By Bonnie Gangelhoff
A woman sprawls across a chair while reading a book. A ballerina poses with a bouquet of roses after a performance. A mother and child dance along a sandy beach. This is a sampling of the subject matter that inhabits Michael Steirnagle’s graceful figurative paintings. But it’s not really the subject matter that captivates the viewer. The real stars of Steirnagle’s engaging visual shows are two other elements—the color palettes and the patterns. The California-based artist employs a lush treasure trove of colors in his works. Violet, fuchsia, orange, and crimson seem to explode on his canvases, while intriguing shapes and patterns worthy of Matisse also hold the viewer’s eye hostage.
Although Steirnagle is considered a figurative artist, he sees the human form as merely a vehicle to express his artistic vision. “There is something about the human body and the way it flows that allows unlimited potential for creating compositions,” he explains. “But I’m not particularly interested in painting people. I am interested in using the figure as a never-ending source of shapes, angles, and composition. I could be painting landscapes to explore colors and shapes, but trees and barns don’t hold the same interest for me.”
If Steirnagle does decide to paint a landscape or a building, it’s only because he has discovered an intriguing play of light on a shape. Indeed, one of his key artistic concerns is how light illuminates form, creates space, and describes atmosphere. In terms of labels, the artist considers himself an abstract painter who paints in a representational style.
Steirnagle began his art career like many other fine artists—as an illustrator. After studying for a degree in illustration from the Art Center College of Design, formerly in Los Angeles but now in Pasadena, CA, he worked on major commissions with clients such as American Airlines, AT&T, and Pepsi from 1975 to 1993. During this time he also illustrated an array of record album covers, including the cover for Jerry Garcia’s 1976 solo album, Reflections. Along the way, Steirnagle picked up numerous awards for his work from prestigious organizations like the Society of Illustrators. But ultimately, in 1990 at the age of 40, he decided it was time to venture down a new path in his creative life. “Illustration is a lucrative career, but it’s not always fun. And it became obvious that computers were taking over the business,” he says.
After accepting a teaching job at Palomar College in San Marcos, a suburb of San Diego, he began to spend more and more of his free time in his studio. Initially it was a period of searching for his voice. “Finding your own way of looking at things takes a lot of time. I wanted to find out who I was as an artist when my work wasn’t tied to commercial purposes,” Steirnagle says. “At first I did traditional figures, landscapes, and urbanscapes. But it all began to loose its importance because I felt like I was not really responding to my inner voice. So I began to work more abstractly. I just got tired of trying to compose a painting in a representational style.”
Today he is comfortable with the way his work has evolved, citing Bay Area figurative artist Richard Diebenkorn and abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning as major influences. Diebenkorn and de Kooning allowed their work to unfold spontaneously rather than duplicating what was in front of them, Steirnagle says. “Their goal was to merely use what was in front of them as a springboard to where their own imagination would take them,” he explains. “This allows me the freedom to play with shapes, colors, and textures, which I couldn’t do if I had to create an art director’s vision.”
Paul Eubanks, who is co-owner of Paul Scott Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ, and has represented Steirnagle since 2009, says that it was this abstract, loose style and use of color that attracted him to the artist’s works. “A lot of artists paint the figure, but it’s usually over-illustrated,” Eubanks says. “The way he arranges his color planes and his compositions, I probably would like anything he painted, whether it’s a landscape or building. His paintings are not a pictorial record, but they capture a mood or an instant moment. They are contemporary, colorful, and thoughtful.”
These days Steirnagle is lucky enough to maintain two studios. One is located in Escondido, CA, not far from Palomar College, where he remains a professor of art teaching painting and drawing classes. During the summer months he heads to Costa Rica, where he and his wife, Adele, have purchased a home and studio on a 50-acre wildlife refuge called SIBU located near the town of Nosara. The sanctuary is dedicated to the preservation of wildlife, specifically the howler monkey. As development has increased in Costa Rica, Steirnagle says, electric power lines that are not insulated have caused death and injury to hundreds of monkeys, who confuse the lines with tree branches.
Since it’s difficult to transport large canvases to the rural area, the paintings he creates at the wildlife refuge are usually smaller, but the subject matter and style remain the same. He has grown fond of creating works in such an exotic environment and says that the experience can be compared to working in the middle of a zoo. Male monkeys howl regularly, and it’s common for him to see parrots fly by his studio window.
Living in two cultures has encouraged him to appreciate each one: “It wakes you up to both cultures. As an American it shows me how the rest of the world lives,” he says. “We have such an abundance of things in this country, but we also pay a price for that abundance. Look at how much we work and how much we put up with to commute to work, for example. Our stores are open 24 hours, and that’s not the case in Latin American cultures. Who is to say that their standard of living isn’t as good as ours just because they don’t have as much stuff as we do?”
Whether he is in Costa Rica or California, Steirnagle prefers to work from life, sometimes using sketches and photographs as reference material. “I’m not a slave to sketchbooks or photographs. They are just the spark,” he says. “I change colors and designs. A lot of what I do is purely made up. It’s invented and intuitive.”
While elements such as light, shapes, and colors hold special allure for Steirnagle, ultimately he is the first to admit that a painting is nothing without emotional content. “I think for any painting to be successful it has to have an emotional component. That could be something as simple as using light and color temperature to create ethereal-looking spots of light coming across a figure,” he says. “The palette I choose or the angle of the hand or head can create a narrative.”
Steirnagle is quick to point out that he wants viewers to read their own narratives or stories into his paintings while they ponder what has just transpired or is unfolding in a scene. Some contemporary artists think a painting has to be fraught with turmoil and gloom to be legitimate, but Steirnagle is not trying to convey angst. “A lot of people will tell you a painting has to be edgy to be accepted. But that doesn’t float my boat,” he explains. “I’m not interested in painting dark works just for the sake of creating a dark painting.”
Contemplating the future, Steirnagle says he foresees his painting style moving in the direction of greater abstraction. “My hope is that the viewer will continue to find pleasure in the arrangement of shapes, colors, and textures in the painting,” he says, “as well as in its subject, which emerges, disappears, and re-emerges throughout the work.”
Paul Scott Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Petri’s Fine Arts, Sausalito, CA; www.steirnagle.com.
Group show, Paul Scott Gallery, through January 21.
Featured in January 2011.