12 x 9 x 4 in
by Wim Roefs
Stephen Chesley likes to show the drama in the ordinary. When he paints fires in a nocturnal landscape, the impetus is not the need for instant drama but his interest in light, a main source of ordinary drama. The Columbia, S.C., artist focuses on the Southern scene, including the South Carolina landscape. “We have simple, linear beauty,” he says. “It’s a challenge to show people in that the same amount of power as in, for example, Niagara Falls.”
Chesley wants to restore people’s long view. He wants to break the daily hurry with views that are decidedly unhurried. He wants to replace life on the run’s blurred vision of trees with an awareness of real trees.
While Chesley’s scenes are realistic and representative, they often have an abstracted quality. He combines colors of similar values and shuns clearly drawn lines, forcing the viewer to study the soft-edged planes to detect what exactly they represent. Chesley may not paint the trees but the space between the trees, which still results in trees emerging from the canvas.
“I want to incorporate abstraction as a technique, yet have the work read figuratively. My art melds American art like that of the Ashcan School with modernist painting.”
Where abstraction helps Chesley achieve representation in his paintings, in his sculptures, representation helps in shaping abstraction. The compositions often read as abstracts first, and as recognizable forms– wildlife, vegetation, mechanical elements – second. The sculptures’ austere and at times somewhat aggressive qualities remind us that Chesley’s painted landscapes aren’t always idyllic, either, that in them there can be a sense of foreboding.
Mostly, Chesley taught himself how to paint. He picked up clues from Rembrandt; 19th century Americans George Innes, Winslow Homer, James Whistler, and Albert Pinkham Ryder; the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionist George Seurat; Ashcan painters such as Robert Henri and John Sloan; Edward Hopper; and Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and sculptor David Smith.