Dairy Arts Center exhibits Stoehr and Reutimann
Boulder artists deconstruct cubism
By Christy Fantz Staff Writer 11/10/2017 03:17:45 AM MST
When Pablo Picasso, godfather of the cubist movement, would disassemble subjects and resurrect them in abstract form, he offered viewers a task of decoding his masterpieces with personal perspective. The cubists called this essential reality.
Two internationally famed Boulder artists have deconstructed the genre itself and reconstructed it into a conceptual two- and three-dimensional exhibit, "Neo-Cubism: A New Perspective," where painter William Stoehr and sculptor Roger Reutimann ask viewers to dig into their own essential reality. The exhibit will be on display through Dec. 3 in the McMahon Gallery at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder. Stoehr and Reutimann will present an artist talk at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 21 at the Dairy's Boedecker Theater.
This pairing is like a match made in Picasso's experimental head, even though Stoehr and Reutimann have considerably different creative processes.
Stoehr free-hand drips, pours, brushes, scrubs and scrapes faces into engaging, seven-foot canvas portraits that dominate space with limited hues, but pop with metallics and iridescences. Reutimann transforms the human figure into smoothly polished statues that have been methodically calculated through drawings and models before they are formed, molded and cast into figures in motion.
Both artists capture the influential cubism movement, yet they also created works that seamlessly flow together. The smooth curves of Reutimann's sculptures arch into the bends of Stoehr's painted images and shadows — all while allowing the viewer to finish the story of the art, to perceive the narrative, to find essential reality.
In 1911, The New York Times called cubism "Eccentric School of Painting" — and although modern art now takes eccentric to unorthodox, Stoehr and Reutimann explore a revived form of cubism that begs for interpretation and shines with varied viewpoints.
Picasso once asked, "Who sees the human face correctly: the photographer, the mirror, or the painter?" The answer is moot — each mind's eye is unique, and "Neo-Cubism" explores these theories.
Through chaos and order, Stoehr and Reutimann created a beautiful theoretical puzzle for a world that's never static and minds that are always evolving.
No Truth The individual perceptions in ‘Neo-Cubism’
By Amanda Moutinho - November 9, 2017
The paintings of William Stoehr are clearly faces. Some have two eyes, a nose and a mouth. Yet upon further inspection, one eye might be pointing one direction, while the other points the opposite way. A nose might be too small compared to the other facial features, or one side of a mouth doesn’t match the other. Some paintings feature a face within a face, sometimes within even more faces. But overall, they’re still faces. Stoehr just gives the essentials, and the rest is up to the viewer. It’s a technique indicative of cubism, Stoehr’s chosen style of painting.
“I love this concept of the mind assembling the image,” Stoehr says. “Cubists give you cues to help you do that — not giving you the finished piece, but rather engaging you in the completion of the piece. I’ve given you all these ideas for you to pull them back how you want them.”
In Neo-Cubism: A New Perspective, showing through Dec. 3 at the Dairy Arts Center, Stoehr’s work hangs alongside the sculptures of Roger Reutimann. In the show, the two Boulder-based artists question reality by using abstraction, specifically cubism, to explore the multiplicity of truth.
One of the main characteristics of cubism is featuring multiple perspectives on a canvas. And while Stoehr works directly with this idea, Reutimann’s art turns this traditional aspect on its head.
With his series, named “Perception,” Reutimann plays with the idea of viewpoint. Standing in front of one of his sculptures, a clear human figure emerges, but with a few steps to the left or right the silhouette disappears and the figure becomes completely abstract.
“Cubism is a movement that was mostly for painters,” Reutimann says. “There is some sculpture but it was something developed by painters like Picasso. The idea was also to have multiple viewpoints on a 2-D surface. So [instead of doing that], one angle [of my sculpture] reveals the figure on a 3-dimensional piece of art. So it’s like the reverse cubism.”
While Stoehr focuses on faces, Reutimann sculpts the entire human body. His pieces, simplistic and painted completely in white, are far from realistic renditions of a person. They more so give an angular representation of the human form.
The two artists are drawn together by their use of line. “When you look at their pieces in person,” says Dairy Curator Rebecca Cuscaden, “you see how their figures, which are created by line and disrupted by line, are very similar. They use line to really show how your vision and what you perceive can be shifted based on how they choose to use line.
“It really changes your sense of perception,” she says. “When you’re walking around Roger’s sculptures, each viewpoint is drastically different. You can tell it’s a figure but your notion of what it is and what you’re looking at really changes as you circle the work because of how he divides his figure. And similarly when you’re looking at Bill’s paintings, if you were to cover one eye or hold your hand up to cover a portion of the painting, it looks like a very different painting.”
The core linkage between both Reutimann and Stoehr is their exploration of perception. “The idea is the perception we have of the world is individual for each of us,” Reutimann says. “Although we have the same hardware. We have eyes and ears, and they all work the same. But the brain is what is different — our imprints, our upbringing, how our brain has been conditioned.
