paradigms in place. One is their architectural and sign-making use in producing strong, durable colors. Foss knows that his colors cannot fade, but that’s only of interest to salesmen and insurance agents. Up close what we see is that the colors, whether bright or deep, are everywhere pure and sharply delineated. There are no blends or mixtures in evidence. Two colors may swirl around each other like the proverbial ink in water, but where those eventually turn gray, these colors remain pristine. Every bit of color, in yards of surface area, is precisely placed there by the artist. Second, think of bas relief: of a surface not only colored but shaped, so that the visual information of discreet colors is enriched by the fall of light. Almost nowhere does Foss present a smooth surface. Instead, he builds up the shapes in his images as three-dimensional forms. Within the grid he produces, colors behave paradoxically. It becomes impossible to tell if a color was laid on before or after another. A good example is “The Scent of Melting Snow 2,” in which the white background actually lies on top of the painstakingly built up texture beginning in the trees. The tricks paint thus plays with the eye are analogous to the tricks light plays in space. And that brings us back to the what, the point of Foss spending so much time meticulously building up these surfaces: to what can be seen when we stand before them.
A good place to start is with “Hawaii,” small squares the Nesters thoughtfully put by the entrance. At first these bright confections seem unconnected to what hangs beyond. But look closely at their colorful surfaces, now smooth, now puckered: in other works forms like these underlie some radically different patterns, visually intriguing but also like the deep subliminal layering of the mental images we compare them to. Two panels, “Glacier Moraine” and “Expedition,” elicited much comment at the opening. This may be due to a kind of aesthetic economics, in which comparatively large, bold brush strokes seem to achieve more with less. It’s also likely that they profit from the way these looser gestures encourage a viewer’s muscles to a pleasing somatic response. Finally, their black-and-white textures play very successfully with the illusion of verisimilitude. For me, though, the most compelling works were the trio that includes “Scent of Melting Snow,” “Snow Trees,” and “Enticement.” If Jackson Pollock exceeds mere historical interest, his success lies in the way his tangles of free-form lines suggest webs and nets that echo cognitive and sensory patterns known, but perhaps unseen as yet by the artist’s audience. Foss achieves even more here, where dense linear arrangements capture both general and specific facts of experience. In the forest, whether or not it’s made of trees, one struggles to see through to what lies beyond, a concept that applies equally to what lies within. And that may be the point of “Beyond the Horizon”: the horizon is part of us, a moving presentiment that we carry with us and apply as needed.
One sort of art freezes a moment in time, capturing what is ephemeral and preserving it. A landscape painting may capture a place, a moment of weather, or a mood, and render it accessible to us when the source is no longer available. It may also, like “Glacier Moraine,” reveal something that was not available to us. Another kind of art effectively cuts through something that seems monolithic and unchanging, perhaps to find out how it works. Degas’ early paintings of the explosively rigid family structures he witnessed constitute geologic diagrams of their tectonic stresses and strains that are far more compelling than the clothing and furniture they incidentally contain.
Of course, really significant paintings do both at once. A Rembrandt self-portrait shows us the painter at a particular moment in his event-filled life, but it also allows him to share with us how it felt to be him. Two of Stephen Foss’s series—land plowed for planting in “An Agrarian Point of View” and studies of water like “Returning Tides” and “The Water’s Edge” —draw comparisons and contrasts between their subjects that favor neither, but are informed by both the countless hours spent contemplating them and the equity of successful and failed paintings exploring their natures and appearances. The painter’s complete control of his medium allows him to show how the reds and greens in the field come from dissolved minerals, from new growth, from the history of the soil, while those in the waves arise in reflections off the water, from context in place rather than time.
From time to time any critic will secretly wish to compel readers to drop what they are doing and hurry to the gallery. This is one of those times. There are moments in history when everything changes: all Renaissance painters can be said to be before Caravaggio; after him came his children, the Baroque. This is not one of those moments. It is unlikely that very many painters will suddenly start to paint like Stephen Foss. That is unfortunate, because he brings an ethical force back into art that scarcely exists outside painting like his. Only an idiot would identify art as nothing more than hard work, but these days too many idiots are trying to get rich while doing no work at all. Like the elaborate anatomical studies that Renaissance artists made before drawing a portrait, Stephen Foss exploits long contemplation and the discipline of enamel paint to capture exactly what makes subjective experience in and of itself worthwhile, without regard to how pretty or passively exciting the thing is we see.
Stephen Foss: Beyond Horizons is at Park City’s Julie Nester Gallery through February 23rd.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.