Santa Fe, NM, June 22-July 5
It all started with a crayon—well, not an actual crayon, but a painting of one. In 2002, Ben Steele, having just recently graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Utah, was living in the old mining town of Helper, UT, and interning at the Helper Workshops, where he also studied with its founders, respected artists and teachers David Dornan and Paul Davis.
“Dave encouraged me to paint whatever I was interested in,” Steele recalls. “‘Do that and you’ll start to see a pattern,’ he told me.” So Steele painted that image of a common child’s drawing tool, and while doing so he thought, “I’ll put it in the context of a coloring-book page. And, since I’ve always loved art history, why not put Mona Lisa on that page?” Sure enough, the pattern Dornan had promised began to emerge. Soon after, while shopping in a local Wal-Mart, Steele saw a display of Pez candy dispensers—“and I thought, what if Rembrandt’s head were on one?” That became his next painting.
Thus began what is now a decade-long flow of paintings that might best be described as realistically portrayed, wildly imaginative mash-ups between art history and popular culture. The latest examples of this playful-yet-accomplished oeuvre are on display starting June 22 at Giacobbe-Fritz Fine Art on Canyon Road in Santa Fe. The show opens with an artist’s reception on June 22 from 5 to 7 p.m. “Ben’s shows always create a lot of excitement,” says gallery director Palin Wiltshire. “He’s so fresh and different. People just plain get a kick out of him.”
Steele clearly continues to get a kick out of mining this rich artistic vein. “When I have a new idea, I’ll put it on an index card,” he says. “Now I have a giant 4-by-8-foot board covered with index cards that I arrange in a hierarchy of importance.”
The most recent works to ascend in that hierarchy exemplify how far he’s developed his concepts beyond the crayon-and-coloring-book stage. COMPLETE BREAKFAST, for example, presents a cereal box that, at first glance, may appear to be the most familiar product from General Mills. A closer look, however, reveals the product name “Earrios,” and the box features the solemn image of Vincent Van Gogh, his ear bandaged, gazing out across a cup of coffee, a glass of juice, and a bowlful of cereal—a composition inspired by an old magazine ad. “As the advertising used to say, ‘It’s part of a complete breakfast,’” says Steele, adding, “complete, that is, apart from missing the ear.”
But the visual punning doesn’t end there. From the sunflowers on the table to a glimpse of Starry Night on the wall to the entire image’s expressive brush strokes, every aspect of the painting pays pleasurable, highly accomplished tribute to its inspiration.
And then there’s the inherent tribute to be found in the painting’s size, an impressive 4 by 4.5 feet. “I’m attracted to large paintings,” Steele explains. “It raises my subjects to the level of Pop, and makes them feel heroic and important.”
The gallery, meanwhile, anticipates a heroic performance from Ben Steele’s latest show. The vast majority of his 20-some works in last year’s outing sold quickly. And all of them drew delighted reactions not often experienced in such settings. “Whenever I hear big laughter,” says Wiltshire, “I know where people are standing in the gallery.” —Norman Kolpas
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