“To me it’s fascinating to think, if you have one object and you have 10 people describe it, you get 10 different descriptions of it,” he continues. “I tried to turn that into sculpture.”
With his work, Reutimann wants to show there is no “right” answer or definitive conclusion. “There is no truth. There’s only perception of truth,” he says. “The truth can be different for everyone.”
It’s an essential philosophy behind cubism, and Stoehr says the style has its own special way of observing the world. He references artist David Hockney who deduced that cubism isn’t about abstract art, it’s about reality.
“[In Neo-Cubism, the artists] aim to achieve what seminal Cubists termed essential reality, or in other words to depict the world as it is rather than as it seems,” reads the joint artist statement. “When viewing their works one may notice that the sculptures and paintings unexpectedly shift from playful to poignant, realistic to abstract, or stationary to moving as the fragmented perspectives, naturalistic cues, and misaligned planes engage the viewer. This allows the paintings and sculptures, previously considered illusions of reality, to take on a reality of the viewer’s making.”
That reality, of course, isn’t straightforward, and it varies from person to person. As there are many sides to an individual, Stoehr and Reutimann capture the many layers of the human experience. Both artists invite the viewer to discover their own truth; with each individual bringing their own background to a piece, the resulting interpretations are varied and endless.
“When I paint someone, it’s a blank face,” Stoehr says. “But what I’ve learned is that people are projecting onto that blank face. … The overall impression is that it’s an ambiguous canvas for the viewer to complete. “It’s this notion of, what do you see? I always have a shared gaze where the painting engages you with the eyes,” he continues. “I want people to go behind that face and look and ask what is this woman seeing, or ask why is this woman looking at me?”
Since his paintings evoke an underlying humanity, Stoehr’s work transcends cultural boundaries. One particular response from a Syrian refugee moved him deeply. After looking at one of his paintings, she found hope in her helpless situation and told Stoehr that he saved her life.
It’s one of Stoehr’s favorite parts of the creative process, letting the viewer create story lines for his paintings. As with the early Cubists, Stoehr preps the ingredients for the audience, but let’s them do cooking.
“It’s all about the scenarios that you create,” Stoehr says. “In a way, I give you a blank canvas, and you finish it. You’ve finished a painting in your own mental image, which is better than I can do.”
An essay by Leanne Goebel, AIC – USA
William Stoehr’s paintings of women’s faces are Amazonian. The canvases on view in ICONS at Space Gallery are seven feet tall. It’s as if the women are staring into your soul with their large, basketball-sized eyes positioned at eye-level for the average human viewer. Laine, Destiny and Priscila all come to life in metallic acrylic paint, charcoal and varnish tapping into the way our brains perceive line, shape, form, color and shadow.
Stoehr’s method of application, adding thin layer atop thin layer by pouring the paint and moving it around—aided by gravity, a sponge or paper towels—is similar to the way traditional oil painters create with layers of thin glaze painted on with a brush, building up the color and surface of the paint. Stoehr uses concepts similar to those used by Rembrandt, yet with a contemporary application utilizing a childlike intuition, his only art training what he received in high school in the 1960s. What is at once evident in these works is his veneration of strong women—warrior queens of unknown ethnicity, their expressions multifaceted and packed with emotion, mysterious, ambiguous.
Stoehr’s ability to create works with open-ended meaning and the techniques he utilizes to do so have intrigued Neuroesthetic researchers who are attempting to map the brain activity that produces perception, emotion and creativity. The eyes are intentionally prominent in a Stoehr painting—they actually follow the viewer. The eyes seem realistic, yet they are created with scribbles and splashes of paint.
The brain is able to process the visual cues and then complete the artist’s suggestion as something realistic from recorded remembrance—the brain completes the picture from a stockpile of images stored in memory. Because of this, each painting then is unique based upon the individual mental recall of the viewer.
Not long ago a Harvard researcher, Margaret Livingston approached the artist. In the broader field of neuroesthetics, Livingstone is focused on the physiological processing of visual information. She wanted to know if he was intentionally using equal value complementary colors and placing them together. If he understood that it was the same technique Claude Monet used to create movement. If it was not a conscious, rational decision, then she wanted to know how he stumbled upon it. His answer? Stoehr said he experimented and it looked good, he liked it, so he kept doing it.
“Vision is information processing. Artists make use of the ways the brain extracts information,” Livingstone said in her Penny W. Stamps distinguished visitors series lecture at the University of Michigan School of Art & Design.
Semir Zeki, a professor of Neuroesthetics at the University College of London, theorizes that artists unconsciously use techniques to create visual art to explore how the brain works.
"...The artist is in a sense, a neuroscientist, exploring the potentials and capacities of the brain, though with different tools. How such creations can arouse aesthetic experiences can only be fully understood in neural terms. Such an understanding is now well within our reach,” Zeki said in Statement on Neuroesthetics.
