The opening of Tim Steele's exhibition at Rare on West 14th Street had the misfortune of coinciding with Hurricane Floyd, but then again, the weather helped give his works a sense of even greater visible force. Wake, with its contained color and breakout gestural marks, is a dynamic example of Steele's new panel paintings. Although completely abstract, these works still retain all of the hard lines and cold clarity indicative of the painter's previous hyperrealist style. The level of precision and managed risk in the artist's handling of paint rigidly reflects the finely milled construction of the adjoining square panels. The whole surface, which looks like it was painted in flat uninflected enamel instead of oil, has an overall, almost brutal look.
Michael Brennan, artnet.com, November 1999
China could be all red, and the whole of Russia could be painted yellow, and the part of the map demarcating the United States would still look complicated. It's even more complex than Europe, our fifty-piece, jigsaw puzzle nation. In some sense, Tim Steele's new paintings remind me of schoolhouse globes and children's "fun with capitals" maps in which irregular shapes and oddball colors are pieced together randomly. Strangely, they resolve themselves and end up looking as natural and right as any genuine landscape. Steele's paintings and the material of kids' geography lessons are alike in that they both draw on fiction in the service of something real. The maps often use arbitrary color keys while Steele uses chance operations to determine his unique multi-panel combinations. Steele's current exhibition at Rare in New York City marks the U.S. debut of the artist's current abstract style that he has been developing over the last few years. These paintings have provided new challenges to an artist whose work was previously known for its exacting detail. Steele, who showed extensively in Boston some years ago, used to paint in a social-realist style reminiscent of George Tooker, an artist who is well known for his haunting and isolated cityscapes. Although they are completely abstract, Steele's new paintings such as "Vice" and "Spoonfed" retain the cold clarity of line that recalls the artist's hyperrealist start. One can see in the serpentine swirls of "Vice," even in his wet on wet brushstrokes, a certain amount of measured hesitation and flat finish that reveals Steele's keen awareness of composition, edge, and performance while wielding the brush. In "Spoonfed," the brushstrokes are rigidly arranged, almost dramatically so, like the confined figures of the Parthenon frieze or the clipped colored papers of Matisse's late cutouts. One thing is immediately apparent, Steele is working in a very tight space. Nearly all of the paintings are constructed from 16" square panels that are adjoined from behind. Steele is using brushes that run up to 3" wide, so any movement of the arm or wrist is going to be somewhat restricted. It's amazing enough, given the format, that Steel is able to get these brushstrokes to snap back and recoil with any tension at all. Whatever muscularity might be sacrificed on such a small surface is immediately regained overt the larger area of the assembled picture. Steele thoughtfully arranges the squares into larger compositions that ripple and expand in every direction, despite the truncated gestures cinched within.
The mural-sized "Two Bang Theory" reveals just how good Steele is making the juxtaposition of panels an active drawing element within the overall image. Here large and forceful loops of color press and mesh across a supersized matrix of twenty-three individual and interlocking units. At first glance the square panels of "Two Bang Theory" Steel's system at work, the painting seems only possible, only looks right, just the way it is, like the unique arrangement that allows a jigsaw puzzle to lie flat. After a brief amount of time, the artist's outline becomes the only acceptable outline, because Steele has exhausted the outcome of every four-way combination already. The lines that demarcate the individual panels of "Two Bang Theory" are like a land surveyors' site lines, they delimit the space of a given building but they do not regulate the activity going on inside. As fine and real as these edges are, they still become subsumed by the stark exchange at work between Steele's hard, flat color and direct writhing gesture. In "Two Bang Theory" the character of the individual panels successfully gives way to the image of the whole. "Untitled,"
"Monk's Moon," and "Wake" reconfigure Steele's own structured system. In "Untitled" the static geometry of the grid vanquishes through the use of jagged swathes of hot color and a wilder unleashing of the gestural mark. Forms flame out while advancing towards the painting's outer edge rather than being smothered in their own collapsing piles or in an otherwise unforgiving right angle located in an interior corner. "Monk's Moon," too, contains looser free-form loops that dart out against a slathered and scraped patchwork of open color. "Wake," with its limited palette and all engulfing white, is my favorite painting of the show. In it, a rather dense and atmospheric center is framed by free flying tarantula-haired legs of purplish ivory black. "Wake" enjoys the broadest range of managed risk in the entire exhibition; it is a free radical, and like "Two Bang Theory" it's a tour de force of another kind, leaving the artist with an entrance/exit to further explore.
