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October Issue 2003

The Jackson Gallery in Aiken, SC, Features Works by Stephen Chesley

The exhibition, Stephen Chesley: Paintings and Sculptures, will be on view from Oct. 16 through Nov. 15, 2003, at The Jackson Gallery in Aiken, SC. The Jackson Gallery has scored an impressive premiere. The gallery is the first venue to present a solo show by the prominent South Carolina artist that includes sculptures. Sculpture is a new art form for Chesley, a Columbia, SC, resident who has developed a strong and loyal following throughout the Southeast as a painter of landscapes, cityscapes, and beach scenes.

Chesley showed a few of his metal sculptures in a small Columbia group show earlier this year, but the Aiken exhibition can be seen as his coming-out party as a sculptor. It is, in any case, the first time the public can see his paintings and sculptures together. That makes for a must-see show, even for Chesley connoisseurs, and a surprising one at that. For one, while Chesley's paintings are representational and even traditional, his sculpture is non-representational and decidedly modern.

"We are wildly excited that we get to be the very first place to present a show that combines Stephen's paintings and sculptures," gallery owner Bill Jackson said. "That's a big deal for us and for the Aiken-Augusta area."

"As with Marcelo Novo in September," Jackson said, "our gallery presents with Stephen Chesley another mainstay of South Carolina art who has not exhibited much in this area. His relative absence around here is even more remarkable than Novo's was because Stephen has been so prominent for several decades, and not just in our state. Also, when you look at some of his paintings, the ones with the rolling fields and meadows with a lonesome tree or a small stand of trees, you can't help but think of the countryside around Aiken and Augusta. We sold several paintings from the Novo show and expect Chesley's work to do well, too."

Chesley's welded-metal sculptures mostly measure from one to six feet in height and mainly are made of cut and scrap metal. The more robust ones consist of larger triangular and other geometric forms that are stacked to take on a vertical shape with organic qualities. The more delicate, intricate pieces are built up from relatively small, rectangular and angular pieces of metal interrupted by rounded shapes or longer, narrow strips. Welded together, those pieces form a seemingly random, dynamic composition. Their critical mass is at the heart of the sculptures, where their considerable movement takes off. Other smaller sculptures, which combine metal and glass, are more static, contained and understated.

" We all know that Chesley is a superb painter," gallery owner Jackson said, "but in a sense it's his venture into sculpture that truly shows his depth and range as an artist. This is not only because the sculptures are in a totally different medium than we expect from Chesley. While his paintings are representational and have a traditional feel, the sculptures are non-representational. They have a rough edge and they are fairly capricious."

"Not that I think that they are a total aberration from Stephen's paintings," Jackson continued. "For one, some of them, if one would want to, can be read as shrubs and brush and other organic growth, elements you can find back in his landscapes. Also, the sculpture's austere and at times somewhat aggressive qualities remind us that Chesley's landscapes are not always idyllic, either, that in them there can be a sense of foreboding."

"Ultimately, the sculptures show more than anything else that the quality of Chesley's compositions does not depend on the medium he works in. The sculptural compositions are very different from his paintings, and they are three-dimensional, but they are excellent compositions nevertheless. The man knows how to put together a work of art."
Chesley, born in 1952, grew up in Virginia Beach. In 1975, he received a BA in urban studies from Richmond's Virginia Commonwealth University. In 1980, he earned an MA in urban regional planning from Clemson University's School of Architecture. After a brief stint as a planner, Chesley turned to painting, building on a lifelong love of drawing and a somewhat belated realization that his talent was out of the ordinary.

Mostly, Chesley taught himself how to paint. Through self-study he picked up clues from the likes of the old Dutch master Rembrandt; 19th century Americans George Innes, Winslow Homer, James Whistler, and Albert Pinkham Ryder; the Impressionists; the French neo-impressionist George Seurat; Ashcan painters such as Robert Henri and John Sloan; the American master of lonesomeness, Edward Hopper; and American abstract painters such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. But Chesley wants to paint really good Chesleys, not imitations of these folks.

His early shows included a 1981 emerging-artist exhibition at the Columbia Museum of Art. From there, Chesley built an impressive reputation that goes well beyond the state or even the South. His achievements include a regional fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1996. At that occasion, the Winston-Salem Journal's Tom Patterson wrote: "Chesley is great technician, and his work evokes an uneasy sense of drama and mystery that makes it more than an old-fashioned meditation on the scenic."