Stoehr does make use of how the brain extracts information and processes it in his art making, but often this derives from a childlike sense of experimentation and intuition. He is intrigued by ambiguity, defined by Neuroscience as the way our brain tries to instill meaning into our world. It is not that things are indecipherable, but instead that there are several meanings of equal validity providing an alternate certainty. When we see something we may see it as ambiguous and our brain assigns emotion and meaning to it. Influenced by research, Stoehr began exploring how to create something ambiguous in his art.
“When something is ambiguous, it looks one-way in one moment and different in another moment. When you project one emotion one day and another emotion the next day the painting is more interesting and maybe more real to us,” Stoehr said.
Artists achieve ambiguity in art in many different ways. One of the most famous and ambiguous paintings is Leonardo da Vinci’s The Mona Lisa. Livingstone has a theory about The Mona Lisa that Da Vinci harnessed how we visually perceive to drive viewers into seeing the woman as an enigma, perplexed by her expression. If the viewer focuses on the eyes of the The Mona Lisa her mouth is seen only through peripheral vision and in peripheral vision the brain focuses on the shadows by her cheekbones, which cause her lips to appear curved or smiling, but if the viewer focuses on the mouth, the brain ignores the shadows on the cheeks, focuses on the line of the mouth and she appears rather expressionless.
“The brain processes the shading in a different area than it processes color and line,” Stoehr explained. “Shading is more in our peripheral vision. In the eye, Cones are more perceptive to color and line and Rods more perceptive to shading.” Experimenting with this led him to explore other ways to convey ambiguous and ephemeral expressions. For instance, he frequently gives each side of the face a slightly different expression—painting one expression in the eyes and another on the mouth, one expression on the left side of the face and a different expression on the right side. He also use iridescent paints that change depending upon the intensity of lighting and the viewer’s point of view causing shifting patterns of light and slight changes in expression. Stoehr thinks, “Witnessing these small changes might make these images appear more real to us—more like we actually perceive.”
But it is a higher level of ambiguity that Stoehr is reaching for. He considers Johannes Vermeer’s painting Girl with a Pearl Earring to be an almost perfect work. Vermeer used small scale and local contrast to attract the eye, keep it moving around the canvas, expanding what it takes in. “But there’s something more in that face,” Stoehr said. “There is the formal technique that draws your eyes to the face. I see it, but it’s very ambiguous and it’s something else. I haven’t put my finger on it yet, but he’s done it, and when I look at it I flip with different meanings all the time. He’s created alternate scenarios that seem very real and that’s the ambiguity that appeals to me.”
After a trip to Florence, Italy he began adding metallic paints, outlining the women in gold inspired by Byzantine iconography. Later he began working the gold into the face, merging foreground and background. For a while he took all color out and now he is adding it back in—a bluish green and purple here and there.
Stoehr has also been exploring concepts originally espoused by Cubism, but his focus is on what the artists said they were trying to do rather than the flattening distortion of form with lines and geometric shapes. The Cubist’s were asking how do we really see? How do we visualize someone over time, knowing that our brain doesn’t treat that person as a snapshot? How does an artist capture the theater in the mind and portray the unconscious version of the person?
At its core, Stoehr hypothesizes that Cubism was about a way of seeing, rather than a way of creating an abstract style. It was about creating the essential reality. A reality in which the mind believes that what it is seeing is more real than a photograph because it captures the quintessence of the subject and how we perceive and experience a person over time.
“If their stated goal was essential reality, they didn’t hit it,” Stoehr said. However, sparked by their desire to create essential reality, he began experiment with merging a more naturalistic style with cubist-like multiple views, letting the viewer reprocess and complete the image. In some works the face is created looking direct and in profile in an attempt to capture the reality of how we experience a person over time, on good days and bad, when they are happy or sad, tired or rested. By subtly combining different views of a face in one painting the brain sees the subject portrayed, as it would experience a person over split seconds to weeks or months or years.
Another concept evident in Stoehr’s work is Global versus Local Vision where what is seen up close and what is seen from a distance is different. The most well known artist utilizing this technique is Chuck Close who creates portraits from series’ of baseball cards or small symbols created on a grid. In Close’s later works, the symbols in the small boxes processed by local vision are sometimes painted using equal value complementary colors. In Stoehr’s paintings, the local is not created on a grid, but in the area of a portrait’s forehead one will find an abstract painting created from line and pigment.
As the viewer moves through this exhibition at Space Gallery, they will realize that some portraits are hanging on walls while others are located on the floor, mounted on moveable trolleys. Stoehr wants to change the relationship between the viewer and the art and enliven the experience. The viewer is now able to alter the exhibit by moving the paintings around. Through this action, he or she can consider how reorganizing the order and location of the portraits affect each other and how they affect the viewer’s emotional reaction.
