The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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JUNE 2023 Issue

Stephen Deffet: Shadow Heir

Stephen Deffet, <em>Metope: Fireworks</em> (2023). Oil on linen stretched panel, 12.25 x 9 inches. Courtesy the artist and Below Grand.
Stephen Deffet, Metope: Fireworks (2023). Oil on linen stretched panel, 12.25 x 9 inches. Courtesy the artist and Below Grand.
On View
Below Grand
May 20–June 17, 2023
New York

At Below Grand Gallery, nestled in a restaurant supply store on Orchard Street, Stephen Deffet’s triptych of narrow vertical paintings, Eternally Off Course (2023), hang on the convex wall of a window display. Each panel, evenly spaced from the next, features an interconnected segment of an unoccupied, sun-drenched bedroom. While the painting’s softened brushstrokes obscure its details, its objects and environment remain recognizable. You can almost see the air bubbles forming beneath the vintage floral wallpaper, inhale the dust accumulating on tchotchke shelves, and feel the coarse threadbare fibers of an oval throw rug beneath your feet. The room, which appears permanently frozen in the 1980s, does not bear mirrors, photographs, or any other marks of its occupants. It is an interior you might have inhabited but did not design; it’s a home, but not your home. 

What begins as innocent reminiscence escalates to an unsettling interrogation of the environment’s uncanniness, and by extension, your own recollections and integrity. What is in the other half of the room, the half that isn’t included in the triptych? Why is it so familiar, and why are you here now? Compelled, you squeeze through the store’s entrance and past its wiry racks of plates and cutlery through a side glass door, which contains the rest of Deffet’s evocative, contemplative, and deeply raw solo show Shadow Heir

Stephen Deffet, <em>Metope: Bed</em> (2023). Oil on linen stretched panel, 12.25 x 9 inches. Courtesy the artist and Below Grand.
Stephen Deffet, Metope: Bed (2023). Oil on linen stretched panel, 12.25 x 9 inches. Courtesy the artist and Below Grand.

Deffet’s paintings are gessoed panels superimposed on stretched linen dyed to match the tonality or saturation of their subject. Nine small panels that make up his “Metope” series are hung contiguously, resembling 35mm film strips in a video montage or an accordion photo album. The series title, taken from classical architecture’s representational vignettes spliced between triglyph relief columns, coupled with the paintings’ shapes, intimates their coexistence as individual memories and as a combined narrative. Presenting fragments of domesticity—daylight from above mid-level clouds, blurred stills of a stained-glass window, candids of plants and animals, close-ups of duvet covers—Deffet allows the viewer to piece together relationships between their images.

The dim light and reverent memorialization of objects in this body of work evokes the tradition of seventeenth-century Dutch vanitas, or still life, paintings. But where vanitas portrayed imported agriculture or exclusive handmade goods, touting a patron’s social and economic capital, Deffet’s subjects are mass-produced, so universalized that they are not beholden to a singular person, yet elevated by their aesthetic. He also draws visual and thematic inspiration from VHS footage, visible in his muted color palettes, subtle and blurred pixelations, eclectic compositions, and backgrounds dimmed by overexposed floods of natural light. Deffet’s tapes were filmed by strangers, accumulated rather than given to him directly by their owners. If this footage once revealed a family and or their deceased’s identities, we do not get the privilege of learning them. As its title implies, Shadow Heir decontextualizes home movies that were once preservations of events and locations that a family had once deemed significant, creating an ambiguous successor encouraging exploration and reinvention.

Stephen Deffet, <em>Metope: Bear (</em>2023). Oil on linen stretched panel, 12.25 x 9 inches. Courtesy the artist and Below Grand.
Stephen Deffet, Metope: Bear (2023). Oil on linen stretched panel, 12.25 x 9 inches. Courtesy the artist and Below Grand.

Following an anthropological “object autobiography” framework, each painting’s subject has had several lives of its own. The white teddy bear rendered in Metope: Bear (2023), for instance, began its life as a commodity, was presumably a beloved stuffed companion to an unknown owner, and now exists as public commemoration. Deffet’s paintings collectively bear additional meaning: the stele-shaped Metope: Grave (2023), featuring a cemetery, and Turned to Stone (2023), which depicts a table of flowers, care baskets, and other sympathy gifts, connote the exhibition’s overarching account of a funeral. Thus, Deffet’s paintings can also be interpreted as memento mori, transforming ordinary objects into funerary relics. Although one of the few living subjects in the series, Metope: Plant (2023), does not evince signs of decay, its context within the series foreshadows it. In Metope: Bed (2023), the titular bed’s austerity implies its owner’s permanent absence. Deffet’s somber depiction of a carousel in Metope: Horse (2023) brings the subtext of its cherished memories to the forefront, underscoring the bittersweet ephemeral nature of childhood.

In a cultural landscape marked by the potential to mechanize our innate curiosities about art through AI-generated “image expansions,” Shadow Heir is a valuable reminder that we must take comfort in the unknown. Whose funeral is this? Whose home are you in? If the Metopes exist sequentially, what are their corresponding triglyphs? True to life, Deffet’s art, with all its chilling beauty and simple aesthetics, form an intricate network of questions without definitive answers. Perhaps you have some.


Joanna Seifter

Joanna Seifter is a writer, artist, and museum professional living and working in New York City. She is a recent graduate of NYU's Museum Studies MA program.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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