Geoffrey Stein, intrigued with “the seen and unseen,” employs paint and collage to reveal portraits of power and vulnerability.
“I paint to find out what I think about the world; to discover the things I do not have words for. I savor the slips of the hand that express one’s unconscious feelings about the person being painted. I am interested in the conversation between abstraction and realism,” says New York artist Stein. “I do not want to make an academic copy of the model or a photo realistic illustration. My paintings explore the tension between what needs to be shown and what does not, the seen and the unseen.” Characterizing himself as “a recovering lawyer,” Stein, now 55, left the law practice in 2000 to paint full-time.
His Irrational Exuberance collage portraits depict men and women who delivered power punches during the Credit Crunch. “In 2008-09,” says Stein, “it felt like the world was coming to an end. Lehman Brothers tanked. The banks had not been good actors, but people had taken out liar loans; they’d lied about income, property values. There had been massive fraud on both sides. I represented Lloyd’s of London and London Market Reinsurers, and my clients reinsured a lot of directors and officers’ insurance policies for savings and loans that failed in the ’80s when Reagan was President. My Irrational Exuberance collages started as a way of trying to figure out what I thought about a complex situation.” The title for this series comes from Alan Greenspan’s famous phrase ‘irrational exuberance,’ which he used to describe the pre-credit-crunch market highs.
Tim Geithner, former President of the Federal Reserve Bank, was made from the text of The Wall Street Journal; Ponzie schemer Bernie Madoff used paint and collage material from the civil and criminal complaints filed by the SEC and the Department of Justice; Senator Elizabeth Warren’s image was shaped using the Dodd-Frank Act which authorized the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Presidential candidate Donald Trump was collaged with papers from his third corporate bankruptcy.
“The Credit Crunch series started as portraits of a group of powerful people who did not always behave as we’d like them to. I felt my life was being affected by them; everyone’s life in the United States was being affected by their actions, and we didn’t really know very much about them — who they were or what they looked like. I was trying to work out what I thought about how they acted and what was the effect of their policies.
Using the legal complaints filed against him, Madoff is made up of those acts that he pled guilty to,” says Stein. “Hopefully there’s some sense of evilness in Madoff’s portrait — in the devilish chin, in the dripping face, in the way that the text breaks through the features in the face, in the way the paint on the suit is splotchy, fading out.
“The legal papers from one of Trump’s four corporate bankruptcies were perfect to bring some reality to his increasingly one-dimensional image. The five by six foot image is sanded; the text is roughed up; you can see the caption from the bankruptcy papers. The hair becomes its own formal element. At a distance, it looks pretty, but up close it becomes something else, something perhaps more real.”
Stein began Trump’s portrait in the fall of 2015 while at an artist’s residency at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. He was working on a portrait of London Mayor Boris Johnson when he heard the first American GOP debates. “I thought, ‘I know someone who has hair like Boris Johnson and got started.”
“Janet Yellen, collaged with The Wall Street Journal and New York Times business section, is more classically painted and the text of the collage comes through under the paint,” he says. Stein notes in contrast, that in his portrait of Elizabeth Warren, there is minimal painting. Warren’s face is formed almost entirely of text from the Dodd-Frank Act.
In his series, Stein strove for recognizable portraits instead of satiric or exaggerated images. “There’s complexity to our world in that someone can be a bad actor without being Hitler or without being the devil. And psychologically in terms of portraiture, I’m not interested in making a didactic, cartoony image that hits you over the head. I’d rather it be a more nuanced look at these actors who are complicated, accomplished people.
“The series was really a trope on the Renaissance notion of putting symbols into a portrait demonstrating what attributes the subject had. If loyal, there would often be a dog; if wealthy, coins; if learned, there would be a book or a musical instrument. This was my 21st century attempt to make portraits from things in the person’s world.
