BIRMINGHAM, Mich. — The concept of “improvisational painting” might evoke the idea of loose compositions with abstract shapes — Kandinsky-like squiggles and half-formed images, or a visual jazz of color and texture. However, the paintings in James Stephens: Improvisations, the inaugural show for the new gallery ArtNxT, which opened in the Birmingham rail district in late October, are anything but loose; they are densely packed with detailed imagery and graphic motifs. According to the artist, these paintings are improvisational in the sense that they are built through a spontaneous series of associations, triggered by shapes suggested in the initial application of patches of colors to create the base of the composition. The end products, however, are fully realized forms, complete with sharp details; like a dream state, objects and memories here create narrative with no logical connective tissue between them. Stephens characterizes this as, “a reflection of the way our thoughts are randomly changing,” with one idea inevitably triggering another, and a single image including elements of past, present, and future.
This inclusive perspective amounts to a broadly expanded definition of “still life” painting — what Stephens calls “still life in landscapes” — one which incorporates memories as static objects, and juxtaposes them alongside figurative and symbolic objects, often in the context of “rearview mirrors” that indicate a gaze projecting backward. Stephens also boosts color into the realm of the hyper-real and plays with scale, exaggerating, for example, Redi-Whip caps into giant swirling mounds in the landscape of “Staging Area.” The resulting effect is part collage and part Surrealist landscape, underscored by visual punning or a kind of inside joke of which the viewer is not entirely a part.