The exhibition of paintings by Stephen Tanis (b. 1945), at Sherry French Gallery in New York City, is entitled “Close at Hand,” reflecting the sometimes startling immediacy of these recent still lifes and figure studies. That immediacy comes across as psychological in figure groups such as Srebrenica (2003)—a reaction to the Bosnian tragedy of the mid-1990s—and the more low-key Scuffle (2001). Humanistic rather overtly political, these large-scale, multifigure compositions combine the ambition of history painting with the down-to-earth quality of mid-twentieth-century social realists such as Raphael Soyer. Tanis has also been inspired by the Italian and Spanish old masters. In the mid- to late nineties, he frequently replicated Renaissance or Baroque subjects as backdrops to still-life elements. Cleopatra (1998) and Assumption (1994), with a tumble of putti behind calla lilies, are good examples.
Tanis’s new still lifes dispense with art historical quotation, with mostly good results. Concentrating on such perennial elements as flowers, fruit and shells, he levels his gaze with intensity. Shells (2006) displays a collector’s assortment of curvaceous specimens—rough or buffed to a high gloss by the sea—across the nubby pile of a boldly patterned kilim carpet. The composition is too congested, although the illusion of three-dimensionality is striking, accentuated by the deep shadows that carve out the stiff folds of the rug. Color serves a structural as well as a decorative function in Tanis’s still lifes. In Red Pears (2005) the incandescent scarlet of the fruit contrasts almost violently with the blue-green tones of the tissue-paper wrappings. The purplish bruising of a few overripe pears adds a touch of the vanitas theme, but the principal thrust of the picture is the drama of the juxtaposition between hot and cool colors, which gives the still life a nearly sculptural solidity. Even when his palette is more restrained, Tanis’s still lifes are notable for their convincing tangibility. The vaguely extraterrestrial forms of Shells II (2006) pop against the sky-blue background. A study in browns and white, Breads (2006) presents a bouquet of bulbous loaves in a woven basket; two round little rolls cast velvety shadows across the smooth, snowy table top. Bowl of Peppers (2006) contrasts the wrinkled purple and green of the peppers against smooth, cool porcelain and the warmer white of a rumpled cloth. Tanis’s figure compositions, while interesting, have an illustrative quality. When he concentrates on everyday objects, without spelling out the iconographic, social or even spatial context, he paradoxically hints at the metaphysical realm. His scrutiny reveals not only the sensuousness of the things around us but their timeless beauty as well. The exhibition is on view November 1–25, 2006, at Sherry French Gallery, Starrett-Lehigh Building, 13th Floor, 601 West 26th Street, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (212) 647–8867. On the Web at www.sherryfrenchgallery.com