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Art review: John Stephan at Louis Stern Fine Arts

March 19, 2010 |  6:30 am

400.LSFA11546 For 30 years before his death in 1995, John Stephan painted nothing but discs: perfect circles inscribed on square canvases in a variety of colors and intensities, from searing reds and yellows to calm browns and grays. A WPA artist and contemporary of Rothko and Clyfford Still, he had a remarkable feel for color and contrast. The 12 oil paintings at Louis Stern Fine Arts, most from the early '70s, glow and pulse like works of Op-art or the three-dimensional constructions of Light and Space artist Robert Irwin. In some, the illusion of a ring protruding from the painted surface is so convincing that it calls the flatness of the canvas into question. In others, the center area appears to recede or bow outward like a moon.

At once austere and trippy, the paintings play games with our perceptions of space, but their clear colors and relentless simplicity also give them a transcendent, almost spiritual air. It's easy to attribute this to the circle with its connotations of balance, wholeness and continuity. But Stephan's carefully orchestrated moments of chromatic tension – staid army greens vibrating amid jumpy reds; a halo of acid yellow slicing through a field of dusty beige – make even the circle feel fresh.

400.LSFA11549 More than just visually rich, the works achieve a rare paradox: They simultaneously draw attention to our immediate sensations and transport us somewhere else entirely.

–Sharon Mizota
Louis Stern Fine Arts, 9002 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 276-0147, through April 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Images: Disc #10, 1971 and Disc #1, 1974. Courtesy of Louis Stern Fine Arts.