Over the last few decades, Steven Assael has built up a body of work combining painterly craftsmanship and bold iconography. A new series of works by the artist, exhibited recently at the Forum Gallery in New York City, provided a thoughtful follow-up to his electrifying portraits of underground urban culture. In a beautifully crafted small Self-Portrait (2007), reminiscent of introspective Dutch portraits of the sixteenth century, the artist stares out from the canvas, holding a brush in his right hand. His beard and long hair, his simple cap and open shirt could belong to any century or country. The soft olive, gray and brown tones suffuse any details that might compromise the directness of his painted statement: I am an artist.
Figure Holding Eyeglasses (2008) is equally understated and objective, again revealing the artist’s professionalism and master craftsmanship. It is a half-length portrait of a young woman in the nude holding a pair of wire-framed eyeglasses. As in his self-portrait, there is little in the painting to identify the sitter, time or place. Both paintings are about the pleasure of painting and the pride the artist rightly takes in his craft. Phlegmatic brushwork gives Figure Holding Eyeglasses its strong painterly quality, with palpable layers of pigment traced across the young woman’s brow, cheekbones, jaw and skull. Flecks of warm flesh tones flare subtly into the cool bluish tint of the background, producing a mist of color and tone that visually integrates the portrait with the background. Conversely, the faint bluish hues of the background blush back across the contour of the figure. This subtle give and take between figure and background begins at the top of the painting, descending into the dark blue and umber shadows at the bottom. The subtle chemistry of form, color, tone and shadow keeps the viewer’s eye moving and interested. It is a painting with a simple subject; at the same time, it focuses on what is important to art.
The narrative element is minimal, yet bears comment. The eyes of the sitter are quite striking, looking directly at the viewer. The head is turned slightly to the right, giving the sitter a questioning look, as if she were responding to something just said. Her arms are lowered, allowing her hands, which are beautifully modeled, to rest on her lap. Exposed in her left hand is one lens of a pair of wire-framed glasses. The refraction of light on the solitary lens pierces the dark shadows that engulf the lower half of the painting and her torso. It is the only other object in the painting. Why is she holding the glasses? What meaning can we read into the sitter’s glance? The answer becomes clearer if the viewer uses a thumb to cover up the detail of the lens. Without the bright light refracted in the eyeglass lens—which moves the viewer’s eye from the bottom of the painting back to the top—the entire composition becomes visually stagnant. We might contemplate the symbolism of the eyeglass, but its formal meaning is to be found as a compositional device. Another portrait, Cassandra with Doll (2008), is a modern variation on the Renaissance portrait, with the remarkably poised girl shown in profile. Her bare knees and the setting, a train car (we see a suitcase at her side), add a note of anxiety. The artist’s formidable painting credentials are established in these straightforward portraits. The exhibition then changes gears with a series of large narrative and allegorical canvases which continue to explore Assael’s unique insights into American life and culture.
Passengers (2008) is an allegorical work which can be read on several levels. Three young American passengers are depicted asleep on a train traveling across Europe. It is a large painting, measuring almost eight feet wide, filled with objects which signify both the metaphysical and terrestrial. One of the two young women is curled comfortably across the laps of her companions, reclining against a broad bench in front of a large horizontal window. The view beyond the window reveals a forbidding, treeless landscape with a medieval castle fortressed at the edge of a gloomy lake. The compartment is filled with luggage, sleeping bags and several ornately decorated cushions and pillows. There are also two small monkeys gazing intently at the passengers.
What we first assume from the title and composition to be a compartment in a train traveling across Europe, upon closer inspection is revealed as the corner of a room. The “window” is a painting of a medieval European landscape. The illusion of travel is reinforced because the features of the three passengers are in sunlight, which appears to be cast from the glowering sky in the painting. The cross-continental journey, then, is really a metaphorical one, between new and old civilizations, between the present and the past. The monkeys are “daemons,” creatures who occupy our souls in a parallel dimension, or as in Buddhist or Taoist mythology, control our souls until we learn to silence their incessant chatter.
Passengers has elements of gender and role-playing, themes repeated in variations throughout the exhibition. The young man and the two women are similarly dressed in ripped jeans and colorful tank tops. All have long hair. Above the head of the young male passenger, in a netted shelf, hangs the tank top of a Superman costume. This innocuous appearance, which might easily escape notice, serves as an introduction to a theme more fully explored in three of the largest paintings in the exhibition: role-playing and costumes in American life and culture.
