In a secular world, myth-free, of What you see is what you get ' nowhere more so than in painting, to paraphrase (or parody) Greenberg, William Stein reminds us that there's still an alternative. Even in painting. Turning us gently in a different direction, he shows us over and over that what you get can always be more than you bargained for. He opens vistas ' literally so, because there is a perspective, idiosyncratic maybe, either pre- or post-Renaissance, pushing into the picture plane ' into an arena that could just as well be the primordial past as a post-apocalyptic future. And, equally, our baffled present.
Without figures except for the geometric ones, the cubes and cylinders that recur enough for each new sighting to be a reappearance, characters coming back onstage, the various ways of approaching the surface themselves acquire narrative values. The ruled and the freehand, the sharp and the hazy, the painted and the scratched, the grey and the flickers of faint colour are all set against each other as if to retell a creation myth gone wrong ' as they all do. The elemental is there, yes, but deformed, paint laid on the gesso but its plastery surface used to scratch into as well ' graffiti'd pentimenti ' a commentary suggesting that in our present tense Platonic forms have become provisional; reminding us that the ancient civilizations were after all new to time, hadn't themselves lived long enough to truly understand how Time unravels (an enterprise Twombly set himself ' but that's another story, a quiet desperation of a different kind).
Yet without these paintings themselves being in the slightest unfinished, they present a perfect incompletion. Somewhere behind waiting in the darkness there remains the Ur-painting, unforgiving, inhuman - the image in its ideal state. The geometry is there to remind us: a triangle, yes, a circle, but now it's perfect and now it's not, it's handmade, spidery, alive. What we can see is experience as we experience it, human fallibility almost cartoonish in its pathos.
Something unexpected is that there is philosophy here, maybe not in the sense of a theory of contemporary art or life or even of painting (though who's to say?) but in the sense of a thinking-through made visible, a mappable joined-up view of what painting today could (not to say should) take into account. A use of materials to the limits of their competence (back to Greenberg and his formulation of the Modernist endeavour). Painting as a way of happening, perhaps.
And once we've accepted the 'figure' here in both mathematical/architectonic and human terms (and in an 'abstract' painting) ' it becomes a question of deciding the scene, the setting the characters might inhabit. Once character has been accepted a whole slew of things then accrue ' presence, anticipation: in short drama. The gold leaf which sometimes illumines the corners is not there to decorate but to mark a further change in light and situation ' mark a transformation ' a dramatic shift in the audience's position (that position itself metaphorical as well as actual) and only incidentally ' and not entirely ironically - to suggest the Iconic brought to us continuously across a history of symbol and certainty of belief.
The geometry is there for the same reason ' shapes that articulate space while we articulate them within Stein's settings. Where Poussin manipulated figures on model stages to gauge and unite gesture and emotion, Stein situates the meaning in the mise-en-scene itself, its mutability, its direct and physical relationship to the audience. Stripped of human presence, the scene carries a charge of intense intimacy, the scale of the making echoing the close immediate working of the surface. Anything could happen here, at any moment, forever:
it's the range of that suspended and sustained expectation that's exciting. It could be the moment for Pasternak's Hamlet, perhaps:
'The tumults cease. I walk on to the stage... '