As stated earlier, in spite of all of this scientific research, Stoehr happened upon his technique intuitively and through continual exploration. Growing up in Burlington, Wisconsin at 17 Stoehr thought he would be an artist, but instead his education took him from a state school in northern Wisconsin to four years of post-graduate education. He ended up as President of the Worldwide Mapping Operation for National Geographic Society. Then one day, eight years ago, he quit and decided to make art recalling his high school art classes and the artists that inspired him in 1965—Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
When he picked up a brush he began making what he called “really crappy stuff,” before getting a sense of who he was as an artist. Those initial paintings were bright and colorful and within months he had two galleries selling the works—one in the Virgin Islands and one in Denver. Then three years ago another Denver dealer, Michael Burnett, suggested the he could draw and paint faces really well. Stoehr then began focusing on the face. His paintings begin with live models and he prefers working with the handful of women seen in these portraits.
Stoehr continually challenges himself to dig deeper believing he is only at the surface of where this subject might take him. How would Franz Kline paint a portrait? What if I stop using brushes? How would de Kooning paint this part of the forehead? No more red paint for a year. And he’s constantly going back and adding to the works, never afraid of wrecking or ruining a work. He challenges himself to paint the same women over and over again in different ways.
“When I’m in front of an easel with a brush or charcoal, I can tell you that this is what I am meant to do,” Stoehr said.
William Stoehr's exhibit takes in 'Victims Witnesses Survivors'
Painter's 'activist artist' approach can elicit a powerful response
By Christy Fantz
It was a chill that wouldn't shake. Perhaps it was aggravated by a lingering burden resting upon much of America on Inauguration Day. Or maybe it was the biting 34-degree Boulder evening that whirred outside of the Boulder Creative Collective warehouse as various art lovers shuffled in and out.
But what really triggered that chill came from behind that yellow door, inside that warehouse in east Boulder. It was sparked by my inner victim, witness and survivor. It was the power of Boulder artist William Stoehr's artwork.
Inside Unit 10, a couple dozen paintings — some rivaling the dimensions of a king-size bed — stared back with anxiousness, worry and unease. Elusive eyes looked on from every angle. Exaggerated hands covered concerned lips. Daring, aggressive brushstrokes highlighted monochrome texture. Bold and inconsistent lines, drips and smears dashed the portraits. And that chill proved to be an empowering one that came from within this once-tattered-being-turned-strong-soul.
The Boulder Creative Collective, 2500 47th St., Unit 10, which opened its new space behind that yellow door last April (the former home of 303 Vodka) is hosting Stoehr's exhibit, "Victims Witnesses Survivors" through Friday, March 3. The closing date will feature a free public closing party from 6-9 p.m. and Stoehr will host a lecture on Thursday, Feb. 2, at 6:30 p.m., discussing his process and his art activism.
Stoehr, a towering, statuesque and very warm man, said he has been painting for 12 years and has always been is intrigued by strong women. "I've always been interested in women's issues," Stoehr said. "I think I've had a pretty strong empathy that comes through in the paintings. The whole notion of the title of this show is ... about people in the world who have gone through and survived hardships and are strong because of it.”
He's always aspired to be an "activist artist," with his artist's statement that reads: "In this space I want you to emotionally respond, to experience the reality, to create your own narrative and then to ask important questions.”
His work — which he says explores "intolerance, discrimination, addiction and violence with its victims, witnesses and survivors" — is meant to be finished in the viewer's mind, in the vein of the abstract Cubist movement.
"Throughout all of this is my quest for essential reality," his statement reads, "an unquestionable presence and actuality of the viewer's making that exceeds mere paint and illusion. Something causes you to experience this in a way that goes beyond simply observing an image.”
Take his piece "No More Word #3," for instance. The woman in the acrylic-on-canvas seems troubled. But through her glossy, melancholic eyes, one Syrian woman caught a glimmer of hope, said Stoehr.
Stoehr said a high percentage of his more than 285,000 Facebook followers are from the Middle East, and Central and South America. He said a woman from Syria wrote to him after she saw this particular painting, thanking him for understanding of her troubles. Stoehr said that after she looked at his paintings on Facebook, she wrote, "You saved my life. I was ready to die last night. I got up the next morning and I looked at it and I saw hope in her eyes and said, well then maybe I can have hope.’"
"As an artist, that's about the strongest statement," he said. "This is what I want to do as an artist. When I think about it, I'm getting the chills right now. But that's a true story. People tell me they break down crying in front of the work because they feel such a strong sense. "I painted this to give you an experience and then you complete the painting with your own narrative.”
Whether that narrative comes with a ceaseless chill or a new outlook on life, one thing is for sure — Stoehr's work with victims, witnesses and survivors leaves quite an impact.
William Stoehr puts on a monumental show at Space Gallery
Thursday, Mar 7 2013
Up front at Space Gallery is an impressive solo, William Stoehr: Icons, which comprises 12 large portraits done in a wildly expressionist style. Stoehr blows up women's faces to gigantic proportions using an action-painting approach, smearing the pigments in rapidly laid-down strokes. Despite the abstract shapes of these smears, Stoehr orchestrates them so that they carry out the recognizable features of the individual faces.
In most, the sitter stares unblinkingly out at the viewer, making the experience all but confrontational. And though each woman is different — there are three women depicted — all of the paintings are unified stylistically and employ related palettes. With all of them hung together, the show becomes a coherent installation that's nothing short of monumental.