Chesley was included in a juried, 1987 exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He also has exhibited in Kaiserslautern, Germany; at Florida's Orlando Museum of Art; Kentucky's Owensboro Museum of Fine Art; the Montana College Gallery at Dillion; Alabama's Montgomery Museum of Fine Art and Opelika Fine Art Center; and at Georgia's Savannah College of Art and Design, where he was part of two nationally juried exhibitions.

In the Carolinas, Chesley has been in exhibitions in Charlotte and Salisbury, NC. He has shown in the city art museums in Charleston, Greenville, Anderson, Spartanburg, (all in SC) and Columbia, in several more than once. His work is in the Columbia Museum of Art and many institutional collections. It is also in the collection of the state of South Carolina.

Chesley does not paint what is obviously dramatic; rather, he likes to make more obvious the drama in the ordinary. Usually, he does so using the Southern scene, often that of South Carolina. "We have simple, linear beauty," he told a newspaper in 1989 of his fondness of his state's landscapes. "It's a challenge to show people the same amount of power in that as in, for example, Niagara Falls." 

Chesley also and repeatedly paints dramatic fires in a dark, even nocturnal landscape. But the impetus for the fire is not so much the need for instant drama but Chesley's interest in light, one of his main sources of ordinary drama. " I am fascinated by light," he has said, "such as the mysterious, shy light that skitters through a forest and slinks just beyond our sight to taunt us with sparkles and glows. By capturing the qualities of this light, I create an enticing trail to follow."

With his art, Chesley tries to restore what he calls people's "long view". He wants to break the daily hurry with views that are decidedly unhurried. Instead of the blurred vision of trees most folks experience in their lives on the run, he wants to restore people's awareness of real trees. Instead of the encapsulated life in the car, office or home, he presents wide-open views, at which people can stare as far as they like if they take the time. He wants, he said in 1990, to "have my viewers experience again the outdoors."

Chesley's scenes are moody, whether it's a lonesome moodiness like Hopper's or the more romantic and poetic kind of his own 19th-century American examples. Humans seldom make it into Chesley's work, which doesn't mean they are absent; their presence is evident from that of houses, roads, streetlights, a fire hydrant, or telephone poles. The scenes are realistic and representative but at times have an abstracted quality. The viewer has to study Chesley's soft-edged planes to detect what exactly they represent. Chesley in part achieves this by combining colors of similar values and shunning clearly drawn lines. He may not paint the trees but the space between the trees, which still results in trees emerging from the canvas.

"I want to get away from drafting," Chesley said in 1990. "In that interplay between outlines and silhouettes, the artist can use value to abstract a tree, rather than paint a tree. I want to incorporate abstraction as a technique, yet have the work read figuratively."

"Stephen Chesley's landscapes demand patience," William Eiland, Director of the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia, wrote in 1996. "They require the viewer to stand back for a moment, to ruminate, to search for the equivocal meaning behind their lovely facades. The simplicity is belied by the ambiguity closer inspection reveals; his technique is masterful. However, his spatial sense, in some cases a virtuoso handling of perspective, requires imagination on the part of the viewer, who, upon intense investigation rather than casual observation, will be rewarded with an implied narrative."

Chesley himself has hinted at that implied narrative. "In my work," he has said, "I wish to make you wonder ­ wonder what is just around the bend, over the horizon, or behind a window. I strive to create a mystery, to portray a presence of massive form by not portraying it, or a presence through (the) unseen that casts a shadow or reflection. Something is just a breath away, a step, a shift of (the) eye."

Certain ambiguities in Chesley's work help in this respect, reviewers have pointed out. It's not always clear whether his scenes are at dawn or dusk, whether the light comes from the sun or the moon, whether it's just before or after the storm. This allows viewers to wonder about the narrative, about what's going on, and Chesley likes it that way.

The Chesley exhibition is the second in an outstanding 2003-04 lineup at the Jackson Gallery. A November-January group exhibition at the gallery will show figurative paintings and sculptures by artists from the United States, Mexico, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands. They include South Carolina's Tonya Gregg, Jeff Donovan, Michael Hale and Eric Miller.

In January, the gallery will organize a homecoming for Aiken's own Hollis Brown Thornton, whose work was part of a major group show at the Columbia Museum of Art this past summer. The Jackson Gallery exhibition will be Thornton's first solo show in South Carolina since he moved to Chicago in 2001. In the spring, the gallery will mount shows by South Carolina painter Matt Overend and gallery owner Bill Jackson.

For further information check our SC Commercial Gallery listings, call the gallery at 803/648-7397, e-mail at (jacksongallery@mindspring.com) and at (www.artnet.com).

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