Brian Keith Stephens | Focus

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TERRIFIC STEPHENS, genius and unruliness

Stephens’ work is terrific, employing every meaning of the term: it is mystifying in its subversion of expectation and limitless possibility. It is also incredible, exceptional, and fabulous.

Stephens is an artist whose energy and boldness, both in the process and in the outcome, fascinate his audience. Working on many pieces at the same time is characteristic of his method: he often does not focus solely on a single work but starts from multiple sketches in a way that is stimulating and reciprocal. Gradually, he adds elements, focusing alternately on each work, moving from one to another, driven by the energy of artistic creation. As an effect, his paintings are in dialogue with one another, and the result is to see the paintings as connected.

Stephens loves the vitality that emanates from his studio. The ambiance of this organic and productive space is channeled through the artist’s perception into the vibrant atmosphere of his canvases. His work is not automatic or rigid, but, on the contrary, fresh and airy. It displays a dynamic style, one in which the boundaries between reality and imagination fade into the densely-woven tapestries of color.

The brushstrokes which are quick, and joyful but not frivolous, let the viewer perceive the overflowing inspiration, raw in the beginning and concluding in finished pieces of magnificent symbolic – and visual – richness

Beyond the impression of playfulness, sometimes a surprise or even a provocation – all of which suggest that the art is above all personal and introspective endeavor – Stephens’ work proves to be accessible to everyone. It allows the viewer to create a free association of ideas and recall various events and experiences from their own life, sometimes in unexpected juxtaposition. Such a synesthetic tapestry brings back to mind feelings and thoughts that are previously hidden, vital instincts, primal urges, and physical sensations.

Stephens Brian Keith, Isola Bella, 2023, oil wax on linen, 80x60 cm

Reflecting on the emotional palette that accompanies his painting, Stephens has said: 

“For myself, the emotions that occupy my mind and capture my energy are that of love, desire, and the fear of hurt or disappointment. And so, at the center of my work are these forceful emotions–they guide my hand to paint and my heart and mind to live. My work explores the emotions that guide us, that pull us and push is and ultimately define who we are, in relation to others and to ourselves.”

Stephens believes that animals are vehicles used by humans in visual and verbal stories throughout the ages to display these emotions in an immediate and understandable way while also maintaining a degree of mystery and fascination. In his previous works, human and animal figures were part of a perpetual game whichparadoxically is an ideal harmony: a mystical alter-reality in which the human is the animal and the animal is the human, one the alter ego of the other, two different entities that are in continuous dialogue with each other. 

In the new collection of works presented at PUNTO SULL’ARTE, a number of them created during the artist’s residency in Varese, Stephens’ flora and fauna lacks the presence of a human figure. The relationship between the individual and nature remains but is completely internalized and not made explicit on the canvas. The audience is invited to be the only human in dialogue with the portrayed animals.

Stephens Brian Keith, I know I dont know, 2022, oil on linen, 120x140cm
Stephens Brian Keith, Excelling in Excellence, 2023, Olio su tela, 152 x 150 cm

It is no coincidence that these new paintings repeatedly feature the concept of a secret garden, a place linked to both an exotic, fabled nature and earthly passions. Also in the new works on paper, with dominating graphic elements and a modular style, the artist’s subject – the animal – is further deprived of naturalism. Animals become a pattern, a pure allegory, a repeated, split, exasperated graphic sign, ambiguous/indistinct almost to the point of dissolving.

Stephens’ art is also highly referential, featuring diverse and unexpected allusions to the author’s travels, in this case, especially in Italy. Among such references, viewers will notice Sala di Re Ruggero II, with its mosaics and arabesques, from the Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo.

In multiple depictions in the room, mosaics feature stylized trees and animals, fantastic creatures, and hunting scenes. Peacocks, lions, and other exotic creatures exist in a fable-like atmosphere and recall the aesthetics of Genoardo (from the Arabic gennet-ol-ardh, meaning “paradise of the earth”) from the Islamic tradition. The themes are secular with no direct references to the sacred. Unlike the nearby Cappella Palatina, the Sala di Re Ruggero II was intended for the exclusive use of the sovereign for his moments of leisure and amusement. Through Stephens’ interpretation, he creates a visual language that reaffirms the room’s playfulness, worldliness, and splendor. Such language is strengthened through the artist employing a more contemporarymedium – paper – inserting shapes of color and placing them in geometric patterns similar to that of the mosaics.

Stephens Brian Keith, Paper Mosaic 003, 2023, mixed media on paper, 28x38cm
Stephens Brian Keith, Paper Mosaic 006, 2023, mixed media on paper, 28x38cm

Stephens uses a multitude of ideas, styles, and materials in his work. Throughout his career, he has experimented with different techniques within his art, often attaching fabrics, clothing, paper, and photographsto the surface of his canvases often covering them with broad brushstrokes and spatula traits. A lesser-known medium in his practice, which could help to fully understand the eclectic style of the artist, is video.

The style which Stephens often uses in his videos (which are collaborative pieces between him and his wife – photographer and multimedia artist Pola Esther), is filled with retro colors, like a summer vacation in Palm Springs: nostalgic visions of the carelessness of childhood and moments when the mind cheerfully wanders. The artist considers these cinematic vignettes as an extension of his paintings, a sort of thinking of (and not so much a making of) his work in the studio.


The videos somehow allow the viewer to get on the same wavelength as Stephens’ imaginative universe. Thanks to an exemplary use of color, the absence of direct trajectories, the aura of eternal adolescence,the same components which can be found on his canvases and which correspond with the meanings and atmosphere of his work. 

“At the center of my work and life are these fascinations with myth, the spectrum of human passion, our kinship to the spirit of the wild animal, and challenge of balancing the real with the fanciful. We must balance all of this while also navigating the spectrum of time, the web of past, present and future. My art has been and continues to be my outlet for exploring these themes and conjuring up new ones.”