Ben Steele | A World of Whimsy

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

A striped cat perches on a pedestal and stares longingly at a gilt-framed painting of a goldfish in a bowl. It’s hard not to smile at Ben Steele’s depiction of this unlikely feline visitor to an art museum. One can practically see the cat’s tail twitching as it anxiously awaits the right moment to seize its prey.

CURIOSITY is a good example of Steele’s sly sense of humor. And while curiosity may kill the cat, as the saying goes, curiosity is also a quality that defines Steele as an artist. His paintings often speak to his wide range of interests, revealing an active mind that is constantly ruminating on art history, pop culture, advertising, and modern life.

Some observers have dubbed Steele a still-life painter, but he actually defies categorization. His signature style can incorporate landscapes, figures, interiors, and animals, totally upending the traditional still-life genre. A self-described humorist, Steele brings a fresh, young eye to the time-honored table set-ups of the old masters, who favored painting vases, flowers, and fruit. Steele prefers crayons, gumball machines, and elephants on stilts.

Southwest Art first featured the Utah-based Steele in 2005 in our annual 21 Under 31 issue, which spotlights up-and-coming artists. Since then his subject matter and approach to art have expanded to encompass more layers of meanings as well as more layers of paint. Steele, now 32, says he may begin a series of paintings that include coloring books and crayons, such as in DEDICATED TO DA VINCI, but that soon becomes a mere jumping-off point. From there he may take a look at children’s imagery in general and create works focusing on anything from a PEZ candy dispenser to an Etch A Sketch, one of the best-known toys of the baby-boom generation.

Steele says he simply let his imagination wander when he conceived the painting PEARLY PEZ. “One idea sometimes leads to ten more,” he says. “I thought it would be neat to include an art history reference.” He soon found himself creating a miniature rendering of the young woman in Jan Vermeer’s famous painting GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING for the head of the PEZ dispenser. Observers familiar with Steele’s style aren’t surprised to find references to art history in his paintings, which may include everything from Renaissance works by Leonardo da Vinci to 20th-century pop art by Andy Warhol.

Take FANCIFUL FROSTING, for example. It is a deliciously intriguing painting showing Warhol’s iconic portrait of Marilyn Monroe’s face decorating a birthday cake. Ten candles flicker around the perimeter of the confection, forming a frame of sorts for the blonde movie star, and the subject matter appears to be illuminated solely by candlelight. While the viewer will quickly perceive the reference to Warhol’s famous painting, there is another layer of meaning here—an homage to Rembrandt, one of Steele’s favorite artists. “I am using Warhol’s imagery of Monroe, but my process is similar to Rembrandt’s because of my layers of glazing,” he explains. “And I used candles as the only light source to echo the lighting of Rembrandt’s time period.”

Painting objects in candlelight holds a special allure for Steele because, like in FANCIFUL FROSTING, it allows him to paint loose and more gestural around the edges where the scene is darker. “I can put in runs and drips, adding texture to make the painting a little more sophisticated and interesting,” says Steele.

When he painted the cake’s frosting, Steele incorporated another of his favorite elements: thick, juicy paint. The paint’s thickness mimics the icing’s goopy texture. Talking about his love of texture, however, sends Steele off on a tangent about one of his pet peeves—artists who use thick paint just for its own sake. “Some artists think thick paint is good, so even thicker paint must be better,” he explains. “I love thick paint, but you have to use it appropriately. I think for some artists it’s a one-trick pony to a certain extent; that’s all they have.”

FANCIFUL FROSTING took about six weeks to complete. Steele used a photo reference for the cake, but he also kept a real cake in the refrigerator in case he needed more detailed information. Luckily, no one in his family ate his subject matter.

Steele’s use of texture is also seen in FARMER’S DAIRY, a depiction of a barn covered with a sprawling image of the farm couple from the famous painting AMERICAN GOTHIC by Grant Wood.  Steele wanted to portray the barn as old and weathered and used thick paint to convey the look of the tattered façade. “The dilapidated wood allowed me to use paint in a rougher way,” says the artist. “It is still realism, but it’s different from a Vermeer painting, which is more polished and refined.”

Steele found the reference image for the building by Googling the word “barn”; he’s now fond of calling it a “Google barn.” He has since become fascinated with old barns and says one of his future goals is to paint some real murals on real barns.

The billboard-style imagery on the barn in FARMER’S DAIRY brings to mind other interests that fuel Steele’s free-wheeling curiosity—advertising and pop art. Early in his career path, Steele considered going into advertising because of his affinity for pop art. “The modern, graphic quality of Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein are like advertisements—simple, strong colors and imagery,” he says. “Fine art gave me the opportunity to incorporate those elements into my work, too.”

Steele grew up in Washington State and as a youngster never really thought about becoming an artist. When he was 15, his family moved to St. George, UT, where he became an avid and accomplished golfer. “For seven years I worked at a golf course and played every day. I wanted to be a professional golfer,” he recalls. When it came time for college, he majored in business at a small community college because he thought that a business degree would be helpful if he didn’t make it as a golf pro. He could then, at least, pursue a career in golf-course management.
After a few years Steele decided life as a professional golfer wasn’t for him and instead chose a pathway back to art, his college minor. On the advice of a former professor, he enrolled at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he studied with Tony Smith and John Erickson. He also took workshops with painters Paul Davis and David Dornan.

Dornan offered some valuable advice that Steele continues to follow today: “Paint what you like, and don’t worry if you are painting a lot of different things. Some things will start to repeat themselves.”

What has happened over the years, Steele says, is that as he moves forward in his career, he is able to integrate various areas of interest and disparate elements into a style that has become uniquely his own. He is comfortable letting one idea lead to the next. Most recently, the crayons, gumball machines, and PEZ dispensers have led in a whole new direction—sculpture. One of his latest pieces, DRIPPY DRAWING, is three dimensional.

In it Steele recreates a version of an Etch A Sketch and incorporates a well-known figure from art history. By painstakingly creating tiny black brush strokes on canvas, he mimics Etch A Sketch lines and fashions an image of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock as he famously flings and splatters paint. The image is framed with a wide, bright red resin rectangle with white knobs, just like the actual toy. But with dimensions measuring 40 by 49 by 7 inches, Steele’s mixed-media sculpture is five times as large as a real Etch A Sketch.

As for his future artistic goals, Steele envisions more sculpture in the years ahead. DRIPPY DRAWING, he says, has opened him up to three-dimensional works. “Bigger pieces demand more attention and have a greater impact on the viewer,” says the artist. Ideas for sculptures of giant gumball machines and huge Campbell’s soup cans are now percolating in Steele’s far-reaching and ever-curious imagination.

Coda Gallery, Palm Desert, CA, and Park City, UT; Giacobbe-Fritz Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM;

Featured in July 2010