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I want to start my review of Endymion: Recent Paintings by Clintel Steed at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects/SHFAP (September 7 – October 9, 2016) with a statement the artist made to Jennifer Samet in an interview that appeared on her blog, “Beer with a Painter,” dated September 24, 2012 (Note: Samet’s blog now appears monthly on Hyperallergic Weekend):
There are certain things you can’t get rid of in life. Like storytelling: we always have had to tell about our experiences – write them down, paint them. We, in our entities, are storytellers. And it goes from a text message, to an email, to the actual moment of being with the person. People say painting is dead, but you can’t get rid of the magic of paint itself, paint on a surface, and how paint translates into some thing. Whatever it becomes, it is something that is sustained, held in time, and held in paint, which makes it magical.
This is one of many statements about storytelling made by an artist whose work I have been turning around in my mind for some years. When I reread this statement recently, two painters came to mind. One, of course, was Philip Guston, who, in the late 1960s, said: “I got sick and tired of all that Purity! Wanted to tell stories.” He seems to be the artist who broke the ice when it came to storytelling after Abstract-Expressionism and Minimalism seemed to prove that paint was just paint.
The other artist who came to mind was Kerry James Marshall. In an interview that appeared in Art in America (September, 2013), when asked if he was “telling stories,” Marshall answered:
Exactly! And these stories in my paintings are connected to larger stories. It’s more important to tell the story of a people by seeing myself as part of a people rather than an individual.
Tracy Zwick, who interviewed Marshall, begins by describing the artist as follows:
The painter Kerry James Marshall is known for taking on American history from a black perspective.
The one phrase that never comes up in the interview between Samet and Steed is “black perspective.” This is how Steed described himself:
Art history is the bread and butter of my life. That’s what keeps me going.
Steed was a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for many years, so he’s not being metaphorical when he makes this statement.
What I love about the well-known Marshall and the lesser-known Steed is how they level everything out simply by embracing what they do. In different ways, they help us recognize that subject matter, history (whether it has to do with art or not) and depiction are contested fields, and that the Abstract Expressionists and Minimalists settled nothing, which is why painting is not, as some critics have claimed, in a terminal condition or held hostage by zombie artists. In different ways, they also challenge our expectations. Do we expect Steed, like Marshall, to use paint to tell stories about being black?
After you realize how much Steed loves paint, loves its paste-like physicality, and no doubt loves Rembrandt, whose work practically set the standard for the conversation between paint and image, you realize that he doesn’t have it all figured out. There is an inconsistency to the paintings in the exhibition because he hasn’t has neither perfected his style nor defined his subject matter. Check out Edouard Manet if you want to see the grand heights that inconsistency can reach.
Steed’s exhibition includes two portraits of friends; a painting of someone standing in a kitchen wearing a mask (is it Ant-Man?): cityscapes of China and Brooklyn; a view of the Manhattan Bridge; a fragmented image of the Triple Crown racehorse, American Pharaoh; a juxtaposition of robots and Jesus Christ; and two canvases inspired by the robust painter, Peter Paul Rubens.
While there is something to like in all of the paintings, I was particularly struck by “Bogart Bk, Night Scene” (2016) and “Rubens, Fall of the Damned” (2016). In these two works, which are very different from each other, you get the sense that Steed is both responding to his environment and pushing himself, opening up to the discovery of what he might do.
In “Bogart Bk, Night Scene,” he makes lines and planes to slowly register his reaction to his immediate circumstances – a view of Brooklyn from a rooftop, one corner of which extends up from the right half of the painting’s bottom edge. Office towers, pressed together along the unstated horizon line and striped with horizontal rows of lights, acknowledge the painting’s surface, while a few planes (tenement and warehouse rooftops) in the foreground extend back in space, inciting a tension between surface and distance.
Steed strokes the paste-like paint onto the surface, creating an uneven tactile skin that is pebbled and brushy. This tactility is at odds with our digital world – its endless barrage of bodiless images of light. Should Steed be part of his time and produce more of the same? One thing I get from this painting is Steed’s empathy for the grittiness of New York, the commonplace views in which towers of wealth stand in the distance – a cluster of glass and steel turrets, our postmodern Emerald City – overlooking less posh and less efficient circumstances. It’s nighttime. An atmosphere of quiet isolation and solitude pervades the scene. Steed has established a dance between image and materiality, opening a space for reflection. How might we see this view, so romanticized in trashy films like Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), if we weren’t so conditioned to gaze in awe? And might we not see the low rooftops – their parallelograms and trapezoids in the foreground – as evidence of stunted growth and obeisance before the towers?
The exhibition’s standout painting, “Rubens, Fall of the Damned” (2016), isolates a section of Peter Paul Rubens’ monumental masterpiece depicting the archangel Michael hurling bodies out of heaven. The Rubens painting is a tumultuous cascade of bodies sliding, toppling, and free-falling towards the abyss — an unpitying metaphor of our mortality and a prescient evocation of our present situation. In his distortions and use of color, Steed seems to have been inspired by the German Expressionists Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who, in turn, were influenced by African art. In Steed’s painting, humans and beasts have been pressed together – the skin tones range from sickly green to orange-brown to black. While the artist cites the source in his title, the view he offers us doesn’t show heaven or hell. There’s no context for this pandemonium and perhaps he doesn’t have to tell us more. He engages our imagination, and it is up to us to finish the story of what we are looking at.
Endymion: Recent Paintings by Clintel Steed continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects/SHFAP (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 9.