Essay by Barbara Rose

Randall Stoltzfus, Contemporary Visionary

Randall Stoltzfus is a young painter who has already accomplished a great deal by learning the lessons of the history of art and bringing them up to date in subtle and luminous paintings of visionary landscapes. He is not afraid of the hard work required to create his sophisticated, painstakingly detailed, labor-intensive paintings. His work recalls the romantic mood of the American masters William Inness and Albert Pinkham Ryder, an artist who also inspired Jackson Pollock’s early works.

The points of light that coalesce to make up Stoltzfus’ nostalgic images of forests and lakes bring to mind the Impressionist technique of breaking up colors into individual dabs of paint. However, unlike the Impressionists and post Impressionists, Stoltzfus is not interested in the optical mixture of color or in high key hues and pastels. There are no visible figures in his works, although if one looks at the images long enough, strange faces and ghostly apparitions emerge. Indeed this is the magic of his art. The name of his website, sloweye.net, suggests his intention to slow down vision, recalling Andre Gide’s advice to his readers “Do not understand me too quickly.”

The name Stoltzfus gives us a clue to the artist’s background, since it is a surname shared by Mennonites who emigrated to the United States from Germany and to set up a community that wished to preserve the purity of an agricultural way of life. Related to the austere Amish of Pennsylvania, the Mennonites developed their own unique interpretation of the Bible emphasizing both pacifism and the apocalypse. Stoltzfus’ images of burning buildings and fiery storms recall this violent history as well as scenes from the films Witness and Days of Heaven, inspired by the singular customs and beliefs of the Amish and Mennonite communities and their separation from hedonistic and materialistic mainstream America.

Because he remembers his grandfather driving a horse and buggy until his death in the 1990’s, Stoltzfus is suspicious of the trendy instant art that is now fashionable. He does not worry about referencing the tradition by creating a new romantic style of painting, perhaps because he grew up in a community that had an unshakable faith in its traditional beliefs. Stoltzfus says, “The most valuable part of the background is that it changes my thinking about being hip or current. That allows me a less self-conscious involvement with the rich history of painting. I can drop the anxiety about the need to be fashionable and calmly concentrate on what moves me, which is great painting.”

He is conscious that his paintings are often dark in mood and that this darkness reflects the sobriety of the Mennonites and specifically the Amish, who reject technology to the point that they prohibit the photography of people. Among the books in Stoltzfus’ studio is Martyrs Mirror, which chronicles the death of every martyr to the Mennonite cause, beginning with Christ and continuing to the mid-seventeenth century in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, countries where Mennonites were attacked by both Catholics and Protestants. The history of the Mennonites provides him with a source for troubling imagery such as the burning figures and farmhouses that he sometimes paints.

Stoltzfus’ technical process is complex. He paints in oil, but modifies his materials whenever he needs something different than what is available commercially. This might mean additions of raw pigment or crushed glass to change the viscosity of the paint and create a raised surface that has a tactile appeal and additional presence. Sometimes he incorporates small amounts of gold leaf in order to give the paintings the greatest possible optical range. The resulting surface changes as the light changes in the room. When these canvases are hung in natural light, the perceived image can completely shift during the course of a day. A painting may literally go from abstraction to landscape and then back again. These subtleties only become apparent over time as images and forms appear and disappear.

Stoltzfus spends a great deal of time building layers of texture into the paintings through the gradual accumulation of paint. There is also an editing process that results in a highly original trompe l’ oeil effect. This occurs when individual areas of pigment are built up to create literal painted shadows and highlights. His obsession with tapping the full range of what paint can offer often creates a powerful luminosity, as if light were coming from the background and shining out of the painting. This luminous effect was the intention of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko as well. In Stoltzfus’ work each individual mark in the finished piece resonates with this goal to the extent that there is a quite literal optical vibration that gives a special life and incandescent glow to his paintings.

Like the luminous forms of Ryder, Newman, and Rothko, Stoltzfus’ images demand to be viewed in their original versions. This demand for first-hand, real-time viewing is a deliberate strategy to battle against the “instant” gratification of photography and reproduction or flat poster like graphic imagery. His is a strong new voice in painting based on an implacable faith in craft and in the resonance of paint itself that, like the religion of his Mennonite forebears, can resist all efforts to stamp it out.

Barbara Rose
4/20/2006

'Copse' by Randall Stoltzfus, 2007, oil and gold leaf on canvas, 16 by 20 inches
‘Copse’ by Randall Stoltzfus, 2007, oil and gold leaf on canvas, 16 by 20 inches