Bodies of Light: Darius Steward at Bonfoey
“Bodies have their own light which they consume to live; they burn, they are not lit from outside.” Egon Schiele
“The Get Up #2”, a recent painting on Yupo paper by Cleveland-based artist Darius Steward, shows a young boy dressed in T shirt and jeans as he rises from the floor, propped on hands and one knee. The image is part of a series of more than twenty large and small depictions of the artist’s two children– a body of work that might sound very limited in scope, but travels far across the years that divide generations, through complex emotional terrain. The show, organized at Bonfoey Gallery by Thomas French Fine Art of Fairlawn, OH, called “Moving On”, is on view at Bonfoey’s landmark Euclid Avenue gallery near Playhouse Square through October 12, 2019.
The kids’ faces appear to flicker into view, mirage-like. Steward usually devotes his attention to just one of them at a time – a fatherly choice, perhaps, and certainly a source of aesthetic power here. This singleness adds to the impression that these children have welled up from a hidden source, and were preserved on the surface of the Yupo like a residue or sample, something like a glass slide prepared for a microscope. Steward’s warm watercolor tones, spreading blotted onto the smooth, plastic surface of the Yupo “paper”, are shadows at the edge of a sunny day, dappling the faces of Steward’s kids with summer heat. As their faces and limbs, their postures and volumes take sudden form and come forward toward the viewer, they can be startling. Sometimes they push up to the edge of the blank space around them, as if they might press further, into the viewer’s mind, past the borders of mere art. Steward’s fluent brushwork feels more like documentation than drawing, more like chemistry than what we normally think of as “art.” He seems to find his children’s features and forms all at once, rendering their appearance, movements, moods in a quick splash of access.
Yupo is an important choice of medium for these very intimate watercolors, boosting Steward’s images into the here-and-now of studio practice. Strictly speaking, Yupo is not paper at all, but a synthetic painting or drawing surface produced by extrusion from polypropylene pellets. It’s not just super smooth and bright white in tone, but also waterproof and fully recyclable; it has an indestructible, highly technological look/aura. Developed in Japan in the 1990’s in response to a paper shortage, Yupo became available to artists in the United States in the early 2000s. Devoid of organic texture, it’s the polar opposite of human skin. If anything, it can evoke the petroleum-derived large molecule conveniences of late modernity, and resembles the plastic-coated papers used in photography, including all the family snapshots, Polaroid prints, etc. that recorded our faces and antics before Instagram. Taking that thought a bit farther, in an age when paper is mainly an adjunct to flat screen operations, plastic may be the real-space medium of choice in a search for archival heft. Then there’s the fact that the two kids under consideration in these paintings are African American children, struggling to find handholds in their American reality. America can be a very white place, though not necessarily smooth.
“The Get Up #2” shows Steward’s son pushing himself up from a prone position on the floor. The view is from the front; the boy’s arms arc downward, propping and raising his torso. His throat stretches toward the viewer and his chin and jaw are clenched with effort. His head is thrown backward; foreshortened, it recedes past curving eyebrows to a narrow strip of forehead. Every muscle is taut with the effort of his upward push. But it’s his eyes that matter the most, which are depicted looking sharply up and to the right. This subtle cue changes the balance of the composition just enough, connecting the boy to a point beyond the frame. Maybe he’s watching his father, or his sister’s movements. Steward suggests movements and postures that he leaves to the imagination of the viewer. Here the boy raises himself in the picture’s featureless space on one knee; his other, unseen leg presumably extends backwards toward a vanishing point near the lower edge of the Yupo. He’s wearing a white T shirt, creased at the shoulders; it balloons downward as it drops away from the boy’s rising chest. You have to look at these details, because that’s all the world there is.
Among the dynamic oppositions in play in Steward’s work is a tension between process and subject matter. As we all know, kids are a hands-on proposition, child-rearing is definitely a contact sport. But in order to work effectively with ink or watercolor on Yupo, you need to literally keep gloves on – body oils can mess up the pristine/accidental, untouched and untouchable quality that is the synthetic paper’s strong suit. Such contradictions give hidden emphasis to Steward’s superb observational skills, as he explores moods and emotional ambiguities in his vivid portrayals. Steward achieves portraits that give a sense of the fluid, changeable stubbornness that is childhood, and of the nuanced personalities already emerging in these two young faces.
One of the larger, most portrait-like works on view is titled “Occupy a Space #2 (Emily)”. The girl, a child perhaps two or three years old, is presented from the waist up. A topknot rises from the oval of her head nearly to the edge of the Yupo surface. Emily’s face, set just above the center of the piece, is in your face: the slightly troubled, maybe a little teary focus of her dark eyes gazes straight toward the viewer. Her brows are knotted, her mouth is open, as if she was saying a single word, most likely not the word “yes.” I’d say her mood is, at least, defiant. “Occupy a Space,” for sure – the girl is right there, an incarnation of spirit demanding to be met and acknowledged. Darius Steward’s paintings are alive with the raw energies of childhood, alternately concentrated in purposeful form, and spilling, splashing beyond the boundaries of age and race into a renewed world.
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