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Review: Ben Steele’s ethereal, mysterious paintings at Kiang Projects

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As contradictory as it might seem, Ben Steele’s paintings bring to mind “The Ongoing Moment,” the title of Geoff Dyer’s book on photography. Steele’s work, like photographs, recovers mystery in the mundane. And, as is evident in “16-Sided Crystal,” at Kiang Projects through January 28, it makes the sudden and the immediate linger.

Steele’s process is intricate and fascinating. He begins with a cut-paper installation in his studio. He then photographs this object through a crystal or prism, capturing the various patterns and fragmentary images created by the ever-changing light refractions. Finally, he reproduces the photographs as oil paintings.

The colliding and overlapping imagery is mysterious and intangible, and titles such as “Blue-Leaf-Vein-Zoom” and “Make-Shift-Over-Look” (above) intentionally offer no interpretive foothold. But it’s precisely from this seeming unreality that the pictures derive their power.

In “Gem-Stone-Optic-Grotto” (below), ribbons of bright pink, green and yellowish-orange swim in a bluish-green sea. These dreamy, vaguely aquatic forms drift among traces of familiar patterns, here a swatch of pink-and-black houndstooth fabric. The tentacle-like lines that thread through these airy images are actually stray incidental glimpses of wires and lighting equipment that enter the work through unexpected refractions.

Steele’s graceful exploitation of the disparity between what it is and what it seems to be creates pictures that look at once natural and wholly fabricated. At first blush, these shimmering works look Photoshopped or otherwise manipulated. But up close, they own up to their status as paintings. The inevitable mottles and bubbles of paint divulge the artist’s facture.

In his artist statement, Steele defines his project in part as “an attempt to restate painting’s validity in the face of digital media,” an intriguing ambition that the paintings don’t quite pull off. But perhaps more fascinating is the artist’s desire to occupy the interstitial or liminal. His paintings look digital but are hand-painted. Like Russian nesting dolls, they derive from photographs that derive from images from crystals that derive from studio-based installations.

The artist himself resists classification. In one way, one might describe him as a photo-realist, but, as Steele writes in his statement, “If I am, I am also an Impressionist, a Color Field painter, an 18th-century landscape painter and an optical artist.”

Curator Karen Tauches will talk with Ben Steele at 2 p.m. January 21, 2012. 

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