The work of artist Janet Stayton illustrates fragments from life – numbers, words, phrases and idyllic vignettes from nature. Paintings within paintings – frames within frames, classical references as to architecture and arcadian views updated – all encased in contemporary visual language. Each image may represent a word, each word an image, the whole explicates the parts thereof.

Janet Stayton, whose works have been recently exhibited at the gallery of Clare Hall College in Cambridge, England, was born in Natchez, Mississippi, right on the river. Her father worked as an accountant for his father-in-law’s road-building company and when Stayton was young the family settled in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a place full of lakes and bayous. That early proximity to water may have partly informed the recurring depictions of water in her work.

Looking at these works it quickly becomes apparent that there is a lot more going on than the relatively straightforward application of oil paint to a flat surface (although as any serious painter will tell you there is nothing straightforward about putting oil on canvas).

Says Stayton: “Secrets and covert significances are also qualities that fascinate me in paintings; hidden layers of meaning, from pure and painterly meaning to emotional meaning. There could be actual symbols or marks having personal meaning hidden in the painting; a personal symbolism that might be read as universal to the viewer; the secrets known only to the artist unless told to a historian; in which case, personal history and aesthetic history become linked. So even a tree in my paintings may have layers of meaning – many layers, from personal to objective.”

In the first instance, the surface of many of these paintings is not uniform or flat, but rather composed of applied layers, square or rectangular in shape on a canvas ground. On closer inspection, some of the layers turn out to be separate pieces of canvas, each individually painted and enclosed within a painted representation of its own decorative frame. Others seem to be made from a different material altogether – an artist’s plaster or stucco, applied to the canvas and then painted or inscribed while still wet, not unlike a fresco technique. In many cases, the applied sections are very pronounced – such as the grey-green stucco frame in the work entitled Impressionist where it stands slightly proud of the surface of the canvas, lending a tough materiality to the picture plane

The result of this innovative compositional approach – an assemblage of sorts – is a picture surface comprised of discrete compartments that create a sense of pictures within pictures.

According to Stayton: “I may be inspired by something I see, or read, or by an idea. It may be a visual idea or schema or it may be a color or image. Sometimes I feel a color shining behind my eyes ready to illuminate a painting – providing a stimulus to enter the work. I may be inspired by nature or a great masterpiece in a museum – artists inspect and assimilate the art of others – a kind of passive robbery… no work is new… under the sun.”

There is more than a slight sculptural element to these new paintings – something approaching low relief. The surfaces are alive, not only with the vigorous impasto of oil paint and the traces of brushwork, but also with the deeply incised sgraffito-like pattern-making of a tool worked into the wet stucco, which often leaves a channel deep enough to capture light and cast shadow, adding another dimension to the surface of the canvas.

Stayton is a master at referencing our shared imaginative memory and lived social experience – of European landscape painting, of the pleasure of enjoying food al fresco in the Mediterranean sun on a promontory of land overlooking the sea. This was a realm mythologized by Matisse in his famous Luxe, calme et volupté of 1904 and which finds its contemporary manifestation in Stayton’s vibrant paintings.

Stayton’s unquenchable passion for Fauvist colour, Impressionist light and the timeless iconography of European classical landscape make it easy to overlook the structural complexity of the work currently being shown at Clare Hall in Cambridge. We are now familiar with the Modernist preoccupation with the factual reality of the picture surface that seeks to contradict the representation of fictive space, but to this conceit Stayton has added another dimension.

Another notable feature of many of the work shown here is the use of text, usually inscribed in a cursive script into the surface of the stucco panel while it is still wet. This process of naming the painted forms already present elsewhere in the composition is an approach whose roots can be traced back to early Cubism where it was used to draw attention to the schism between reality and painted representation. In Stayton’s work it might be read as a desire to emphasise the voluptuous plenitude of the material world in which she rejoices.

Her interest in experimentation is demonstrated by the inclusion of silver leaf in the work entitled Silver where it forms the background to the temple drawn to occupy the upper left quarter of the canvas. The silver also appears in the trees that sit alongside it and also in the sketchy temple form with profile at the lower half of the canvas.

Such is the technical and semantic richness of the Classic compositions, so broad the range of techniques and discrete motifs in each individual painting, that we are prompted into an ekphrastic engagement that is as much to do with naming as with looking.

Take, for instance, the canvas entitled Fishermen. The painting features two prominent panels in oil – one depicting the eponymous fishermen in a Derain-inspired moonlit landscape made of myriad dashes of turquoise and blue, the other showing a wooden bridge over the water with a temple in the background illuminated against a fiery sky. Elsewhere in the canvas we find a pale, bleached-out temple structure standing alone, almost as a decorative device rather than being pictorial in any conventional landscape sense. Above this is a small rectangular panel of scrolled volutes abutting against another horizontal band of pale, pinky orange tiles made from chalky stucco. Between these is another grisaille panel incised with a tree by the water with a boat afloat beneath the moon drawn with a simple economical line.

Stayton’s canvases encourage us to engage in this process of description and itemization as the eye travels across the canvas, looking and reading both image and text, comparing and contrasting similar and different patterns and juxtapositions, recognizing and remembering symbolic devices, gauging and measuring real and fictive depth. It is a process that is as enriching across different canvases as within a single work and it is as rewarding in the works on paper as it is in the canvases.

The recent series of works on paper have been composed from elements cut and pasted from Stayton’s own extensive archive of drawings and sketches created over many years. The decision to re-make and re-model these sketches into fresh works became an invigorating project for Stayton, allowing her to revisit the traces of previous experiences and breathe new life into them. They highlight Stayton’s brilliant draughtsmanship and agile instinct for composition. The papiers collés technique she employs here reveals a delicacy and lightness of touch that sets up an interesting counterpoint to the Classic canvases. One senses a process of cross-pollination between the two creative disciplines, the cutting, pasting and re-working of the sketch archive providing a compositional testing-ground for the larger canvases, while standing as self-contained works in their own right.

The works on paper also offer an illuminating path back into earlier moments in Stayton’s career. One can see here the progeny of the so-called ‘Worksheet’ project she initiated in 1975, which occasionally involved the use of string, canvas, etc., laid down alongside watercolour on the paper ground. These in turn seem to derive in part from the quasi-surrealist imagery that preoccupied her earlier in the 1970s, and particularly the so-called ‘Desert Dreams’ series eventually shown at the David Deitcher Gallery in New York in 1975. These dream-like desert scenes featured large striped stones set in a barren, lunar landscape. Did they perhaps evolve from her Japanese sojourn and her exposure to the formal aesthetic economy of Japanese gardens?

It is always encouraging to encounter artists with a sense of art history, the more so because so many contemporary artists today seem ignorant and dismissive of earlier traditions. Stayton’s interest in art history is best expressed through her paintings, which are the product of years of careful looking and a deep respect for the achievements of her art historical forebears. There is nothing retardataire in her approach, however. She lives in the present and looks to the future and her ability to synthesize the historical and the contemporary lends her work a particular energy and dynamism.

Excerpted text from Tom Flynn, Janet Stayton: Pictures Within Pictures, Pietrasanta, 2010