Stephanie Brody-Lederman's ‘Subrosa of Thoughts’

She discovered she could combine “my love of words with the graphic aspects of painting,”
Stephanie Brody-Lederman lives and works in an architectural masterpiece, both inside and outside, in Northwest Woods. Jennifer Landes

With her mysterious fragments of text and her recurring mix of painted objects dense with symbolic meaning, it is easy to mistake the work of Stephanie Brody-Lederman for some sort of rebus for anyone with the stamina and insight to solve.

But this is an assumption she will immediately refute, and did on a recent weekend at her house and studio in Northwest Woods, where she was readying eight paintings for a focused look at her work opening at Guild Hall on Oct. 24.

The fact is, there is no one solution. She said she chooses the words and images for her paintings to be as open-ended as possible yet still suggestive of something, with the final meaning left up to the viewer.

She mentioned Gertrude Stein’s “Everyone’s Autobiography” as an influence in this, but her resistance to capturing or revealing a singular meaning in the work may lie somewhat deeper. “Being from the first generation of an immigrant family, I was told feelings should be hidden. I think this is a way to express feelings without being overt or getting into trouble.”

She has been including text in her paintings since graduate school in the mid-1970s. It was a natural outgrowth of a conflict she had as an undergraduate choosing between the majors of studio art and painting or English literature and creative writing. “I went to the University of Michigan school of architecture and design and couldn’t take enough writing classes, so I transferred to the school of literature, science, and the arts. Then I couldn’t take enough painting classes.”

While working on her master’s in fine art at C.W. Post, she discovered she could combine “my love of words with the graphic aspects of painting,” a combination that has worked for several decades.

“I’m hunting and gathering a lot, going out and finding words and getting rid of those that are too revealing or too specific,” she said. “I think of words almost in the same way as graphic phenomena, and I hone them mercilessly.” She edits them down “until they say as much as I want them to say . . . so that the viewer can engage and complete the work with his or her own sensibility.”

While her painting style came into its own in graduate school, she said the early years of her marriage and motherhood on the Upper West Side helped shape her sensibilities as an artist. At the 112th Street sandbox in Riverside Park, she met up with fellow parents who were New York Times writers and editors and creative types such as Alan Alda. Nearby was the Thalia Theater, where she saw films by directors including Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini.

But it wasn’t just the adults in her circle who shaped her. “Bringing up young children had a profound influence on my future art-making.” By watching their development she was privy to “the complexities of the human psyche. The development of young minds with French filmmakers became my bouillabaisse of influences.”

She loved French culture and the heyday of Parisian modernism so much that she and her husband now have an apartment in Paris they visit about three times a year. They vary their time among there, East Hampton, and New York City, and she said she is inspired by all of those locations. In addition, they trekked to the settings of various films they loved and retraced the steps of  Gerald and Sara Murphy, two celebrated expatriates in 1920s France who were the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night.”

Some of that fascination was inherited from her mother, who she said was enthralled by the “lost generation.” But she is often less interested in the iconic sites of Paris than the walls that show their age, revealing multiple layers that have been added over the years. “They’re like pentimento, each layer is a timepiece.”

Despite her family’s reluctance to share their feelings, Ms. Brody-Lederman grew up “intrinsically knowing that life was more than just the surface. I wanted to get to the subrosa of thoughts we all have” without being direct or specific about it. Viewers might ask, “Is this about jealousy, childhood, fear?” But they will not find anything concrete except in their hearts because the work is so simple.

What you will see in her work are fragments of text, recurring images like cherries, trees, a bird, tables, etc. They are objects that have universal symbolic meaning or an unnamed personal meaning to the artist. Her background surfaces are layered in paint that she may add strips of canvas or leftover palette paint to for texture or scratch to reveal previous layers. She said she can’t approach an empty canvas; she must take a brush to it and create the background and often the mood of the piece.

There are a number of works in the upcoming show that have recent dates but have been hanging around her studio for years. If she thinks there is something missing or not quite resolved in the work, she will keep it around, forcing herself to encounter it until she figures out what it needs. “It’s all a dance; it’s all intuitive.”

The show at Guild Hall is the second solo one she has received for winning top honors at the annual members show. Elisabeth Sussman gave her the distinction in 2013, exactly 10 years after her selection by Carolyn Lanchner.

Ms. Brody-Lederman received her first show from James Yu when, after graduate school, she loaded up a truck with paintings and took them around to several galleries in SoHo. She has been exhibiting consistently ever since.

Her new show will open concurrently with exhibitions of work by Cornelia Foss and Walter Weissman and pieces from Guild Hall’s permanent collection. It will remain on view through Jan. 3. There will be a reception from 4 to 6 p.m. on Oct. 24.

“It Began With My Dog,” above, and “Under the Extra Blanket,” below, will be part of Guild Hall’s upcoming exhibition of recent works by Stephanie Brody-Lederman.
“High”Gary Mamay Photos