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In order to practice putting together an artist’s statement, I am going to try to write more posts about contemporary art. Please feel free to chime in with any thoughts or critiques about the style, subject, or conclusions of these little descriptions.
Since I have been writing about the meanings and ramifications of all things gothic, I have decided to start with Steven Assael, a very gifted realist portrait painter working today. A native New Yorker, Assael studied with the contemporary masters of portrait painting to learn the meticulous craft of the great realist painters of yesteryear. He employed hi hard-won skills painting outsider “punk” models with the refined & dignified realism one would usually employ for a university president or a bank executive. The contrast is intriguing and it lends a stolid dignity to the pierced goth figures and faces on the canvas (and a frisson of craziness and excitement to staid academic portrait technique).
The otherworldiness of Assael’s portraits is an illusion we are meant to see through: the timelessness of the human emotions under the layers of props is part of his theme. If we scrubbed off his club kids’ makeup and hair dye and then gave them cravats, lace, and wigs, they would look just like an 18th century group portrait. Is the difference between a banker and a rebel girl just a bunch of props? Well, on canvas interpreted through the brush of a talented painter, maybe it is.
Assael is self-conscious about using extremely traditional techniques and poses to contemporary ends. When asked about his relationship with modern art he answered, “Modernism has taken a direction toward the North Pole—with nowhere to go, frozen. On the way back we are discovering new territory, using the past as a means of expressing the present. To go forward we must, at times, take a step back and evaluate our position. With progression there is always a [positive, studied] regression”
So is the future of art just the past wearing wild clothes? And is Assael’s underlying classicism at odds with the gothic/emo/punk rebelliousness of the personalities portrayed? There is a melancholic loneliness to Assael’s figures which suggests he understands the paradoxical desire to be outside of popular convention while at the same time being part of a group. His paintings almost seem to have the same paradox. He wishes to be outside of traditional painting while firmly a part of it.