The centerpiece of the series, Costume Party (2007), depicts two women and a man staring morosely into space through a large dirty window of a loft in a prewar office building. Discarded masks and half-filled glasses on the table in the foreground suggest the end of a riotous party. The leaden atmosphere of the room is alleviated by the sunrise profiling the three dejected partygoers, seated or standing beside a frayed couch. Both women are costumed as scantily clad showgirls; the man is dressed in a wrinkled Superman costume. The women seem as tired and bored as the man, but their costumes, somewhat out of place in the morning light, enhance their natural beauty. The man merely looks deflated and foolish. The women’s costumes relate to their natural feminine prowess; the man’s costume seems to indicate a loss of masculine power. Ironically, the original Superman, created by two teenagers, Joel Siegel and Joe Schuster, in 1933 and serialized by Action Comics in 1938 at the height of the Great Depression, was the first and only superhero who always retains his great powers. Superman’s “costume” is actually his disguise as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. All the subsequent mass-media superheroes assume super power only during a transformation process triggered by a magic word (“shazam”), a flush of rage (Hulk), rubbing a magic ring, appealing to the gods or changing into a superhero costume.
Assael’s portrait Superman (2006) reinforces this sense of loss. A balding, somewhat paunchy middle-aged man dressed in an ill-fitting Superman costume sits quietly lost in his thoughts, surrounded by the party artifacts we see in the larger painting. The scene contains an element of camp, with its tawdry decorations and a Styrofoam dummy wearing an elaborate feathery headdress similar to what one of the showgirls wears in Costume Party.
Superman and Costume Party emphasize physical and psychological impotence. Is this a social commentary on the decline of the American male, the decline of cultural mythology? Or a commentary on society in general? The emergence of superheroes in popular culture was a uniquely American response to the worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s. The re-emergence of superheroes seventy years later, concurrent with our escalating economic woes, seems more than a coincidence. This time, however, most of the superheroes—Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Hulk, Hellboy and the myriad cast from Marvel—are seriously flawed morally or physically. The Superman costume in Passengers is part of a collective subconscious dream. The appearance of the costume in three other paintings refers to implied loss in real-time experience. The women in Assael’s paintings retain their inner strength, however dour the circumstances.
As always, an Assael exhibition features at least half a dozen exquisite preparatory graphite studies of the models who pose for his finished oil paintings. In this series, the artist switches from pencil to charcoal, which allows him to mass deeper and richer blacks for clothing and luxuriant hair, as in Girl with Ruffled Shirt (2008) and Girl with Black Sweater (2008). Like the Renaissance masters, Assael allows the natural color of the paper to flow through his drawings. The large white comforter, which partially covers the figure in Girl with Ruffled Shirt, who sits on a couch, is indicated with a few delicate contour lines and shadows. Assael’s love of drawing began in earliest childhood. His parents, particularly his mother, encouraged him by enrolling him in weekend art classes at the Art Students League and the Museum of Modern Art. There were also many trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which honed his instinct for quality and craft. “Drawing,” Assael explains, “is not just about expressing a well-articulated visual response to an object, it is deeply connected to a natural impulse.”
This natural impulse for beauty and personal expression sustained Assael during the 1970s as a student at Pratt Institute, which had abandoned traditional study of human anatomy to adopt a postmodernist curriculum in studio art and theory as early as 1957, the year of Assael’s birth. But the love of drawing can take an artist only so far in his development. He recalls a debt he owes a few painters from an earlier generation, such as Harvey Dinnerstein, who maintains to this day a high discipline in figurative painting. Assael and a fellow student would cut classes at Pratt one day a week to take classes at Dinnerstein’s Brooklyn studio. But, mostly, he explains, he learned to paint through the hard process of trial and error. Assael’s appreciative students, who benefit from his life-time professional experience, jammed the Forum Gallery the opening day of the exhibition.