By Michael Paglia -Sep 1, 2011
William Stoehr: Masks & Mirrors is a major show of portraits installed in the large, double-height back gallery. Stoehr, who had worked for National Geographic on its worldwide mapping project for most of his career, turned to painting full-time just a few years ago.
His works are nominally representational; in this case, he fills the canvases with enormous portraits of women's faces. However, his painterly techniques originate in abstraction, and his lively surfaces are covered in scuffs, rub-outs, smears and runs of pigment. To create his pieces, Stoehr uses charcoal and acrylic paint that he applies or removes with everything from brushes and sponges to sandpaper, steel wool, knives and rags. The resulting paintings are dark and moody, with lots of black and metallic silver, which gives them an unusual luminosity, like moonlight, that's especially noticeable as they catch or absorb the light, depending on the color. The women's faces — one per panel — are cropped close so that their hair, especially on the tops of their heads, is cut out, making the features of their faces the dominant part of the pictures.
Apparently, Stoehr begins with a drawing that he then covers with paint. In a few, he goes in again with charcoal in order to clarify the details of the portraits. Taken all together, the show is gorgeous and stopped me in my tracks as I entered the back gallery at Space.
“Brain as Art” Exhibit At New York Hall Of Science Connects Art To Neuroscience To Provocative Effect
By Nekoro Gomes October 31, 2014
Not unlike the left and right hemispheres of the brain, the challenges inherent in artistic and scientific endeavors are intimate ones that each practitioner can appreciate. Both the artist and scientist are driven to visually interpret ideas, biological processes and other ephemera that are not terribly easy to express.
As artists have found new mediums for pushing the boundaries of expression, neuroscientists have undergone a similar Renaissance, feverishly utilizing the latest technology to painstakingly record the extent to which our brain shapes our very conception of self.
Juried by two professionals from each field, the mission statement noted how Stephen Nowlin, the lead art juror and working artist, and Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, the lead science juror and professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania had little difficulty working together to select the 29 artists for the exhibit despite the wide range of influences and mediums submitted.
The Brain as Art exhibit worked best when the processes in the artists’ approach sought to reflect the reality of a body part that is so central to our existence and yet still so misunderstood.
Personally, the most truly captivating piece in the collection was Colorado-based artist William Stoehr’s cubist-influenced Jacqueline 1. The painting of a gaunt, glassy-eyed face subverts Gestalt psychology—the tendency of our brains to create a whole image from a partial object. The painting captured a rare moment when our understanding of how the mind relates to the brain is most vulnerable. Staring into the expressive face of Jacqueline mimics the startling moment your reflecting unexpectedly faces you in a mirror, giving you no choice but to wonder, “Am I really looking at the person my mind tells me I am?”
William Stoehr at Space Gallery
Marina Graves September 11, 2012 5:42 pm
Sept, 2012, Denver — William Stoehr’s most recent exhibition at Space gallery in Denver was comprised of 14 portraits, none less than 4-foot x 3-foot, nor more than 5-foot x 4-foot 2-inches. Enormous portraits, all of them as I remember of African American women shown frontally from the shoulders up. At this scale, these portraits are obviously reminiscent of those by Chuck Close. They also share with Mr. Close the fact that both are based on an accumulation of details. In Chuck Close’s case, these are often just a few small discrete uniformly sized shapes arranged in matrixes or gridlines. Mr. Stoehr’s work relies on accumulation of details as well, but the details being accumulated seem far more random, even careless, rather than purposeful – often not bearing any direct relationship, seemingly, to the perception of the whole. Instead each one of them is a study in disguise, depth, and visual opacity masquerading as, or rather simultaneously occurring within minute linear specificity. This makes it possible for the details to overwhelm the whole painting at the same time that the whole painting emerges out of multilayered contexts of details, rather as if a number of ‘see-through’ land maps had been layered one on top of the other to create the final vision/version.
And in fact that is just how these pictures were made. Mr. Stoehr first draws an outline of the basic portrait in charcoal and then he adds, layer after layer of paint in various mediums, using various kinds of implements scrapers, sponges, etc. creating many paintings within the same large painting and many ways of interpreting the lines and the spaces of various hues.
Up close, say within 12 inches we see points of bright green associated with delicate purple lines, but as we retreat the small details seem to vanish completely. Then as we increase our distance from the imagery an often grimacing, certainly restive face emerges from 1001 details and the imagery isn’t all inundated by details, details so powerful, they form completely separate paintings in themselves. The whole presence of these paintings is a succession of stages as we walked backwards from the painting until a final focal point is reached at, say, 10 feet and this is all accomplished with adroit, even virtuoso craftsmanship!
