The paintings of William Stoehr are clearly faces. Some have two eyes, a nose and a mouth. Yet upon further inspection, one eye might be pointing one direction, while the other points the opposite way. A nose might be too small compared to the other facial features, or one side of a mouth doesn’t match the other. Some paintings feature a face within a face, sometimes within even more faces.
But overall, they’re still faces. Stoehr just gives the essentials, and the rest is up to the viewer. It’s a technique indicative of cubism, Stohr’s chosen style of painting.
“I love this concept of the mind assembling the image,” Stoehr says. “Cubists give you cues to help you do that — not giving you the finished piece, but rather engaging you in the completion of the piece. I’ve given you all these ideas for you to pull them back how you want them.”
In Neo-Cubism: A New Perspective, showing through Dec. 3 at the Dairy Arts Center, Stoehr’s work hangs alongside the sculptures of Roger Reutimann. In the show, the two Boulder-based artists question reality by using abstraction, specifically cubism, to explore the multiplicity of truth.
One of the main characteristics of cubism is featuring multiple perspectives on a canvas. And while Stoehr works directly with this idea, Reutimann’s art turns this traditional aspect on its head. With his series, named “Perception,” Reutimann plays with the idea of viewpoint. Standing in front of one of his sculptures, a clear human figure emerges, but with a few steps to the left or right the silhouette disappears and the figure becomes completely abstract.
“Cubism is a movement that was mostly for painters,” Reutimann says. “There is some sculpture but it was something developed by painters like Picasso. The idea was also to have multiple viewpoints on a 2-D surface. So [instead of doing that], one angle [of my sculpture] reveals the figure on a 3-dimensional piece of art. So it’s like the reverse cubism.”
While Stoehr focuses on faces, Reutimann sculpts the entire human body. His pieces, simplistic and painted completely in white, are far from realistic renditions of a person. They moreso give an angular representation of the human form.
The two artists are drawn together by their use of line. “When you look at their pieces in person,” says Dairy Curator Rebecca Cuscaden, “you see how their figures, which are created by line and disrupted by line, are very similar. They use line to really show how your vision and what you perceive can be shifted based on how they choose to use line.
“It really changes your sense of perception,” she says. “When you’re walking around Roger’s sculptures, each viewpoint is drastically different. You can tell it’s a figure but your notion of what it is and what you’re looking at really changes as you circle the work because of how he divides his figure. And similarly when you’re looking at Bill’s paintings, if you were to cover one eye or hold your hand up to cover a portion of the painting, it looks like a very different painting.”
The core linkage between both Reutimann and Stoehr is their exploration of perception.
“The idea is the perception we have of the world is individual for each of us,” Reutimann says. “Although we have the same hardware. We have eyes and ears, and they all work the same. But the brain is what is different — our imprints, our upbringing, how our brain has been conditioned.
“To me it’s fascinating to think, if you have one object and you have 10 people describe it, you get 10 different descriptions of it,” he continues. “I tried to turn that into sculpture.”
With his work, Reutimann wants to show there is no “right” answer or definitive conclusion.
“There is no truth. There’s only perception of truth,” he says. “The truth can be different for everyone.”
It’s an essential philosophy behind cubism, and Stoehr says the style has its own special way of observing the world. He references artist David Hockney who deduced that cubism isn’t about abstract art, it’s about reality.
“[In Neo-Cubism, the artists] aim to achieve what seminal Cubists termed essential reality, or in other words to depict the world as it is rather than as it seems,” reads the joint artist statement. “When viewing their works one may notice that the sculptures and paintings unexpectedly shift from playful to poignant, realistic to abstract, or stationary to moving as the fragmented perspectives, naturalistic cues, and misaligned planes engage the viewer. This allows the paintings and sculptures, previously considered illusions of reality, to take on a reality of the viewer’s making.”
That reality, of course, isn’t straightforward, and it varies from person to person. As there are many sides to an individual, Stoehr and Reutimann capture the many layers of the human experience. Both artists invite the viewer to discover their own truth; with each individual bringing their own background to a piece, the resulting interpretations are varied and endless.
“When I paint someone, it’s a blank face,” Stoehr says. “But what I’ve learned is that people are projecting onto that blank face. … The overall impression is that it’s an ambiguous canvas for the viewer to complete. …
“It’s this notion of, what do you see? I always have a shared gaze where the painting engages you with the eyes,” he continues. “I want people to go behind that face and look and ask what is this woman seeing, or ask why is this woman looking at me?”
Since his paintings evoke an underlying humanity, Stoehr’s work transcends cultural boundaries. One particular response from a Syrian refugee moved him deeply. After looking at one of his paintings, she found hope in her helpless situation and told Stoehr that he saved her life.
It’s one of Stoehr’s favorite parts of the creative process, letting the viewer create story lines for his paintings. As with the early Cubists, Stoehr preps the ingredients for the audience, but let’s them do cooking.
“It’s all about the scenarios that you create,” Stoehr says. “In a way, I give you a blank canvas, and you finish it. … You’ve finished a painting in your own mental image, which is better than I can do.”
On the Bill: Neo-Cubism: A New Perspective — by Roger Reutimann and William Stoehr. McMahon Gallery, Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. Through Dec. 3.