Assael is one contemporary artist who boldly faces the challenge to create meaningful content. This latest series reveals his desire to expand the narrative and allegorical content of his art without any diminution in craft or quality. Alan, Nathan and Morgan (2008) is a dramatic full-length, nearly monochromatic portrait, which evokes comparison to portraits by Velázquez. Three tall figures cloaked in various shades of black stand together, enveloped in a dark greenish background. Their faces are brightly illuminated, by a fire perhaps, their bodies merged together by darkness into one large body with three heads. The faces are expressionless, united in a singular thought. Assael seems on the point of invoking, intuitively, the iconography of the Three Fates or Norns from pre-Christian ancient mythology, who measure out human life. The Norns shared one eye and both genders. A brightly colored orange held jointly in their hands, if more forcefully directed by the artist, might serve as the all-seeing eye. However, here it serves a similar aesthetic compositional purpose as the eyeglass lens in Figure with Eyeglasses. But what if the three figures were resting their hands on top of an ancient sword? Or what if they were clasping a crucifix, talisman or the ball of thread the Fates were said to unwind? The spiritual context would change significantly, even as the beautiful formal qualities of the painting remained much the same. Contemporary figurative realism is narratively challenged, except when it refers to the existential emptiness of our culture.
Crowd (2009), the largest painting in the exhibition, expands on the existential theme of Passengers. A huge crowd, stretching back into some kind of bleak post-apocalyptic horizon, surges toward the viewer. There are at least thirty fully rendered individuals of multiple race and ethnicity in the foreground, a veritable cross section of urban dwellers. Some are looking directly ahead, others are looking off into the distance. They are huddled closely together in the kind of scene one confronts in a crowded subway during rush hour. The general mood is pregnant with quiet despair: two women protectively comfort a young boy who is carrying a small monkey, a younger woman embraces an older woman walking in front of her, a middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap gazes at something off to his left. Despite the hellish red hue of the sky (or ceiling), everyone is bundled up in coats, hats and scarves. They look like homeless refugees, not sure where they are going. The Crowd and the sleeping Passengers share a collective existential journey whose meaning is not clear to them or us. There is the sense of disconnect we recognize in works of many contemporary realists. The boy’s expression is one of apprehension, which is not shared by the adults. Their expression is one of collective resignation. Beneath the jacket of the young boy carrying the monkey we glimpse the bright blue costume of a superhero. There is some brilliant modeling in the figures in the foreground. However, the contour of the crowd is delineated too abruptly on the right side of the composition, leaving an unsatisfactory explanation for the narrow corridor of empty space that runs parallel with the edge of the canvas.
Assael’s work takes contemporary painting back to that point in art history when Western culture took a new path. What Degas and particularly Manet saw in Velázquez’s painting inspired them to eliminate much of the official iconography, which had grown stale by the end of the nineteenth century, to flatten the canvas and the illusion of spatial depth, rely on tone rather than chroma to strengthen formal aesthetic values and emphasize drawing. Twenty-five years ago, when this small journal was started, realist artists barely knew one another. There were only a few galleries that handled serious contemporary realist art. The generation Assael belongs to has now produced hundreds of talented, creative, classically trained artists and sculptors. With grudging acknowledgment, the arts establishment has opened the door slightly, but only a few galleries and museums in the major art centers of New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles support contemporary realism. Regional arts centers in Taos, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Denver have long been ignored by the bicoastal arts establishment, even though so-called “cowboy” or Western artists such as James Bama, Howard Terpning and Frank McCarthy continue to produce high-quality work.
Assael, like other talented realists today, wrestles with a defused, failed iconography. Who are we? remains the unspoken question. With so many accomplished and talented artists, many who have struggled alone against the crushing banality of entrenched standards, the time seems overripe to explode with beauty and prescience. The great painters of the nineteenth-century academies of France, England, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary continued to maintain relatively high aesthetic standards until the system collapsed with the advent of World War I. We still admire their work today. Many contemporary American realists follow their methods and course of study. But we cannot rely on their iconography to rescue our own. Indeed, it’s not fair or honest to blame our artists for their failure to provide the spiritual and narrative elements missing from contemporary culture. We have lost contact with the vast reservoir of myths and ideals that nourished artists for millennia. Assael is willing to begin the task of sifting through the twenty-first-century detritus in search of deeper meanings.
This is Steven Assael’s seventh exhibition at the Forum Gallery. He has had many solo exhibitions throughout the United States. Works have also been chosen for curated group exhibitions at the Naples Museum of Art, Florida, the Arkansas Art Center, the Evansville Museum in Indiana and the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His drawings and paintings are part of the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art & Design in Kansas City and many other museums and distinguished private collections.
Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10151. Telephone (212) 355-4545. On the web at www.forumgallery.com