Mr. Stoehr is an assiduous student of recent developments in modern neurobiology, especially in regard to our visual processes, and is taking us along into the barely charted waters of these processes and their unconscious neural hierarchies that largely determine the correlated what and how of that which we see and know. Thus Mr. Stoehr is playing artfully with optical neuroscience. And, of course, artists have always done just that, only lacking in the explanatory scientific knowledge. And the scientific key to this is that the brain’s neurons process shades and hues in different centers of neural activity from where it processes dots and lines and horizons, yet almost instantaneously reintegrating them, which thereupon becomes the vision we see with.
Do faces in Firehouse exhibit say more about the viewer or the viewed?
By Quentin Young Times-Call, Colorado Daily and Boulder Daily Camera
Boulder - You're never alone in the company of William Stoehr's art.
He makes large paintings of women's faces that fill the canvas and have an uncanny presence, as if they're masks behind which living people lurk. Much of the surface within his lines and contours, he paints abstractly. But he faithfully molds the faces and puts a glint in the eyes, and standing in a room full of these paintings can leave the viewer feeling as if he, not the portraits, is on display. The women look straight out. Their gaze is direct. The look on their faces is invariably serious, and they appear to be in states of melancholy or accusation.
Then again, Stoehr might stop a person right there and say, "No, that's just what your own mind brings to my paintings." He paints the women, he says, such that much is left to interpretation.
"None of these women have expressions," he said. "I want you to complete that expression."
Local viewers will get a chance to complete Stoehr's paintings when his solo show is on display Wednesday through Aug. 4 at the Firehouse Art Center. The exhibition, "The Artist's Studio," will be set up to give visitors the feeling they're stepping into Stoehr's studio. His actual studio is located on the ground floor of his home in west Boulder, and Jessica Kooiman, the center's executive director, said visiting it made a strong impression on her.
"It's such a great experience because you go in there and he gets all excited and starts showing you stuff . . . It's so powerful," she said. "We had this idea to do an artist's studio and show what it's like to be in his studio.” Stoehr, in fact, plans to paint in the gallery periodically throughout the run of the show.
Some of the works will be on wheels, and visitors will be allowed to move them, the way Stoehr might when he's in his studio. This will have the liberating effect of breaking the invisible barrier that's typically erected between art and viewer in a gallery, but it also has an aesthetic function. Art, particularly Stoehr's work, changes with changing location and light. Stoehr often uses metallic paint, which is especially sensitive to lighting variations. His faces are made with subtle cubist qualities that imbue them with multiple appearances, depending on physical, as well as psychological point of view.
Art theory plays a crucial role in Stoehr's work, and his works in the "Artist's Studio" are, to a great extent, an expression of his fascination with cubism. Cubism -- the early 20th-century school made dominant by Picasso, Braque and others who packed multiple visual and temporal angles into a single work -- gives Stoehr a way to better capture reality by representing, say, faces, as we really see them. When we look at someone's face, we filter that image through emotional and visual context, he notes. It might be colored by the angle at which we saw it only several seconds ago, or by some remembered slight or remark of praise that came from the person.
The cubist elements in Stoehr's work could be slight asymmetries or the suggestion of a third eye. Whereas the work of many early cubists were explicit as mash-ups of various views, Stoehr takes a less apparent approach, and his images, apart from their almost invariably limited and dark palette, have a more natural look.
"I'm taking it to a new stage," he said of his cubist pursuits. "I know that sounds grandiose. But it's great fun." his faces in the show belong to real women. Many of them are models Stoehr met in coffee shops, and every one is from Boulder, he said. His paintings that are named for women, such as "Destiny 15" or "Laine 5," bear the real name of the woman who modeled for the work.
For as much as Stoehr tries to strip his faces of context and expression and leave maximum space for viewers to color in the missing parts, his paintings have a charge to them. They are in no way blank slates. They twinkle with energy. "They just have this quality of, 'Pay attention to me,' " Kooiman said.
Stoehr ruminates at length about his art on his Facebook page, William Stoehr Art, and it was not a surprise to read something he wrote on May 29: " ... At some point I have to confront that (my paintings) really are about me. I am terrified. I hate thinking about it and I always deny my own involvement save for the art part. I say they are context-less yet maybe for me they are full of context.”
You're never alone in the company of Stoehr's art. Stoehr is always there.
William Stoehr's art tickles the brain.
Where science meets art
By Aimee Heckel Boulder Daily Camera – November 14, 2010
William Stoehr is running a science experiment. But his lab doesn't have a microscope, petri dish or test tube. His equipment is a fist-sized hunk of charcoal, a fat paintbrush, a bucket of red paint, a dish scrub and sandpaper. Stoehr is an artist. You might not know it from peeking into his Boulder studio, but Stoehr is also fiddling with neuroscience – delving deep into the subconscious chambers of the brain, and building bridges between visual perception and emotional response.
He points to one of his oversized charcoal face portraits. A little yellow in the eye here, paired with some purple over there, and suddenly the eyes look realistic. They seem to move. Two men recently said they felt judged by those eyes. People regularly burst into tears when they see Stoehr's paintings, although they don't -- or can't -- say why. Creating art that evokes emotion is all about experiments and happy accidents. Just like science, Stoehr says. In fact, despite their seeming opposite sides of the spectrum a growing field called "neuro-aesthetics" believes that science and art are different sides of the same coin, and inspecting both sides can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the human brain.
