Prince Charles and Princess Diana embrace, surrounded by festive bunting, bouquets of flowers, and even cherubs, in a painting celebrating their wedding. It’s like a message from a forgotten time, before their divorce, the tragedy of Diana’s death, and so, so much more.
“It didn’t age well” laughs Rob Stephenson. Perhaps that’s just as well. A sense of innocence and humor predominates in “Charles and Diana,” a 1981 work by self-taught artist Fred Yates, as it does in most of the collection of modern British paintings that Stephenson is showing in Grey Box Gallery through March 31. Co-owned by Stephenson and his life partner, Charles Hooper, the gallery adjoins their home hidden in the woods past Dixboro.
From “St. Michaels’ Mount,” Simeon Stafford’s vivid Cornwall beach scene full of splashing children, to Yates’s “Self-Portrait at Christmas,” where a naked Yates joyfully plays with his dog while angels offer him beer and cake, sincere and colorful depictions of everyday English life from the naive school of art anchor the show.
Can you even call naive painting a school? It seems you can, these days. And there are some fine examples here. In most of the works in this collection, the people and the dogs—even the houses and the trees—seem happy, because the artistic expression is direct, child-like, and spontaneous. English gray skies be damned.
Stephenson and Hooper converted an outbuilding on their property to a gallery during the pandemic, initially to show their own work—paintings by Hooper and photographs by Stephenson. The contractor “was the first one to buy a painting,” says Hooper, who designed the space, a jewel box filled with light, which also acts as his harp practice and performance space. The building exterior was originally clad in cedar so tortured by woodpeckers they replaced it with gray steel, thus the name.
This is their first foray into showing other people’s art, a test run they hope to expand on. Sometimes neighbors out walking their dogs see the sign and come in, but on weekdays, deer are often the only visitors. On weekends more human visitors come, informed about the gallery from its Etsy store and online listings, or from the Observer.
Some of Hooper’s works are displayed alongside the British collection. Decidedly not in the naive style, his abstract and abstract expressionist works are “all inspired by nature,” he says. A large canvas that echoes the feeling of a dense winter forest stands out, along with colorful smaller works.
Hooper was born in Detroit and Stephenson in Yorkshire, England. They met in Atlanta and moved north nine years ago so Stephenson could take a job as a health professor at the U-M. Hooper’s paintings are for sale, as are Stephenson’s photographs when he shows them, but none of their British collection is.
“That’s everyone’s first question,” says Stephenson, “Can we buy it? No. They’re like my little children.”
Stephenson built the collection by bidding in online British art auctions, often very early in the morning because of the time difference. Buying online and at odd hours can get you into trouble, especially if you’re spontaneous. A large portrait of Sigmund Freud “is a good example of me not paying attention to detail. I did not know this was five foot by six foot,” Stephenson says, indicating a lively neo-expressionist 1962 work by Israeli-born artist Eran Shakine, “Sigmund Freud Visiting the Lascaux Cave.” “When it arrived I was at work and
Charles sent me pictures. ‘What have you done?’ It came in a big crate.” An amusingly stern Freud surveys the room, enveloped in smoke from his cigar.
“We’re not too serious a place. Not pretentious,” says Hooper. Thank goodness for that. These days, seriously unserious art can be a welcome respite from gloom and doom, and this art is certainly worth a look.
Grey Box Gallery, 7395 Warren Rd. British
Modern Art (Jan. 1–Mar. 31). British modern art,
including works by Cornish plein air naïvists Fred
Yates, Alan Furneaux, and Simeon Stafford,
and others. Tues.–Fri. 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Sat. & Sun.
noon–4 p.m. 408–1226, firstname.lastname@example.org,