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GMG Presents: James Stewart: Place Setting + Elizabeth Johnson: The Cost of Sleep

“How do I choose a subject? I stumble into it, usually if not always, through the work of other painters. Sometimes momentum in the studio leads me. But it is the language of painting that drives me.”

– James Stewart

Gross McCleaf is pleased to present Place Setting, a new series of oil paintings by gallery artist, James Stewart. The works in this exhibition highlight Stewart’s acute awareness of group dynamics, interpersonal relationships and the settings in which these affairs unfold. While a few of Stewart’s outdoor scenes reference broad themes from history and well known stories from antiquity, most of the paintings depict intimate, everyday interactions between family and friends, many around the table of a dinner party.

In Place Setting, one can almost hear the clinking of dinnerware over the din of cross-conversations. Though the details remain unclear, animated gesturing and facial expressions reveal the dynamics of the guests’ relationships and the energy of their earnest interactions. They lean into the flickering candlelight to share a drink, a card game, a bite of pie, some music or perhaps an idea. In many of the works, an empty chair waits in the foreground, an invitation for the viewer to sit down and join in the merriment. The chair might also suggest the imminent arrival of another visitor, poised to enter the scene and enrich the evening’s tapestry.

In the tradition of the Caravaggisti, Stewart masterfully employs chiaroscuro to illuminate the faces of his lively dinner guests. Some figures look away from their fellow revelers, perhaps lost in thought or involved with someone out of view, while others engage the viewer directly. Thoughtful details like elegant, tapered candles or a small vase of daffodils, are welcoming and beautify the setting. Cut glass tumblers and various stemware sparkle with drink and the flatware shimmers. These cozy spaces filled with libations create the platform for sharing intimate news, engrossing gossip, risky jokes, and fruitful political debates.

While Stewart’s dinner guests wear mostly contemporary clothing, there is a notable lack of electronic devices or lighting, evoking a timeless ambience where an endless night of discussion and connection can be savored. The works are a celebration of face-to-face communication – imbued with the same richness as the dessert and the sweetness of the wine. 

James Stewart is a full-time painter based in Fredonia, Pennsylvania. His wide-ranging narrative and formal interests have led him to depict scenes from history, mythology and fiction. In 2021, he created a notable series of paintings influenced by Odessa-born, Ukrainian-American artist Ilya Kaminsky’s 2019 work, Deaf Republic. Gross McCleaf Gallery hosted that body of work and Ilya Kaminsky for a poetry reading. Afterward, the series traveled to the Ross Museum at Ohio Wesleyan University. Stewart has received numerous prestigious awards – a Guggenheim Fellowship for travel and study in Europe, PAFA’s Cresson Award for European travel, and a Ballinglen Fellowship for travel to Ireland. His work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions in galleries and museums across the Mid-Atlantic region. He has been represented by Gross McCleaf Gallery for thirty years.


“I am interested in how my subconscious influences my art. Because I work with distorted but recognizable images, seeking the ‘right’ color, image, or texture, I want the mix of visual information to simultaneously hang together and pull apart to emphasize transitions. When it works, a painting reminds me of dream space, where events and objects are always changing...”

––Elizabeth Johnson

Gross McCleaf is pleased to present Elizabeth Johnson’s first solo exhibition with the gallery, The Cost of Sleep. This collection showcases a series of oil paintings that blend vivid imagery and robust earth tones into dynamic, swirling compositions. Recognizable objects meld into painterly brushstrokes, only to reemerge as novel, unexpected pictorial elements.

Johnson’s painting process begins by collecting fragments of print media images and patterns. Responding intuitively to these visual sources, she categorizes them as either landscape or figurative imagery, manipulating chosen bits in Photoshop, warping and distorting them into curved shapes. The resulting digital image is printed out and reserved as a source of future inspiration.

In the studio, Johnson mixes a palette of mostly naturalistic colors that are reminiscent of weather, seasons, and a childhood spent on a farm. Mixing varieties of hue, value, and saturation that only oil paint can provide, she has learned that “all colors are useful, the ugliest especially." Pre-preparing images and media allows Johnson to devote her full attention to selecting subjects to paint. She works by trial and error, trying out possible digital images, frequently turning her canvases, and destroying most of what she produces. Permitting drifts of connection and metaphors that might bridge landscape and figural elements within her work, she deliberately avoids definitive narrative. She asserts, “If I feel a story is about to coalesce, I undo what I did and try something else."

For Johnson, this activity of deconstruction and reconstruction relates to the free-association process that occurs while dreaming. She prefers not knowing where a painting might lead and allowing stories or relationships to unfold relative to the viewer’s own inclination or perception. Within her pieces lie unique cues, inviting threads waiting to be tugged, an unraveling experience that transcends direction and time.

Elizabeth Johnson is an oil painter, art writer, and guest curator based in Easton, Pennsylvania. After receiving her B.A. in Fine Arts from Bard College, Johnson moved to San Francisco where she lived, worked, and exhibited until 2010. Since returning to the Northeast, she has exhibited with the Allentown Art Museum, in Allentown, Pennsylvania; The Center for Emerging Visual Artists, in Philadelphia; at Bowery Gallery in New York; Trestle Gallery, in Brooklyn; and at Marquee Projects, on Long Island. She has been a guest curator at Gross McCleaf Gallery, Soft Machine Gallery, Cedar Crest College, Marquee Projects, and Lafayette College, among others. Her writing has been featured in The Brooklyn Rail,,, Figure/, and