SKIP STEINWORTH

by Bill Lasarow

"Still Life with Lilies
and Aloe," graphite/charcoal/
acrylic, 33 x 26", 1998.

 



"Untitled Still Life #57," graphite/
charcoal/acrylic, 19 x 16", 1997.

 

"Untitled Still Life ##53," graphite/
charcoal/acrylic, 15 1/2 x 24 1/2", 1996.

 

"Untitled Still Life #56," graphite/
charcoal/acrylic, 21 x 30", 1997.

(Sydne Bernard Fine Arts, West Hollywood) The still life drawings of Skip Steinworth are the visual equivalent of comfort food. It's easy to settle in with their visual familiarity and just enjoy floating from one handsomely rendered object to another while soaking up this reincarnation of 17th-century Dutch still life arrangement. The simple purity of pencil work, doggedly restrictive and committed to endless permutations of the discrete original drawing, is gutsy for its rejection of bombast.

The simple enjoyment of unadorned draftsmanship segues into admiration, and this after a while into the question: what exactly is the artist driving at? The consideration suggests real dangers. If it is the endless repetition of his singular formula of imagining it will become tiresomely didactic, the downside equilvalent of Mondrian's insistence that dynamic equilibrium could be properly examined only by restricting art to vertical and horizontal marks. If it is more of a finger-wagging lecture berating the lack of basic craft and aesthetic values in contemporary art, it will decay into a whiny, reactionary marginality. And it is easy enough to observe elements of such tendencies in Steinworth's intimate yet insistent little universe, make no mistake.

But there is also a directness and honesty of attack that not only bespeaks of a solid artistic integrity but allows for a distinct, if restrained, expressive valence to assert itself. Part of this emerges out of the formal handling of the surface of soft, atmospheric sprays and marks. This affords a somewhat dreamlike effect that balances the empirical quality of his objects with an underlying but constant reminder that these are illusions. The restriction from color works because Steinworth is able to offer a tour de force control of tonalities that clearly distinguish one surface from another. The viewer therefore never has to stretch to read these compositions: there is an ease of verisimilitude that causes austerity to give way to richness. It's as though a shot of hard liquor were to go down as smoothly as water.

There are exceptions, but the majority of Steinworth's compositions--made up predominantly of flowers, fruit, glasses, vases and other objects that are not time-specific--include one or more objects that modestly contemporize the image. This may be as minimal as a single measuring tape, in Pots/Plants #2, which, along with a single coin in the image perhaps alludes to the question of affixing value to works of art--both aesthetic and monetary. Timepieces appear quite often, an obvious reference to the time that passes in the course of creating the work of art, but is also, and much more interestingly, an ironic and humorous suggestion of the artist observing himself.

This theme pops up in other ways, in Untitled Still Life #53, a photograph of a hand (readily presumed to be the artist's) appears directly above an elusive sparrow to the right of the composition. Several playing cards are randomly scattered on the tabletop, on top of which rests a pair of scissors. Aside from the obvious pun, the image is an updated version of the traditional allegory of life's fragility. The thread is easily and arbitrarily snapped --through the concern here is not that of a Christian European reflecting on Biblical lessons, but of a secular American who is working through the tension between art as pure aesthetic and as saleable commodity. While not startlingly original, this is accomplished with grace and depth. In Untitled Still Life #57, the same photograph of the hand joins a pair of dice to reflect on the risk and arbitrariness of the artist's enterprise. Steinworth, however, is an artist who leaves very little to chance.