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In a Conspiracy of Paint Blotches and Shadows, Meaning and Art

Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Stefan Eins, foreground, saw a striking similarity between a shadow, center of background, on a facade of Lenox Hill Hospital, and his own profile.

Published: August 26, 2009

Scenes from Harlem sidewalks: a nasty splotch of green paint, or a clenched-fist image of defiance; a blue blob, or a spot-on profile of President Bill Clinton. As Stefan Eins would ask, coincidence or not coincidence?

Along the streets near Marcus Garvey Park, Mr. Eins found “Slavery,” a green paint spot that looks, to him, like either a person collapsed on the ground, or a torso raising a clenched fist.

Through the eyes of Stefan Eins, an irregular blue patch of paint looked like former President Bill Clinton in profile.

Small surprise that Mr. Eins would find order among random lines and spots. In the late 1970s, he found art among the chaos of the South Bronx as the founder of Fashion Moda, a legendary gallery that brought together downtown hipsters and uptown hip-hoppers. But all along he has pursued his own art, teasing meaning from otherwise-random lines, spots and cracks that most New Yorkers pass without noticing.

He notices. To him, these sidewalk tableaux make him ever more convinced that there is a higher intelligence behind it all. In one of his photographs, “From and to Another Dimension,” for instance, a crack in the sidewalk arches through one square, into another and ends in an orange paint splatter.

“I find situations that correlate to my verbal expressions, as if I had created them,” he said, with a tinge of an accent from his native Austria. “But I didn’t create them. But they are there. My theory is that I created them in a different realm of existence.”

Mr. Eins himself can span several realms of existence in a single conversation. Inside his bright, minimalist Harlem apartment near Marcus Garvey Park, he can go from quiet and halting to expressive and effusive, his lanky frame leaping out of a seat to pace about the room as he discusses his work.

On walls and window sills, and tucked into neat stacks, are pieces that deal with “the physics of liquid formation,” as he calls some of his earlier work. The pieces were influenced by his long association with leading graffiti artists at Fashion Moda.

He realized that the spots left by quick spray bursts looked lifelike. One resembles a group of tiny, fluorescent pink horseshoe crabs. In another piece, he let green paint flow into white, resulting in a latticework resembling moss.

“The physics of liquid formation are the physics of biology,” he said. “This is a liquid formation. But it is also moss. Same thing. That is why I became an artist, to investigate and find new bounds of knowledge.”

He goes to the narrow hallway and hauls out a slab of plywood onto which he had let brown paint flow.

“This is the ‘Monkey Donkey’ thing,” he said. “It’s monkey rides donkey. Totally random. That in itself is totally amazing. I did this and this happened. This is miraculous to me.”

Mr. Eins’s work has been exhibited at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, in Vienna and in Kyrgyzstan, where he has curated two shows and plans another this year. Writing in Art in America in 2000, David Ebony described Mr. Eins’s spray paint splatters as “spare and lyrical” and “poignant.”

In the last few years, he has been working closer to home. In August 2006 he checked into Lenox Hill Hospital for a facelift. When he awoke the next morning, he looked out the window and saw — his face. The early-morning sun was casting a shadow that actually resembled his angular profile. He returned there on a recent Saturday to document the shadow with a photograph. In one shot, a weathered copper cornice looks like a crown.

“I immediately identified with it,” he said. “It looked like me. It also had this crown thing. This king thing. Not that I want to be a king, because kings oppress other people. Whatever.”

His other recent project can be found right in his neighborhood, along the streets near Marcus Garvey Park. That was where he found “Slavery,” a green paint spot that looks like either a person collapsed on the ground, or a torso raising a clenched fist.

A cognitive psychologist would say his mind is only seeking patterns he is predisposed to find. Mr. Eins says that may be true, but adds that the patterns may not have been accidental. Maybe he is operating on another dimension beyond the usual limits of time and space, he suggested.

“Naturally, you have the artist’s vision,” he said. “You just can’t go out and find these everywhere.”

Not that many people stop to look. Juan Urena and his son, Juan Jr., were standing on the green spot one morning when they were told that it was actually art.

“What’s it look like to you, Papi?” he asked his son.

“A state?” replied the boy.

“It looks like a hand, to me,” the father said. “More or less.”

But another passer-by kept right on going, concerned about a whole different kind of order among chaos.

“Come here!” she said, walking right past the spot as she chased after a wandering toddler. “Come. Here.”

“I got to watch him,” she said, as she walked away. “I got to watch him.”

 

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