AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day
There may be a lot of Christmas red permeating the current exhibit at Old Lyme's diane birdsall gallery, but the show of new works by Brian Keith Stephens is anything but traditional holiday fare.
And yet, the sense of nostalgia so prevalent at this time of year is palpable in the mixed media works in the exhibition, dubbed "Missing Title," that combine collage, old photographs, collected ephemera, vintage fabrics-and dresses.
"The paintings have the presence of a moment in time," Stephens says. "I've always been intrigued that whatever we're doing or creating, as soon as we leave, it already becomes the past. Art (to me) has always been the excitement of past, present, future."
Although the work stems from personal memory, the artist wants viewers to take away their own references to experience, dream and memory.
Stephens says an inspiration for the show-and important element of it-came from a list of curious, whimsical questions he wrote that are painted along the top of the gallery walls, such as: "What colors are in your dreams?", "Do you want to be a boy or a girl?" and "Are you happy with a smile?"
A focal point of many of the pieces are dresses and skirts (given to Stephens by women friends) that although flattened on the canvas, appear to swing out and off the surface, the fabrics silky or billowy. There are no faces, and yet the presence of the wearer is felt in the energy and movement of the garment and in other elements culled from a personal collection of objects and subject matter.
A graduate of Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts with a master's degree from the City College of New York, Stephens has been exhibiting and selling his work for more than a decade in Germany, Holland, Denmark, Connecticut and New York, where he's represented. He grew up in North Stonington and now lives in Lyme.
"Brian has an intuitive design sense, and at a distance you perceive the balance of composition, carefully creating an abstract design with the shape, color, pattern and texture," notes gallery owner Diane Birdsall. "The work is lyrical, poetic and abstract."
A number of the mixed media works include vintage photographs.
"I started out as a photographer, seduced by black and white photography," Stephens says. "You can almost find perfection in some of these amateur family photos-there are some very powerful photographs (among them)."
Surrounding an old-fashioned nightdress in one of the pieces are yellowed crinkly envelopes, revealing just a hint of what's inside.
"There was an energy to letter writing that's dying with the Internet," Stephens says. "It's almost a piece of artwork in itself, writing a letter, the correspondence back and forth."
In addition to the mixed media works, there are several oil paintings in the show.
"The paintings retain Brian's familiar brush stroke-active and rich in color," Birdsall points out. "He puts paint on the canvas with obvious confidence. His training from the Lyme Academy as a painter is evident."
Stephens creates a rich surface by building up underneath with textures and layers of color. The figures are larger than life, filling the canvas.
In "Just smile sweetly," the female figure is cropped in close, casually lying on a bed, skirt pulled up on her thigh.
"Here Brian has focused in so closely that the identity, the face of the model, is not even part of the picture," Birdsall says. It's a universal feeling of desire and pleasure. No one is hiding; there is joy. I don't sense guilt or voyeurism."
Stephens's two young sons often stand in as models for his paintings. "Modern Soldier" depicts his younger son with an oversized bird on his head-seemingly looking out into the future. There's a sense of fantasy and the mystery of the unknown.
"It is all that's good and pure and active in a young, growing child," Birdsall comments. "Imagination, joy, innocence-an open, active mind and spirit."
Getting back to the color red-why so much red in these new works?
"Red is a powerful color. It's inspiring," Stephens responds.
"Red is certainly a passionate color," Birdsall agrees. "Brian is passionate about life, he loves life. He continues to use his life as an eyepiece to see and capture the world."