Artists like Stoehr have begun studying neuroscience as a map to enhance their artwork. And scientists have begun more seriously considering visual art, music and architecture to glimpse inside the head of not just the artists, but also the people who interact with the work. It's the science of aesthetics and beauty. In other words, how the brain processes, responds to and creates art. This collaboration could lead to an improvement in education and medicine down the road, according to advocates, such as the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute. For example, if you knew how to design a room in a way that triggered the brain to heal, it would change the way we design hospitals.
The institute recently sponsored a conference called "The Science of the Arts." Among the speakers: neuroscientists, researchers and a molecular biologist and Stoehr, the Boulder painter.
Artists have foretold-- on some intuitive level -- what neuroscientists are just now discovering, the symposium suggested. Historically, artists have sought out to paint pictures of curvy women. Later, neurologists discovered the brain has more receptors for curves, making humans pre-programmed to prefer curves to straight lines. The brain is also set up to prefer line drawings of faces to realistic portrayals, and the eyes are drawn to the area of the greatest contrast between the brightest bright and the darkest dark.
Stoehr didn't know any of this when he began painting six years ago, although these traits are fundamental of his artwork and could explain his quick pathway to popularity. (Stoehr's artwork now hangs in a temporary exhibit at the Denver International Airport and soon will be in the State Capitol.)
"Scientists wanted to know how I knew to do it," Stoehr says. How did he use lines and luminance to trigger emotions? That would be the topic of his Johns Hopkins presentation. The only catch? He didn't exactly know how.
Stoehr has never taken an art class. One day, he says he just decided to quit his job as the president of National Geographic's mapping group to pursue a different path. His only artistic strategy: To make a lot of accidents.
Through trial and error, he says he discovered concepts that art schools teach, stuff like "equal luminance," and how to use "discordant color" to bring a portrait to life. But Stoehr doesn't worry about the jargon, and he says he never paints to try to evoke a certain response. "I don't even think about it while I'm painting. I just draw what I see," he says. "That's, in some way, the key: Disengaging the brain." It's kind of ironic from a neuro-aesthetics perspective: turning off the brain to open up understanding of the brain.
Even the trademark of Stoehr's art -- splashes of red or orange paint across the charcoal faces -- is random. Sometimes he asks the subject to throw it. (All of the women he paints are Boulderites, like a woman working at a coffee shop on Pearl Street.)
It's those red splotches that Jeremy Nathans says provokes an especially interesting neurological response. Nathan is no art critic. He's the professor of molecular biology and genetics at the Johns Hopkins' School of Medicine. His interest in art centers on how the images are processed in the retina and brain, and how we alter these images.
What comes in at every stage is altered," Nathans says. "It's not like we get a perfect movie of the outside world projected on a little screen inside our brain." Our brains filter, distort and suppress different aspects of what we see. Think about eyewitness testimony in court. Witnesses will swear on their mother's grave that that man was the perpetrator. But these accounts are highly unreliable, despite the certainty in their memory. "Many times, we think we have an accurate perception of the world when, in fact, we have colored it, both literally and figuratively, with our expectations and experiences," Nathans says.
Understanding how a normal brain works can provide insight into how to rehabilitate brains after a stroke or with debilitating diseases, Nathans says.
Here's where art comes in. "Visual art taps into the brain circuits by, at some level, bypassing the analysis that we're doing when we look at a general scene," he says.
Think about how a painting or a song can stir up buried emotions that you suppress in your day-to-day life. A man looks at Stoehr's painting and says he feels judged. Art can reach around the brain's filters and set off thoughts before you see them coming. A woman breaks into tears when she looks into the portrait's eyes. She doesn't know why. But her brain is firing away in a way that fascinates scientists like Nathans.
Nathans says Stoehr's paintings tap into the mind on two different levels. Consciously, you see the portrait. Subconsciously, the red sprays of paint create a mood. The painting stimulates two different parts of the sensory system, he says. Plus, the haphazard red splotches catch your attention because they are unexpected, Nathans says. A part of you feels like he has defaced his own painting, and this creates tension. It's fascinating, Nathans says, from a purely scientific point of view. "I think a lot of art is that way," he says. "You get inputs into your system, and you can't put your finger on why you like it, but you do. Understanding art can help us understand the subconscious part of the brain and the real way that we perceive the world.
Would you like a Grenade? The Art of William L Stoehr
By William Stelzer – St John Tradewinds
In the summer of 2006, in what was played out as a response to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah paramilitary forces, warplanes screamed through the skies of Lebanon, carrying out a series of devastating air to ground attacks upon the civilian infrastructure below. As the munitions exploded around them, Lebanese kids would race through the streets, their cell phone cameras held high and in record mode, capturing the carnage. Then they would dive into the safety of the underground bomb shelters where they would upload the videos onto Arab websites for their friends to see, as well as whoever might else stumble upon them.