Steele's paintings are exciting in both their precision and release. They begin as piecemeal mosaics but end grandly as murals. His panels are cut and placed like collage, where images clash, as they do in film, and surrender to a larger, as yet unseen entity. In Steele's equation, the sum is always greater than the parts. His paintings approach an epic image, square by square, gesture against gesture, color interrupting color.
Michael Brennan, artsMEDIA, September 1999
Tim Steele was until fairly recently a representational painter whose current exhibition of mural-sized abstract works were undertaken to free himself of constraints. His classically trained abilities are evident in his masterful handling of paint. Steele's large brushy strokes of buttery color slurp across the surface with ease, and recall the delicious paint manipulations of Willem de Kooning as well as the graceful sinuous line of Brice Marden's Cold Mountain series. Steele's paintings are each comprised of individually painted panels that are arranged and re-arranged like puzzle pieces until the final image falls into place; one in which interlocking strokes of utter simplicity unite, resulting in a complex arrangement that is in some areas flat and in others creates the illusion of astonishing depth. There is a refreshing clarity and crispness to these works, due to the intensity of pure color and the artist's deft use of complimentary colors in juxtaposition to each other.
Joyce B. Korotkin, NY ARTS, September, 16, 1999
Tim Steele's haunting images of common objects confront us eerily from a velvety black background. Out of context, isolated, and larger than life, a set of teeth takes on a new and menacing persona. The works are large (some over 8 feet) and strikingly beautiful the sculptural form of a missile aches to be stroked. The point of view is direct and the forms unadorned, but painstakingly modeled. Obvious associations are transcended, and visual metaphors are invoked. Steele is a young New York artist whose work has been steadily gaining recognition there. This exhibition at the Spark Gallery II allows us to experience the full force of his work as it is best viewed hung amongst itself. Entering into his monochromatic environment one feels enveloped by a chapel-like aura. This artist's technique is labor intensive and unusual. Coating the paper with lamp black (a mixture of powdered pigment and water), Steele created his images through a form of reduction erasing the rich black-velvet surface to reveal the whiteness of the paper. He draws with erasers in this case, less is more.
Erika Lederman, Japan International Journal, November 1993
By transforming objects like a spoon or a feather into a six-foot powdered-pigment rendering, Mr. Steele turns them into gripping mystical icons that have no real weight or substance. The single feather, titled "Angel," particularly appeals because of its double meaning and its shimmering vibrancy.
Phyllis Braff, The New York Times, September 13, 1992
Immediately to your right in the main gallery is one of the ICA's most exotic choices, Time Steele's Satan Tempting Booth to the Murder of the President. Here, historical fact flirts with religious myth in a depiction that could be either a simplistic meditation on the nature of wrongdoing or a profound meditation on the nature of our culture, whose loss of faith in a god continually incites the intermingling of religious icons and secular heroes. A ghastly-looking Lucifer is prompting a possessed John Wilkes Booth to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, who sits at the right watching the theatre from his private booth. Lincoln is unaware of the killer's presence but we aren't, and we know from fourth-grade history class that Satan's wish will be fulfilled. Or will it? Steele keeps us teetering precariously between the assuredness of history and the unbridled possibilities of mythology. His work is both grave and silly and if there's fault in its failure to fully embrace one or the other, then Steele can at least be said to be onto something good. For now, he can be credited with providing Boston Now with some of its most provocative works.
Daniel Scott, The Boston Ledger, July 19, 1986
Both Tim Steele and Mary Sherwood are engaged in creating an American myth. Crossing Trecento Sienese aesthetics with postwar American scale, Steele chooses as iconography the life and death of Abraham Lincoln: in Satan Tempting Booth to the Murder of the President, Lincoln in his Ford Theatre rocker, Booth and the insinuating figure of the Devil, and a foreground busy with snakes are all crowded into a shallow pictorial space. Steele is interested in how we turn the political into the religious, and he manages to invigorate imagery that could remain merely didactic.
David Bonetti, the Boston Phoenix, July 15, 1986
Steele's works are wonderful. Inspired by a Civil War-era print showing Abraham Lincoln as Christ ascending to a heaven where George Washington is God. Steele has created a commentary on the mixing of politics and religion, then and, most importantly, now.
Christine Temin, The Boston Globe, July 4, 1986