Master illusionist at David Klein Gallery

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Here's an intriguing idea: Put out a plea for "personal secrets" on social media, get yourself a post-office box, and see what turns up. 

This appeal by West Bloomfield Township artist Robert Schefman garnered about 100 responses, and forms the high-concept germ behind the painting show "Secrets" at Detroit's David Klein Gallery through Dec. 21.

The confessions yielded eight oil paintings, which took about two years to pull together, and constitute a lush series most would term realistic in style, but which Schefman calls "illusionist." 

"Secrets" by Robert Schefman, at David Klein Gallery in Detroit through Dec. 21.

Larded in many of the works on display are enigmatic narrative clues pointing to, well, something. When you're in Schefman's capable hands, you're going to get stories, even if specific plots points are foggy. 

"I don't like to illustrate," the artist said at the Klein gallery last week. "I want to take an idea, construct images, and see the different directions they could lead. I want to talk about being human - that's why I got into this."

He explores ideas in a black-bound sketchbook, its pages filled with loose black-and-white drawings with a beauty all their own. Schefman, a Michigan State University grad who got his master's at the University of Iowa in sculpture, not painting,  says he might work an image dozens of times till he finds the right iteration.

When he does, he signs it.

As for sculpture, Schefman veered years ago into painting, he says, because of the greater latitude it affords for storytelling.

And what human stories he's got to tell. Unsurprisingly, responses covered a wide range of "shameful" topics, but a few categories, he says, far outnumbered the rest. 

"On the Edge of the Moon" by Robert Schefman at David Klein Gallery in Detroit.

The artist thought affairs would lead the list, but it turned out to be unacknowledged depression people can't share or admit to. 

"Depression is a major, major secret people hide," Schefman said. "I was a little surprised, but probably shouldn't have been." 

The resulting work, "On the Edge of the Moon," features a woman in a kitchen chair on a Florida beach at night, facing out to the ocean. In an inspired touch, Schefman used car headlamps to light the sad tableau, resulting in almost painful contrast between sharp light and inky black. 

The work is very large -- 78 inches by 120 inches -- which reflects the number of responses the topic of secret depression got. (This metric is used in all the paintings.)

Ten of the confessions, not all of which made it onto canvas, have been rendered in framed, laser-cut prints, like "I can't admit to all of the drugs and alcohol I constantly use to get high." Even bleaker, Schefman says a number of respondents admitted bullying someone who later committed suicide. 

Others deployed black humor, like the individual who wrote, "I prefer my mom's company now that she has Alzheimer's."

"In Love with My Best Friend" by Robert Schefman at Detroit's David Klein Gallery through Dec. 21.

And some are filled with torment and anxiety, as with, "I am in love with my best friend."

That sentiment made it into a surprisingly large painting, suggesting its popularity, of an undressed, muscular young man, also seated and facing away from the viewer.

Like a child put in the corner, the subject of "In Love with My Best Friend" is staring at the wall right in front of him, which is hung with dried roses and objects of little-boy play -- a toy airplane here, a busted pickup truck there.

It's hard not to be grabbed by Schefman's vignettes, not least because they're so gorgeous, no matter the subject matter. Perhaps as a result of his training in sculpture, his human figures have a palpable weight you can almost feel. 

They're about as three-dimensional as two dimensions ever get. 

Local artist Robert Schefman in front of a piece titled "Any Particular Secret" at his show, "Secrets," at Detroit's David Klein Gallery.

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'Robert Schefman: Secrets'

Through Dec. 21. 

David Klein Gallery, 1520 Washington Blvd., Detroit