by Stella Occhialini 

“J’aime peindre de la même manière que je me promène ou prends la route,” French artist Stéphane Villafane explains in an opening speech at the artist’s reception for “On the Road,” his newest exhibition on display in Dolby Chadwick Gallery. 

 Stéphane Villafane | 06.03.2023,  2023 | Acrylic on canvas | 57.75 x 78.25 inches

English-speaking viewers shift their gaze to his 15-year-old daughter and translator Luna Villafane standing directly adjacent — “The way I like to paint is the same way I would take a walk, or hit the road,” she says. The artist includes a potent allusion to Jack Kerouac — Beat Generation pioneer; there’s a loud nod in the exhibit’s title, but a quieter one in the artistically channeled uneasiness of traveling the unknown.

“On the Road” marks Villafane’s first exhibit in the United States, making it a personal testament to traversing the uncharted. However, this exhibit also leaves room for viewers’ emotions regarding their own respective explorations of the unknown. 


The duo delivered their speech in front of one of the paintings, illuminating the connection between inspiration, art and artist. Articulating precisely which work they’re displayed in front of is a more challenging feat, given an abstract similarity between works and a lack of explicit titles. As confusing as it gets, this piece-by-piece anonymity gestures toward something greater than temporary disorientation: a canvas’s emotional universality. 


It’s one thing to look at a work of art and resonate with its contextual cultural positioning — to see a canvas hanging on the wall and say, “I appreciate this for what it represents.” But it’s an entirely different experience to gaze upon art that gives space for audiences’ emotional whims — art specific enough to be contextually appreciated while simultaneously vague enough to be personally applied. It’s a profound thing to look into the abstract eyes of a canvas’s streaks and splatters where one might process grief, another pride, and you, an entirely different feeling. There’s an intimacy in having artistic space that invites emotional undressing, something that Villafane taps into in “On the Road.”  


The exhibit’s universality doesn’t minimize the presence of Villafane’s own emotions regarding his traveling experience. A walk-through of the exhibit’s pieces (numbered one through 11) reveal a Keroucian let-your-hair-and-inhibitions-down kind of pilgrimage that Villafane idealizes. The wide overlapping paint streaks feel like an artistic translation of a road painted with tire marks, while the cool tones between warm hues convey a variety of traveled terrains —  sea, sand and rocky mountains. 


Beyond a portrayal of natural landscapes, there is also an exploration of the psychological impact of being on the road. The paintings begin boldly and vivaciously, full of spirit and grit in their purpose. But as the exhibit descends, their colors progressively mute and techniques become haphazard. By the time #11 is reached, there is an overwhelming exhaustion that imitates the feeling of just wanting to take a nap after a taxing road trip. 


It’s unclear if this is exactly what the pieces are going for, yet, their ambiguity provides space for the work to serve as emotional punching bags for throngs of viewers.

For example, when looking at #6, one (“one” being the writer here) may see the disruptive black splatter and romantic pinks swallowed by despairing blues and blacks and interpret it as angry and fervent. These emotions may prompt one’s reflection on the torturous nature of their past and present relationships and the frustration in the seemingly inevitable consumption of “good” by “bad.” 


Another viewer may see it in polar opposition — maybe understand it more optimistically, a defrosting bloom making way for spring, for example. The ability for a piece to become whatever the viewer wants it to be is an artistic value often replaced by an artist’s need to be individually “seen.” But Villafane prioritizes emotional universality, and it makes you want to hang his work all over your walls just to stare at it for hours, assigning it whatever new feeling you’re having for the day.  


“On the Road” leaves you with the comforting impression of being heard. So, if you find that therapy’s been breaking your bank recently, Villafane’s exhibit is open until March 30 at San Francisco’s Dolby Chadwick Gallery.

210 Post Street, Suite 205
San Francisco, CA 94108

Phone: 415.956.3560
Gallery Hours
Tuesday - Friday
9:00am - 6:00pm

11:00am - 5:00pm


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