Still figures may be icons or just cliches Art review: Stuart Stein does interesting work with motion picture images but is more creative elsewhere.

January 17, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Stuart P. Stein, whose paintings are on view at Galerie Francoise, works primarily from movie stills. He takes a still -- sometimes a familiar shot from a familiar movie, sometimes not -- and, to use his term, recontextualizes it.

Actually, what he does is more like decontextualization. For he uses the figures but removes the setting. So we have, in the painting titled "The Horse Soldier," a rider galloping at full speed from the film "Fort Apache" (we assume it's John Wayne but the figure has been left faceless), but the landscape has been removed. In "The Suit," from the movie "Grand Hotel," we have a man in a suit shown prone as if dead or in some kind of agony. But there is no background. "The Terror," from the movie "The 39 Steps," shows the head of a woman who is screaming. "The Romance," from "West Side Story," shows us the figure of the dead hero Tony.

By removing his figures from their movie contexts, Stein, in his well-executed paintings, makes them more or less generic symbols rather than specific characters from specific stories. The dead Tony becomes a symbol for death at a young age, the screaming head is a symbol for terror, the figure in "The Suit" stands for suffering, and the rider perhaps stands for heroism.

The problem with these images is that they're too familiar, so they've lost their power to affect us very much. Even if one doesn't know what movies they're from, or even if one has never seen those movies, one has seen images much like these numerous times because they are more or less stock images. Stein may think of them as cultural icons, but it's equally easy to see them as cliches.

Of the 19 works in the show, four -- a painting and three small charcoal drawings -- are not taken from the movies and they are by far the best works in the show. The painting, "The Red Room," shows a man doubled over in a space that one takes to be on a ship from its cramped quarters and the bolted steel structures we see. It's not at all clear what's taking place here -- is the guy just bending to move from one place to another or has he been shot? -- and the ambiguity gives the picture much of its strength. But Stein also does interesting things here with light and with structuring the space to provide a sense of claustrophobia.

Much the same virtues distinguish the drawings, which though small (only 5 1/2 -by-5 1/2 inches) give you the feel of large spaces such as old, empty factories with leftover machinery in them. They possess a gripping sense of the ominous.

It's good that the show includes these four works, because without them one might think Stein concentrates on movie images out of a lack of imagination. But that's not true; he can create original works, and he should do it more often.

Still lifes

What: Paintings by Stuart P. Stein

Where: Galerie Francoise, Green Spring Station, Falls and Joppa roads

When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through Jan. 31

Call: (410) 337-2787

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