Stephen Magsig’s many urban scenes share one common feature: despite the realism, they possess an eerie, foreboding atmosphere. Depicted locations appear to have just been abandoned, as if evacuated due to an impending catastrophe. During this unseen turmoil, the artist locks the procession, and documents what has been left behind.
Perhaps this mood is characteristic of the city to which Stephen Magsig is so dedicated — the city of Detroit. The artist strives to represent it from various angles, in multiple settings, and different times of day, as well as night. He paints the downtown and the immediate suburbia, all in the endeavor to make the representation as objective and as comprehensive as possible.
Looking at these pieces one cannot help but become fascinated with the city, its life, and its history. The Detroit series evoke a sense of respect and even awe towards the industrial beast: a sentiment shared and conveyed by the artist.
The variety of locations reveals the minutiae of the city’s expansion. The towers and the high windows demonstrate vertical growth; criss-crossing streets and junctures display depth and horizontal spreading. Geographical span — and especially the linear roads and cables — bring to mind the progression of time. Getting from one point to another, we are reminded, always takes time.
Most of these urban snippets are well lit — just about enough to convey a reserved sense of optimism, which, in turn, the night scenes may whittle down. The artist consistently dwells on corner buildings and shops; as a result, one side would often be abundantly illuminated while the other would remain in deep shadow.
These clashes of light and shadow, while captured from a point of view of an actual crossroad, suggest the allegorical crossroad of the struggle between light and dark. Many of the structures appear to be sliced by various horizontal objects (for instance, poles or columns), contributing to an uncertain sense of anxiety.
The artist exploits well the inherently static nature of his subjects, and concocts punchy, effective compositions. Portrayed objects, often quite massive, are confronted head-on, decisively and unflinchingly. Similar qualities are also notable in the brushwork: a pair of thick paint strokes will define an architectural motif, or delineate an emerging strip of light.
Through a continuous focus on Detroit’s neighborhoods, buildings, factories, and parks, Stephen Magsig offers his vision of the city. He carved a niche — “A visual diary of Detroit in paintings,” in his own words — and, eventually, proved it to be very resourceful.
Stephen Magsig exhibits his artwork at various established galleries and on this blog.
*this article has been edited at a later date