Voyager (The House)
There is No Clear Right Answer
Voyager as image of an old, three-story house is on its own journey. The painting by Stephen Brophy (1940–2015) follows the print, follows the drawing, follows the photo. I’m hoping it will come clear why Steve named a house after a ship at sea or some itinerant traveler. He depicted it many times over.
This isn’t my story to tell, except the part that came later. How momentous it was for the painting to be included in a 2013 show at the Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson, NY, which now represents his estate.
Instead, this story belongs to a younger Steve and his niece Anna, who now lives in Seattle, and his sister Julie, Anna’s mother, who predeceased Steve by some 20 years. Julie and Anna actually lived for a short time in the bottom floor of this house.
I’m kicking myself that I never asked Steve this basic question: Why name a house Voyager? Since he didn’t often title his paintings, I have to assume this one had some special meaning for him. And since he created from his experiences, I’m even more sure this house held a particular association as well.
Perhaps — and I’m only guessing here — the house helped ground a direct physical connection to a wayward sister, herself unbound to family, to place, to earth.
But I’m wrong to guess— even as I get the picture that this wasn’t an altogether happy home. Retreating to safer ground, I’ll try to uncover Steve’s artistic voyage — and let the biographical one go for now.
An artistic voyage
As an artist, Steve held a deep appreciation and love for classic, elegantly designed structures, especially when compared to more convenient, cheap or utilitarian replacements. He plainly liked this house. He liked the look of it.
He didn’t so much dwell in the past— since we’re talking odyssey here — than stop along the way, remark on it and move on. That’s what I’ll try to do here. Take steps, in reverse chronological order, from painting to print, from drawing to photo — before ending with a *bonus* work.
Having established Steve’s admiration for neat old structures (apartment buildings, bridges, houses, barns), we now know THIS house, this Voyager, with its creamy walls and sky blue roofs, held some particular sway over him.
Like Edward Hopper or Milton Avery, artists he admired, Steve ruminated on the scene’s formal qualities. The beautiful Voyager is cleared of extraneous detail. It faces a late-day sun, just before tectonic shadows cover the house in darkness. It could be anywhere, in the country perhaps, with no one else around. Indeed, no people appear to be at home either; partly drawn window shades hide darkened rooms. Rather, the statement of unknown lives is told in planes of color and shape, in the very bones of the house.
The evocation of the pared down, coolly painted house is rendered starker and more immediate in the print. This Voyager’s black-on-white shadows and textures are executed by cross-hatched and striated lines. The etched house pops in relief, in contrast to the flattened, more compressed space of the painted one: just note the windows on the side. Each step along this voyage has suppressed detail.
I see this print hanging in the hallway of my house 50 times a day (well, maybe 20). It puts me in Steve’s studio with him. I envision him reworking an image lodged in the front lobes of his consciousness for more than 15 years.
And now, as we move backwards in our journey, we see a significant shift: from the formal planes and textures of Voyager (the etching and painting) to the personal narrative and realism of Voyager (the drawing and photograph). And we are introduced to someone in the window.
The house is precisely drawn, yet the medium of pencil lends to a softer, more inviting Voyager than what we get from the print version. Without sentiment, it conveys a particular past time and place, one that is also less idealized than what we see in the painting.
In this Voyager, the house becomes lived in. On the upper level, someone rests on the window sill, looking unperturbed in seeing what life might be passing by.
Steve told me he omitted the figure from the etching and painting because it was a distraction. But I like him or her (I think her, or perhaps a young boy) being there, in this work that bridges reality and idealism. This is drawing’s purpose: immediacy and documentation. We are in this place, and it just makes sense somehow.
Finally, the photo. This is purely documentation, not art. We get a LOT more information here: the uncropped house reveals a ground-level porch; a house number; two mail boxes for two households; a crowded neighborhood off in the distance. The peeling paint and not-so-pristine porch roof speak of neglect, for reasons easy to imagine. One lucky dweller gets a window air conditioner. The unambiguously male landlord is leaning way out of the third-floor window, seeming ever-so-much-more cocky — hey, I own this house — than does the drawing’s more serene, androgynous figure.
This now is reality. From here to the painting, we have journeyed on an artist’s fantasy trip. That’s a good thing. We can leave a place worth leaving to find a better place, even if it doesn’t exist.
This is about a lost story, told through fragments of memory and artwork— though not quite enough to solve the central conundrum. Why were these house artworks named Voyager? Did they represent Steve’s voyage of making art from life? Or, making art better than life?
And now for the *bonus.* Hinted at the edges of the Voyager painting is the country that Steve loved. This painting, from the same time period, has a similar palette and approach.
We end on an upnote.