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Review: Spehn at Schmidt: Rush to see it

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 19, 2010 - “Erik Spehn: Six Whites/Three Reds” is an exhibition of some of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen. Having said that, I hope no one rushed to the exhibition expecting Van Gogh-style flowers or jaw-dropping trompe-l’oeil fruit. (I do, however, hope that people rush to the exhibition.)

These paintings are far more cerebral than your typical beautiful pictures. Their expression emerges from subtle, implicit relationships within the paintings — it’s not obvious, but it’s there, if you look hard enough.

The 13 paintings in this show are divided by color: about half are blood-red and burgundy, and the other half are variations on white—cream colors, white tones, with the occasional reds surfacing here and there. In each, there’s a background and a foreground of stripes or grids. The overlays can be rigidly applied, like graph paper, or they can be curving, floating, evoking scarves floating in the breeze.

The red paintings were done about a year ago. Their backgrounds are wavy lines, made with a brush in burgundy and black. Over this, Spehn has painted vertical lines with an eyedropper, and the association with tears is inescapable.

The white paintings appear more minimalist and more controlled, but — ironically — they have more to say. “Brother” and “Sister” (both 2009) have thin, white, vertical lines of acrylic paint riding over creamy backgrounds. “Remembered” and “Forgotten” (also 2009) are mirrors of one another — one puts a precisely rendered acrylic grid over a canvas base, the other sports acrylic paint squares in a “negative” version of its partner.

In every painting, unexpected effects emerge: Spehn frequently makes a painting, covers it with canvas, and then lays tape strips over it, painting a layer of acrylic, removing the tape, and revealing a gridded system that counterbalances the subtle, subcutaneous swells and color tones of the underlying layers. These are intense, time-consuming efforts, involving precise technique and all-out dedication.

But why? Why invest one’s heart and soul in an effort whose products are so subtle that viewers have to devote a great deal of energy just to detect their individual details?

The answer is fairly simple: Spehn’s works express the inexpressible. Love, loss, mourning and redemption can’t adequately be expressed in the quotidian language of flowers and hearts. Spehn exerts the effort required to say what words and pictures simply can’t say. And if these works require something more of viewers, so be it. In the end, we’re the beneficiaries. 

Ivy Cooper, a professor of art at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is the Beacon's art critic.