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Todd Stone's remarkable Witness paintings show us images as familiar -- and as intimate -- as the insides of our own eyelids: the twin towers of the World Trade Center intact, then horrifically blasted. The enormous fireball is shown against a perfect blue September sky, with all the clarity that watercolor, at its limpid best, can achieve. We see billows of smoke and ash, and a terrible void: devastation of biblical proportions. Stone's paintings are big, luminous, and exact, and as unflinching as the photographs they're made from, which he took himself, from home, six blocks north of ground zero.

But the familiarity of the images he caught with his camera is of a different order than the paintings, a distinction that begins along the temporal dimension. Like terror, painting can enlarge a moment, stretching it to the verge of timeless stasis (photography, by contrast, collapses it). There is, next, the difference of physicality: painting routes the images through the artist's body, through his (or her) eyes and bloodstream and nervous system and hands, and the result, particularly with subject matter as emotionally freighted as this, is felt just as viscerally by the viewer. (Conversely, images routed through an optical instrument -- a camera -- are often experienced as chilling, an antithetical if also formidable power.)

It follows, though indirectly, that paintings are more idiosyncratic: in Stone's, we are given to see things that most cameras seem to have missed, including the bright bits of debris suspended in the clouds of smoke, and the flocks of birds sent into panicked flight by the initial crash. Also, mass-media-circulated images of the September 11 attack itself (as opposed to the rescue effort) seldom featured people. The introduction of personal presence, which painting always insists on -- this is the medium's signal characteristic, implicit in every brushstroke (and honored even in the breach) -- offers another marked distinction with photographs of the event. Finally, there is the question of painting's own heritage in picturing the landscape and, as subset, the cityscape. The watercolor tradition, from the sun-shot seas of Winslow Homer to the precise modernist architecture of Charles Demuth, is associated with the achievement of particularly light-struck transparency.

By adding this series of images, this event, to that lineage, Stone engages a sense of historical time that goes beyond the limits of process. Here the advantage over photography includes both the simple material durability of painting and, more important, the medium's historical survival -- its cultural endurance. Stone has been a realist painter for ten years; he didn't create this idiom for these circumstances, which is abundantly evident in the assurance with which he represents the unimaginable; it seems to have simply poured out of him. The jarring conjunction of thoroughly internalized ability with unprecedented demands concerns not just technique but also subject. This composition, this view, these buildings had been Stone's subjects for a long time. He was getting ready for a day of work when the first building was hit.

That, too is implicitly visible in the paintings, and it echoes an aspect of the experience of those present at the disaster (and not this one alone). What made it the more horrible was the intrusion of the unthinkable into the everyday, the utterly banal; into a scene so well-known it had become nearly invisible. For those who were further from the Trade Center on September 11 than Stone, his paintings offer the possibility – the gift, and the challenge -- of sharing some measure of that immediacy.

Nancy Princenthal
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