Atlanta artist Ben Steele works in a predominately blue and white palette that gives his paintings the ambiance of glaciers, swimming pools, the flickering blue light of television screens and other ethereal, shimmering surfaces. The paintings create a restful mood at first glance, though Steele’s ongoing theme of fracturing and distorting space can work against that calm. The paintings strike a unique balance between stimulating and restful.
In his solo show of nine paintings at Westside’s Poem 88, Steele works in dimensions both intimate and grand. His paintings in oil on panel and on canvas range from a compact 18 x 24 inches to a far more magisterial 85 x 71 inches. But the same preoccupations apply no matter what the size: an interest in splitting the physical space in the paintings apart and making viewers work to find their way in the fracas.
One of the more arresting, finely wrought works in this mode is “Submerged,” in which the space of the painting is split horizontally by a black line that seems to divide what lies above the water line, and below. Above the water line there is the suggestion of a boat’s rudder and crisp, clear detail. Below is what might be an iceberg and black, watery depths rendered in murkier terms. But as your eye moves up and above this water-logged scene, the whole illusion begins to crumble. You glimpse duct work and rafters that suggest a room behind what now appears to be a painted set depicting that oceanic cataclysm. It’s like a glimpse of the wizard behind the curtain. Suddenly you’re alerted to the fact that rather than looking at a scene, you are looking at a fiction that has been carefully constructed.
And therein lies the rub. Steele’s work is about alerting viewers to the painter’s hand in creating artificial constructions. Like many of the paintings in his solo show “Ben Steele: From This, A Mountain” at Poem 88, “Submerged” suggests two views of the world. There’s the visible surface and the hidden one we are less likely to see, whether that hidden world is under water, behind a curtain or reflected in a mirror. Light and imagery bounce off surfaces in Steele’s paintings like “Projected Wings,” taking our attention with them as our eyes roam around, dazzled by all there is to see. Steele’s paintings can suggest overexposed photographs with their complex layers of visual information, or a fun house where walls of mirrors distort and deform what we see.
In fact, illusion is part of Steele’s modus operandi. The hall of mirrors effect Steele creates derives from how he creates his art. Steele begins his process by first building sculptures in his studio, onto which he then digitally projects imagery. The paintings are merely the final steps in capturing these elaborate stage sets he has constructed.
Steele’s views, split apart and fractured, can suggest the addled mind of any creative person imagining all sorts of possibilities as he works. The paintings are challenging, interesting and a bit oblique, but they show — along with the recent exhibition of Shara Hughes’ paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia — that a local movement is afoot to investigate painting’s potential and maybe call into question the obvious surface of things we take for granted in day-to-day life.
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