An enthusiastic crowd attended Bradley Stevens’s talk “In Search of Perfect Proportions: the Golden Section and Geometry in Art” at the Warm Springs Gallery on Sunday afternoon. Stevens’s show there features his series of paintings focusing on museum galleries. In these works, rooms open up to other rooms giving the sense of receding space and affording glimpses of works of art in the distance. Stevens straddles two worlds with these works: the static one of the artwork he reproduces and the more active one of the contemporary museum visitors who populate his exhibition spaces. His rendering of them reveals a finely tuned eye for those details that breathe life into a figure.
Stevens works in oil because of its slow drying time, which allows him to manipulate it, softening it and blending it. He uses color, in concert with the arrangement of shapes, to balance the composition. His scenes are not exact; he will reposition paintings or change the color of the walls because, in the end, it’s about the integrity of the finished work, not the reality of the subject.
With their photographic realism, the paintings showcase Stevens’s technical skill and his adulation for art history. His biography states that he “spent five years copying over three hundred Old Master paintings at the National Gallery of Art.” He’s very good at reproducing famous artworks and this museum series affords him ample opportunity to do so. Like a Rap artist sampling music, Stevens plays with perspective and size presenting an entirely new version of the initial artwork. This not only produces a renewed appreciation for the piece, but it also allows the buyer of the Stevens work to, in a way, possess the masterpiece depicted. It’s an acceptable copy of the original because it’s been transformed by another artist and is now an entirely new artwork.
As might be expected from the title of his talk, Stevens is very keen on the golden section and geometry, they’re the guiding principle for organizing his compositions. “Literally it’s how you divide a distance or a space into the most asymmetrical balance or the most dynamic symmetry, the most perfect proportion.”
Working at an easel and using string as a compass, Stevens demonstrated how to determine a golden section through basic geometry. The golden section is used to describe perfect proportioning within an artwork (the ratio of small elements to larger elements is the same as the ratio of larger elements to the whole, basically). This corresponds to the Fibonacci Sequence and the mathematical pattern that is endlessly occurring in nature from bacteria to spiral galaxies. It’s so ubiquitous and fundamental it stands to reason that we are hardwired to intuitively respond to the pattern.
But I wonder… while I’m certainly impressed with Stevens’s skill, if not his lackluster and somewhat dumbed-down presentation, I find his paintings’ perfection cloying. Beyond a clever idea, which I’m sure has many admirers, there’s nothing here that captures my fancy.