One of these unintended viewers was Bill Stoehr, former head of the National Geographic Society’s world-wide mapping operations, and now a full-time artist, who today splits his time between Boulder, Colorado and St. John with his wife Mary Kay. Their son had been working as an archeologist in Northern Israel, carefully avoiding the leftover Syrian plastic landmines that would occasionally claim the life of an unlucky cow. Though his son had gotten out before the conflict escalated, Bill told me that the cell phone videos he watched of the Israeli artillery strikes had a gut-wrenching effect on him.
Despite traveling the world while at National Geographic, he had never actually been in a combat zone. Seeing the effects of war in this way though, drove him to thinking how complicit all of us are in such violence. How even though our first reaction may be horror, when we don’t do anything about it, it’s all too easy to fall into a desensitized complacency after the shock wears off. While there is no shortage of weapons being supplied by Russia and other western powers for the world conflicts, the explosives raining down on Lebanon in large part came courtesy of the United States and its taxpayers. And then there is Iraq. And then perhaps in the near future, Iran.
At what point do you become complicit just by doing nothing? Is it worth marching in marches that no one cares about? Is sending a letter to the White House or Congress anything more than an exercise in futility?
Shortly after that experience, he began asking his life drawing models if they would pose for him holding highly realistic hand grenades, the kind the army uses for training. He chose a grenade because it was an indiscriminate weapon, once the pin was pulled, it would maim or kill anyone in the blast radius, regardless of guilt or innocence.
Stoehr was already known for bold, expressive nudes, painted large on canvas, with often shocking splashes of color that almost dare one not to look. When his first nude with a hand grenade went up in the window of his Boulder workspace it got the attention he was looking for.
In the room of his house he uses to ready his paintings for his upcoming exhibits, he shows me a painting of a young woman offering a bowl with two hand grenades in it. Almost subliminally in the background is a skull. And the American Flag. And a hint of the Statue of Liberty.
As he does I can’t help but think of the “We the People” making up the foundation of the American Government. Did the founders mean it as a declaration of independence? Or as a declaration of responsibility?
It’s kind of heavy stuff really, especially on an island where the majority of the art consists of what the tourists tend to buy: breathtaking canvases of sand and sky and sea, bouquets of tropical flowers and a West Indian culture that seems to disappear faster than one can paint it.
Earlier that morning, while offering me coffee, Bill told me how he and Mary Kay had come to live in St. John. They had been driving in the states when they had a serious, life altering automobile accident. Shortly after, the Stoehrs called fourteen friends, people that had played key roles in their lives, but who they had lost touch with over the years and invited them down for a villa stay in St. John.
It was a wonderful, unforgettable experience, and the Stoehrs soon decided that this island was the place. After hearing that story, I saw everything Bill told me afterwards through that lens. Being not totally unfamiliar with near death experiences myself, it seems that people often come out of it with a newfound sense of spirituality, usually expressing itself in the helping of others, as well as a concentration on what one feels most passionate about.
As Bill walks me through his paintings for his upcoming shows, he treats me to his thought processes in creating them. There is a bold energy to all of his works. They are painted in bright - almost impossible colors - with large brushes on large canvasses. And not just with brushstrokes, but with drips and sponges and sandpaper and even a well-aimed garden hose. He tells me that for him, each painting is chance to do three things. One, to improve his skills as an artist. Two, as a chance to experiment and innovate. And three, as an opportunity to have a powerful impact on those who view his art, either emotionally, or intellectually, or both.
It is an experience simultaneously gripping and freeing. In talking with Bill, I get a glimpse of where it comes from as he tells me of his work outside of painting. There are two organizations that he spends most of his time with. One is Big City Mountaineers, a mentoring program which gives kids, many with criminal pasts, a chance to get out of the city and see themselves anew in the wilderness. There is something incredibly profound, Bill says, about having a kid tell you about pumping bullets into someone, with all his friends around him doing the same thing - making it so all of them, and none of them, are equally to blame. (Note here the parallels to our own roles in taxpayer funded violence.) Stoehr also works with the Peace Initiative Institute, an international effort that seeks to create long-term peace by reaching out 3 to 5-year-old kids in war torn areas, bringing them tools for a more hopeful future.
As he describes his visions for these organizations, I can’t help but notice the faces of those he has painted in the room around us, clouded in the complexities of human emotions. On the canvas, they are offered by the symbols that surround them, either a choice of redemption and transformation – or instead, perhaps the easier choice, to simply fall back into the darkness.
Before I leave, I ask him if it’s possible for him to set up to paint, so I can get some photos of him at work for this article. He graciously complies and as I watch him paint in his signature style, he tells me something that blows me away. He’s actually color blind. In a way it’s almost funny, as it kind of explains his shocking uses of extreme, near fluorescent colors. But it makes me think how if you want to look beyond what everyone else already sees, sometimes you have to look with a vision that goes beyond just your eyes.