Love and marriage at Maker’s

stephens work

Bill Santelli and I paid our first visit to Maker’s Gallery and Studio this week to get a look at a diptych by Bill and Jean Stephens, part of a “Diptych: A Valentine’s Day Group Show” curated by Alex and Anni Gruttadaro, the gallery’s owners. They’ve created a hospitable and friendly place to see work and hang out, part living room, part studio, part coffee bistro. Alex literally did plumbing, woodwork and helped pour the concrete countertops for his space, and it has the raw-finished feel of a contemporary urban loft, with painted brick walls and exposed rafters. (Alex drives a Ford F150 and works as a contractor to support his painting and the gallery.) Alex and Anni, who opened the gallery last summer and use it as their studio, contributed a diptych of their own, a pair of half-nudes, showing Alex side-by-side with Anni, their faces and most of their anatomy cropped out of the image, beautifully done, with subtle modeling of the figures and a faint wallpaper pattern for a background, hinting at Kehinde Wylie, but pleasantly lacking his postmodern irony. All of the work in the show is fascinating, but I came specifically to see the contribution from Bill and Jean.

Their collaboration was a surprising increase in scale–Bill has been experimenting with improvisational line drawings over the past year, mostly in small sketchbooks, often accompanied by text. This time the work is larger, leaving more space at the center for Jean to elaborate on the rocks she places inside these husks that remind me of dried milkweed pods. I’ve admired what Bill has been doing with the smaller drawings, the intricate, imaginary organic spaces he creates using fine-point pens: my sense is that they evolve as he puts down marks, with a general shape in mind, like a jazz riff meandering around a melody. With the concentrated muted colors of Jean’s rock at the center, the images serve as a perfect fulfillment of the idea for the show: how a man and woman can work together, in life and art, creating something that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Jean has been doing a series of bird’s nests for quite a while, and the polarity of egg/nest in those images becomes even stronger in this diptych, so that these two drawings become almost a deconstruction of her usual work. The egg in her earlier nests here becomes a heart-shaped rock, colorful as a hatched bird with folded wings, but permanently earthbound. The protecting swaddle of the swirling twigs becomes Bill’s intricate and less confining fretwork. This shape, and many of his other drawings, remind me of a milkweed pod after it launches seeds into the wind–the botanical equivalent of a nest. The image is warm, inviting, and complete, but without an easy stability. It plays with the idea of a nest the way Picasso played with a face, creating uncertainties and multiple points of view. If you look the drawings long enough, you realize Jean’s rocks cast shadows over Bill’s line drawings, in a trompe l’oeil effect, flattening his lines back into the surface of the paper as her rocks seem to rise up and out into all three dimensions, even as they stay in place.  (A nice metaphor for most negotiations with my wife.) It may have been created to celebrate Valentine’s Day, but this work suggests the happy teamwork and truces of marriage far more than romance, and it resonates less with Cupid’s heat than the isometric warmth of enduring love.

“Diptych: A Valentine’s Day Group Show,” featuring the work of artist couples Bill + Jean Stephens, Alex + Ani Gruttadaro, Cordell + Rachel Cordaro, Clay Patrick McBride + Sarah Keane, Rob + MandiAntonucci, and Duncan + Alisia Chase. “Diptych” opens on Valentine’s Day, which is Sunday, February 14, 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., and continues through March 14.

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