David Stern uses small brooms, pieces of cardboard, spatulas, and brushes to create his thickly textured, large-scale oil paintings. He says the term “action painter” is a tongue-in-cheek reference to his process. “The act itself goes fast,” he says. “Each layer is spontaneous. I don’t start with any preconceived notion.”

The layered paintings remain in his studio for a year or more before they are complete. Stern likes to let the images evolve and develop and says that the end result should be a surprise. His current exhibition, curated by Karen Wilkin at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, includes 40 drawings and paintings from the last 15 years.

Halsey Director Mark Sloan has been a fan of Stern for years. “I feel that David is an artist of rare maturity,” Sloan says. “His paintings challenge viewers to situate themselves in relation to the work. If one stands too close, the surface becomes a churning sea of color and texture. Yet, back up a few steps, and the image behind the work gradually reveals itself. And, even further back, one gets yet another reading. Stern’s enterprise is one that requires great stamina on the part of the artist and offers great rewards to his audience.”

A native of Germany, Stern and his wife emigrated to New York City in 1995. The energy of urban life and the light of the city inspires his work, revealing figures in tightly packed compositions which reflect the confined, crowded space of the city. In response to the events of 9/11, Stern painted a series called “The Gatherings” to capture the sense of community among the witnesses of the tragic event.

His work is autobiographical. “Whether they are spiritual or literal experiences, they all have to do with my own life,” he says.

Exploring the idea of bodies in space, Stern seeks to convey a thickness of energy moving through the room. In “Marvin and Frank” (2001-2002), two men peer out at the viewer through heavy layers of paint. There is a stillness to the pose, an intimacy as the faces appear to melt together. Flat swatches of bluish light lead the viewer’s eye to the men’s faces. Stern’s compositions reflect distorted angles; in some pieces the viewer is looking down at the figures, and in others, the viewer is crouched below. With a blur of outstretched arms and legs, figures seem to be reaching out, as if caught in a thick web.

Tactile layers of colors seem to drip from the canvas, and upon closer examination, they appear to be just completed and still wet. Wide swatches of color convey movement and emotion within the images, and it feels like we are catching a glimpse of people on the street from the window of a speeding car.

Stern’s engaging images pull the viewer in to look closely at the icing-like layers of paint, and then back to uncover the hidden images within. He keeps our eyes moving across the surface, making the viewer an active participant. Observing these rich layers of color and texture, viewers will feel as if Stern has just left the room.