What: "The Artist's Studio," a solo exhibition of paintings by William Stoehr

When: Through Sunday, Aug. 4

Where: Firehouse Art Center, 667 Fourth Ave., Longmont

Cost: Free

Info: firehouseart.org

BOULDER -- You're never alone in the company of William Stoehr's art.

He makes large paintings of women's faces that fill the canvas and have an uncanny presence, as if they're masks behind which living people lurk. Much of the surface within his lines and contours, he paints abstractly. But he faithfully molds the faces and puts a glint in the eyes, and standing in a room full of these paintings can leave the viewer feeling as if he, not the portraits, is on display. The women look straight out. Their gaze is direct. The look on their faces is invariably serious, and they appear to be in states of melancholy or accusation.

Then again, Stoehr might stop a person right there and say, "No, that's just what your own mind brings to my paintings."

He paints the women, he says, such that much is left to interpretation.

"None of these women have expressions," he said. "I want you to complete that expression."

Local viewers will get a chance to complete Stoehr's paintings when his solo show is on display through Aug. 4 at the Firehouse Art Center. The exhibition, "The Artist's Studio," will be set up to give visitors the feeling they're stepping into Stoehr's studio. His actual studio is located on the ground floor of his home in west Boulder, and Jessica Kooiman, the center's executive director, said visiting it made a strong impression on her.

"It's such a great experience because you go in there and he gets all excited and starts showing you stuff . . . It's so powerful," she said. "We had this idea to do an artist's studio and show what it's like to be in his studio."

"Laine 5," a painting by William Stoehr, who will be showing his work at the Firehouse Art Center in Longmont.
"Laine 5," a painting by William Stoehr, who will be showing his work at the Firehouse Art Center in Longmont. (Firehouse Art Center/Courtesy photo )

Stoehr, in fact, plans to paint in the gallery periodically throughout the run of the show. Some of the works will be on wheels, and visitors will be allowed to move them, the way Stoehr might when he's in his studio. This will have the liberating effect of breaking the invisible barrier that's typically erected between art and viewer in a gallery, but it also has an aesthetic function. Art, particularly Stoehr's work, changes with changing location and light. Stoehr often uses metallic paint, which is especially sensitive to lighting variations. His faces are made with subtle cubist qualities that imbue them with multiple appearances, depending on physical, as well as psychological, point of view.

Artist William Stoehr works to finish a painting at the studio in his Boulder home.
Artist William Stoehr works to finish a painting at the studio in his Boulder home. (Matthew Jonas/Times-Call)

Art theory plays a crucial role in Stoehr's work, and his works in the "Artist's Studio" are, to a great extent, an expression of his fascination with cubism. Cubism -- the early 20th-century school made dominant by Picasso, Braque and others who packed multiple visual and temporal angles into a single work -- gives Stoehr a way to better capture reality by representing, say, faces, as we really see them. When we look at someone's face, we filter that image through emotional and visual context, he notes. It might be colored by the angle at which we saw it only several seconds ago, or by some remembered slight or remark of praise that came from the person.

The cubist elements in Stoehr's work could be slight asymmetries or the suggestion of a third eye. Whereas the work of many early cubists were explicit as mash-ups of various views, Stoehr takes a less apparent approach, and his images, apart from their almost invariably limited and dark palette, have a more natural look.

"I'm taking it to a new stage," he said of his cubist pursuits. "I know that sounds grandiose. But it's great fun."

The faces in the show belong to real women. Many of them are models Stoehr met in coffee shops, and every one is from Boulder, he said. His paintings that are named for women, such as "Destiny 15" or "Laine 5," bear the real name of the woman who modeled for the work.

For as much as Stoehr tries to strip his faces of context and expression and leave maximum space for viewers to color in the missing parts, his paintings have a charge to them. They are in no way blank slates. They twinkle with energy.

"They just have this quality of, 'Pay attention to me,' " Kooiman said.

Stoehr ruminates at length about his art on his Facebook page, William Stoehr Art, and it was not a surprise to read something he wrote on May 29: " ... At some point I have to confront that (my paintings) really are about me. I am terrified. I hate thinking about it and I always deny my own involvement save for the art part. I say they are context-less yet maybe for me they are full of context."

You're never alone in the company of Stoehr's art. Stoehr is always there.

Quentin Young can be reached at 303-684-5319 or qyoung@times-call.com.