Santa Fe, NM
Giacobbe-Fritz Fine Art, July 4-20
This story was featured in the July 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art July 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
When Ben Steele created his painting ART CIRCUS for a group exhibition last year, he didn’t realize it would become the catalyst for an entire solo show. But as a painter who continuously investigates and embraces the whole of art history, Steele recognized the circus theme as another opportunity to honor his artistic forebears while also asserting his own voice, vision, and wit. Centered on historic and nostalgic circus graphics, Steele’s newest body of work celebrates one of our favorite pastimes, seen through the lens of popular culture commingled with high art. To accomplish this synthesis, he appropriates imagery from such modern and contemporary icons as Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Warhol, and Koons, deftly fusing quintessential Americana with seminal subject matter from the canon.
Art Circus opens Friday, July 4, at Giacobbe-Fritz Fine Art and runs through July 20. The gallery has planned a July 4 opening reception for 5 to 7 p.m., complete with time-honored circus concessions like popcorn and cotton candy. Gallery director Palin Wiltshire is eager to “raise the curtain” on Steele’s new work. She says, “I always tell people that Ben Steele shows are like a three-ring circus, and this time, it really will be one!”
Art Circus features approximately 20 oil paintings that seamlessly blend familiar objects in circuslike settings with art-historical imagery to create high-impact, realistic scenes that are often humorous and at times surreal. Steele’s original ART CIRCUS is the centerpiece of the show. It cites a veritable pantheon of art-history references, among them odes to Dalí, Picasso, and Pollock. Other everyday-turned-sensational exhibition tableaux include a barn with Degas dancers painted on its exterior, a trompe l’oeil bottle of Toulouse Lautrec Lager against the backdrop of a performing elephant, and a lion tamer cracking the whip at a Koonsian balloon dog. Referential and reverential, Steele’s circus paintings evoke a sense of cerebral whimsy while also engaging viewers with saturated colors, rich textures, and meticulous brushwork.
Included in the show as well is a series of smaller pieces with painted and silkscreened images, some of which are grouped in two-, three-, and four-panel sets. Titled CONCESSIONS and presented on the gallery wall like a concessions stand, the groupings present pictures of popular circus fare—such as Coca-Cola, popcorn, and ice cream— simultaneously as high-art subjects and commodities. Recalling Warhol in process and appearance, these expressive, painterly, and ultralayered depictions suggest a dialogue about value and accessibility both within the art world and in society at large.
Steele writes that he “enjoys utilizing the techniques and processes of the old masters with a contemporary sensibility.” In addition to these conceptual implications and historical allusions, the artist also comments that he simply “likes the fun of it all.” He relishes the ability to convey images and ideas that are at once thoughtful, familiar, and accessible. “Everyone relates to drawing as a kid,” Steele says. And Art Circus unequivocally captures the lighthearted amusements of childhood as they intertwine with the intellectual charge of high art. It is art about making and enjoying art. —Elizabeth L. Delaney
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