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Peaks Of Valleys

Artist makes lush landscapes his own

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The day I visited Center of the Earth Gallery in NoDa, a commercial film crew and countless others were moving in and out of the gallery space as they prepared to shoot a commercial. Interestingly enough, amid this three-ring circus of sorts, I wasn't distracted in the least as I looked at Christopher Stephens' Paintings of the Shenandoah Valley. Instead, these effective, lush landscape paintings, with their hot colors and heavy textures, had my complete attention.

The Shenandoah Valley, in northern Virginia, consists of seven counties drained by the Shenandoah River. This area, characterized by rolling hills that rise above the valley, saw heavy fighting during the Civil War with General "Stonewall" Jackson's Valley Campaign of 1862 and the cavalry maneuvers of Generals Philip Sheridan and Jubal Early in 1864. The troops used Valley Pike, now US Route 11.

Stephens lives in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley in the town of Front Royal, the county seat of Warren County. His paintings of the lush, verdant Shenandoah Valley landscape that surrounds him focus on the beauty of this locale that has served as a backdrop for so much American history and folklore.

Landscape paintings can range from the most mundane to the sublime, but generally speaking they're pretty formulaic -- foreground, middle-ground, background. It's precisely this prescribed formula that makes landscape such an enticing genre; it's also what makes it challenging. The challenge is to transcend the rules and to create an image that is more than just sky and land, more than mere illustration. The challenge is to make art.

Luckily for us, Christopher Stephens meets this challenge head-on with 13 paintings on view through October 26 at the gallery. The work that's on display reveals his ability to paint and create landscape paintings that are more than just a mere display of "I was here, this is what I saw." Stephens' ability to handle paint coupled with his understanding of color and light helps to communicate his understanding of the land he chooses to represent, and his affinity with and respect for his environs are made visible through this body of work.

This understanding of the Shenandoah Valley comes from careful observation, from looking and drawing then looking some more. We can see this in the show, as we move from painting to painting often noting that we're looking at the same picture -- only the lighting is different, or the season has changed.

"Blue Trees" and "June Evening," two small, narrow, horizontal oil paintings on wood, demonstrate Stephens' working method of returning to a site at different periods in time, in this case, seasonal time. "Blue Trees" presents the crisp stillness of a wintry landscape with bare trees and cool colors, muted hues of blue, gray and purple. "June Evening" uses highly saturated hot colors of green, orange and ochre to portray the heightened quality of the light of early dusk and the lushness of the summer landscape.

"Clouds" and "Tall Grass," two square oil paintings on wood, portray essentially the same site. However, this pairing pays attention to vantage point and the particulars of the landscape rather than time of year. "Clouds" pushes our attention to the background of the painting -- the sky. "Tall Grass" does the opposite, pulling our eye to the foreground, the grass. In both of these paintings, the artist uses both proportion and the compositional devices of color, line and texture to heighten our viewing experience.

Stephens' paint application shifts from impasto to scumbling -- highly to minimally textured surfaces -- depending on the surface that he paints upon. For the most part, the paintings on wood are visually tactile while those on canvas are less substantial. The vigor of the highly textured paint suggests the raw power of a tangible nature. Though somewhat ethereal and elusive, the paintings on canvas, with their smooth, stained surfaces, are not as successful as those painted on wood.

Upon the hard surface of the wood, Stephens' brushwork is more immediate. You can see the brushstrokes, the marks of the palette knife, and can virtually feel the layers, the texture of the paint. In these works, the physical act of painting is made visible. The firm, unyielding surface of the wood becomes part of the viewing experience. Here, the image is as much about the artist's relationship to the materials as his relationship to subject matter and content.

Each painting is framed with wood that's deliberately painted to enhance the picture. The optical effect renders the frame inseparable from the image. The two become one work of art. These paintings wouldn't be as effective without this framing device. The color play that occurs between the frame and the image causes the image to recede and expand at once.

These Shenandoah Valley landscapes showcase the talents and the inventiveness of Stephens. They also suggest that not only has Stephens spent time studying his own environs, but that he has also spent time looking at historic American landscape painting. In the clouds, I see riffs of Albert Pinkham Ryder; the light on occasion makes me think of Edward Hopper and the palette of Thomas Hart Benton. Stephens paints a thoroughly American landscape with vigor and honesty and a sense of history, and as I look at these pictures, I hear Copeland's "Appalachian Spring."

All too often, landscapes are prosaic or mere copies of the inventiveness of those that have come before. As subject matter, they can easily become trite. Stephens' careful treatment and skilled rendering, plus the fact that he knows this locale well, allow him to avoid this trap and create substantial landscape paintings that are completely his own.

The exhibit Christopher Stephens: Paintings of the Shenandoah Valley will run through October 26 at Center of the Earth Gallery, 3204 N. Davidson St. Call 375-5756 for more info.

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