criticismExhibitions
Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Charles Steffen: Drawing Nudes is Like Saying a Prayer, Amen at Andrew Edlin Gallery


January 21 to February 27
Andrew Edlin Gallery
134 Tenth Avenue, between 18th and 19th streets
New York City, 212-206-9723

Charles Steffen, Development of the Sunflower Nude, from the One-Eyed Nude into Sunflower 1994.  Pencil on taped drawing paper, 36 x 48 inches. Courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery

Charles Steffen, Development of the Sunflower Nude, from the One-Eyed Nude into Sunflower 1994. Pencil on taped drawing paper, 36 x 48 inches. Courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery

The border between insider and outsider art is permeable, doubly so since it is often dependent on the equally fuzzy boundary between psychopathology and normalcy.  Charles Steffen was confined for schizophrenia – whatever that was thought to be in the 1950’s, whatever it is now – but first he had been briefly institutionalized, if you will, at art school.   Later, he lived with his parents and drew and wrote, mostly on butcher paper with pencil, until his death in 1995.  Only drawings since 1989 survive because, sadly, his family was concerned about fire safety and periodically purged.  What remains debuted to the public at the 2006 Outsider Art Fair, and now Andrew Edlin Gallery (which also represents the estate of Henry Darger) is having its second exhibition of this posthumous career-in-the-making.  Steffen’s drawings certainly compel, in large part by how they twist the Moebius strip of fineness and madness, of inside and outside.

Unlike the probably autistic, possibly pedophilic superstars Darger and Achilles Rizzoli, Steffen seems to have been sexually obsessed in an artistically and socially sanctioned way – pre-feminism, at any rate: His Red Headed Stripper at the End of Her Act (1991) may be no different in connotation than a zaftig Reginald Marsh sailor’s date, or a Jack Levine vaudevillian.  Its breezy curvaceousness, meanwhile, is so close to a folk-arty school of caricature that it would hardly be out of place in a ‘70’s counterculture magazine with lusty Randall Enos and Arnold Roth illustrations.

On closer inspection, however, the redhead’s vivisected, patchwork face, her tuberous fingers, and her incised ledger-lined skin read a bit farther out – closer to Jim Nutt and Louise Bourgeois territory.  In other drawings it gets odder: these stylistic textures are revealed to be unselfconscious tics without which Steffen cannot construct flesh.  Things gets farther out still, until a pleasurable orbit is acheived, as these very limitations turn out to be ripe for transfer across a mutational fulcrum normally separating the animal from the vegetable.

Charles Steffen, Red Headed Stripper at the End of Her Act 1991. Pencil on brown wrapping paper, 49 x 30 inches. Courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery

Charles Steffen, Red Headed Stripper at the End of Her Act 1991. Pencil on brown wrapping paper, 49 x 30 inches. Courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery

Once in the world of plants Steffen’s draftsmanship is always assured.  Several versions of a “sunflower nude” are sketched with open, floating forms.  Here leafage is permitted to curl and interpenetrate in the sort of fluid space, a bit laissez-faire, that is rarely to be found in outsider, visionary and/or self-taught art.  So gracefully, for that matter, do Steffen’s leaves and petals mime the legible gestures of hair and hands, even impersonating a green velvet waistcoat, that our eyes – having been accustomed to Anasazi corn women, to Arcimboldo and Ernst, to Silly Symphonies of singing flowerbeds and The Jolly Green Giant – scarcely register the strangeness of the fact.

That is, until we turn to Steffen’s more fully-fleshed figures, which bring into question the artist’s relationship with intentionality.  Nude Reclining (undated) and Hairy Nude (1992), for example, are terrifically awkward animae built from bundlings of what might be xylem and phloem and outcroppings of colored-pencil geometry.  Steffen’s nudes can begin to echo the crackling linear density of genius inmates like Adolf Wölfli or Martín Ramírez and thus they more neatly fit the outsider diagnosis, but they typify just one end of Steffen’s animal-vegetable spectrum.  The larger weirdness is that all Steffen’s figures are inventories – in ways not quitefamiliar from tribal art, surrealism and cartoons – of the steps along the way from the human to the floral.  If you missed anything, he provides a road map in his most nimble illustrational mode: Development of the Sunflower Nude, from the One-Eyed Nude into Sunflower (1994).  These taped-together, progessively metamorphic panels could almost pass for an Avatar storyboard or a Whole Earth Catalog sidebar on the greening of America.

Steffen’s drawings also include notations in confident, backslanting handwriting, more diary entries than obsessive thoughts, from which the titles are extracted. There is an appreciative reference,  for instance,to De Kooning’s nudes, further blurring the line between the savvy eccentric and the guileless visionary. (A title like Damsells de Aronon, [I guess] would go in the savvy category if the masterpiece ambition weren’t so sincere, the image so otherworldly.)  One wonders, however, what Steffen could have seen in the frantic incorporeality of the Clamdiggers and the Women?  Where most of us stop at “flesh was the reason that oil painting was invented,” consider that Steffen might have been apprehending a rubbery poetics all his own.


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