“It was almost a formal exercise in trying to use minimal elements of paint within the rectangle to read as a likeness, and using the type in collage materials — its direction, density and darkness as tone in the portraits. It’s a modernist notion, you don’t need to fill in every inch of the rectangle, you can leave some space for the image, for the other marks to breathe.”
Stein’s breathing room is also apparent in many unguarded and intimate portraits and studies of women. Although Red Couch Observer pictures a favorite model in a limited, closed space, the vibrant red couch adds depth, warmth and energy to the collage.
He uses salmon pink pages from The New York Observer and London Financial Times for further physicality and textural interest. “The colored paper provides a very interesting way of getting at a flesh tone. I wanted to offset the flesh and the very tightly cropped back with the background which is columns and columns of type from The Times turned upside down so it just reads as tone, not text.” Stein uses charcoal, graphite, acrylic and gesso to complete his work.
For his portrait of Diane, a realtor, Stein created much of her hair and face from property listings and magazine clippings and real estate supplements. “It started out as a straight portrait in acrylic. It didn’t work so I worked back into it with collage and flesh tones. I also used and red and blue for her shirt to produce a vibration between what she’s wearing and the background.”
Although labor intensive, Stein relishes the collage process. “I like looking for the right color or piece of type in magazines. It’s a slower process than putting down a piece of paint. You also can paint over the images, and easily add and subtract. I like that you live with these collages. It develops slowly and you can make subtle adjustments as you look at it over time.”
On the other hand, says Stein, his paintings are done more quickly, typically in five to 10 sessions. He began his art career painting from life, observing and drawing studio models for eight or nine years. A graduate of Bard College, Stein initially studied product design at Parsons School of Design, and received an MFA from the Slade School of Fine Art, London in 2007. He particularly admires artists Richard Diebenkorn, Jenny Saville, Cicily Brown, Joe Santore and the Abstract Expressionists.
Cerulean Dream was painted at the New York Studio School in 2004. “The model had shaved her head as part of a Zen ritual. We gave her a blue wig because we thought it would be interesting to paint. It was a great image of the blue hair against her flesh and the blue background. She also wore an orange kimono. Cerulean Dream began as a vertical portrait. You can see the beginning of a vertical head which didn’t work, so I flipped it 90 degrees and began working back into it.
“I’m interested in how the figure I’m painting interacts with the background, the surrounding area and how the ground of the paint interacts with what I’m painting.”
Ghost Blonde is one of a series of figure paintings done from fashion catalogue images. “The fashion images had very good color so they were better source material to paint. These canvases were thickly painted. Ghost Blonde is mostly based on a photograph although the hair is reminiscent of a friend.”
In Blue Dreaming, the figure seems suspended in space, reminiscent of Chagall’s rich cobalt blues and floating lovers and acrobats. “The painting,” says Stein, “is about interference — the static in our world from television, the internet, cell phones. The way in our modern world that we are constantly interrupted, ‘the seen and not seen.’
“I used the blue to edit out things that weren’t working or that weren’t needed. Pieces of the image come through and then others are knocked out. There’s a back and forth, the seen and unseen of an image, of a person, a moment.”
Tuned into the hidden and often unexpected effects of technology and cultural change, Stein is now working on a new series of portraits, The Kings of Comedy. “I found it interesting that a lot of really smart people I know were watching The Daily Show for their news. It blew me away. So I thought it would be nice to do portraits of people I like rather than evil doers. It’s fun to work on a show of people you really enjoy.”
Stein’s fall show will include collage portraits of late night comedians Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Chelsea Handler, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert and Larry Wilmore. The show will be held at the Lionhart Gallery in Pound Ridge, New York.
His earlier work has been shown from the Camden Arts Centre, London to the Verum Ultimum Gallery, Portland, Oregon, Manifest Gallery, Cincinnati, Ohio, the Luring Augustine Gallery, New York City and The White Room Gallery, Bridgehampton, New York.
Visit www.geoffreystein.com to see more of Geoffrey Stein’s work.
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