William Stoehr, “Icons,” at Space Gallery in Denver

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 Livingstone, who had seen Stoehr’s painting’s 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 its 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.”

Destiny 1780 x 60 inches acrylic on canvas
Destiny 17
80 x 60 inches
acrylic on canvas

After a trip to Florence, Italy he began adding metallic paints, outlining the women in gold inspired by Byzantine religious iconography. Later he began working the gold paint 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. Picasso did this in 1905 when he painted a portrait of Gertrude Stein with a contorted body, a flattened face with distinct angles, misshapen, dark lined eyes and hair that appears artificially
placed. Many friends said the work portrayed her “essence.”

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. This experience is powerful and many feel as if they are interacting on a human, emotional level with the portraits.

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 postgraduate 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.

“It seemed like controlled chaos,” Stoehr said of the late abstract expressionism being taught in school then. “I responded to it. I can’t explain it.”

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. Some paintings might take 40-50 hours others are relatively complete in ten hours. 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.

Leanne Goebel, AICA-USA


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