Monday, September 24, 2012

Beer with a Painter: Clintel Steed

Before the tape started rolling, Clintel Steed and I had a pretty epic conversation. We met at a happening—and loud!—bar restaurant in Harlem, the Corner Social, a few blocks away from where he lives and works.  It was one of the last summer nights, and the neighborhood was pulsing with energy.   Too loud to record, we avoided the subject of painting, instead just catching up. 

There is no small talk with Clintel, of course.  I’ve known him for years, running into him at the Met on Friday nights and events at the New York Studio School. This past spring, Steed had a solo exhibition at Art Amalgamated.

Steed is passionate and intense and I like to accuse him of being a mind-reader (or, as our mutual friend puts it—he is just very perceptive—after all, he’s a painter!).  So, we talked about romantic love, the home, the idealization of it all, and the things that get in the way.  Like our phones, of course, interrupting us, penetrating our private time and space. The thing is, Clintel’s work is all about the same issue.  Broken-up space, fractured forms, and the resulting rhythms.  The potential and scope of what we can see, and the complex tumult that ultimately organizes it all. 

We had to leave the Corner Social to record our chat, so we took a walk through Harlem and ended up on the roof of his parking garage (yes, with beer!)  It was all strangely perfect, the essence of late summer, overlooking the city streets and facing tall buildings, seeing, through his eyes, the colors and rhythms of lit-up windows.   Thank you, Clintel!

Clintel Steed, Harlem East River Park #2 for Uri Harkham, 2012, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches
JS: In your artist statements, you mention your religious upbringing and family in Utah.  How is this history and spirituality connected to your identity as an artist?

CS: I don’t see it as connected to my identity, but there is no way to escape it.  It’s the way I was raised, and it was put into me. I haven’t been to church in a long time, but I still believe in God.  A lot of things that I saw and experienced growing up, I still believe in as well.  That microcosm of believing in God, and feeling God, the electricity of that, what I saw people go through in church - it’s about creating an experience that you can look at, and be affected by.  I think that’s what religion is.  You go to church, and you have the pastor talking to you, and from the words, you experience your idea of who God is, what God is. That has been the biggest thing for me, as a painter:  trying to create something people can respond to.  It is a visual experience. It’s that passion for wanting to understand the unknown, God, the Bible, and trying to translate it to the people, to yourself.  That’s what painting is, trying to understand what nature is, the society, the world we live in. 

JS: I was thinking about your different subjects and bodies of work – the aerial views, the images of the tsunami, portraits, and the keyboards / computers.  It is such a wide scope, from the intimate to the larger world-view, don’t you think?

CS: We are living in this very digital world.  That’s why I did the computer paintings.  Life comes through the computer screen, from cyber-space, for most people nowadays. For Cézanne, the apple or the peach was enough.  I can still paint a still life, but it’s more than a still life; it is a part of my time. Look at what we can see through the computer. Porn in 1890 was photos of naked women.  All they would get were some breasts and a little bit of … and it was enough.  But for us, it’s full on! Being a painter from life, you have all this at your disposal.
Clintel Steed, Computer with African Gold, oil on canvas, 26 x 30 inches
JS: It’s interesting. As you were talking, I was thinking about having this experience with you, right now, in person, after we had communicated by email and text.  It’s so completely different, so real and vivid and bigger than our correspondence.

CS: Nothing comes close to human contact, real human presence.  Nothing ever will.  It’s like how running is the oldest form of exercise, but it’s still one of most important forms.  The Greeks were doing it, but we do it too. You can go to the gym and run on the treadmill, but it’s not going to be the same experience as running through Central Park, or the same difficulty.  There are certain things you can’t get rid of in life.  Like storytelling: we always have had to tell about our experiences – write them down, paint them.  We, in our entities, are storytellers.  And it goes from a text message, to an email, to the actual moment of being with the person.  People say painting is dead, but you can’t get rid of the magic of paint itself, paint on a surface, and how paint translates into some thing. Whatever it becomes, it is something that is sustained, held in time, and held in paint, which makes it magical.

Clintel Steed, Harlem East River Park # 3, 2012, oil on canvas, 48 x 64 inches
JS:  So you are saying painting is one of those primary things. Like telling stories, or running, or human contact.  Painting has that value for you.

CS:  Yes. I’ve been making these landscapes. At the end of the day, all I’m doing is recording my life, my experience.  I find something beautiful, and I lay it down in paint.  That’s what Van Gogh did.  That’s what they all did.  That’s what Guernica is.  Picasso looked at war, and thought how do I translate it? He must have felt pain for it.  That was his experience, how he saw war.  This is how I see life.

JS: Is Guernica an important painting to you?  It has that fracturing of forms that is such a hallmark of your work.

CS: Well, Picasso is a monster to me because he painted about everything.  He painted about love, about fucking, about crying, about being an old man. The reason people either love or hate Picasso, is that if he were in the mob, he would be the Godfather. If he were a writer, he’d be Shakespeare. He’d be the best of whatever he did. Picasso took on the world, and he wasn’t afraid to paint about any subject that was true to himself.  That’s the way I want to be—not that I want to paint like Picasso—but if I’m alive, I should paint about my sensations, my fears, my troubles, my struggles, my love, everything.  It is a voice.  And that passion comes from the church in some ways. I’m making these landscapes by the water right now.  I did it before; it is something in myself.  Why am I drawn to bridges?  Why am I drawn to the water of New York?  If you read Siddartha, he went to the water for a certain reason: to contemplate.  He went to the waves, and the waves started talking to him.  Maybe that’s what I need: quietness, something to speak to me, and for me to speak to it.

Clintel Steed, Harlem East River Park #1, 2012, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches
JS: Where are you painting these landscapes?

CS: I’m painting in the Harlem East River Park.  I’ve made three paintings.  They are about how the bridges connect with the water.  There are about three bridges all pointing into the Bronx.  I think about that history, how they were built, why we need so many bridges within 30 blocks.  Bridges captivate me because of the way they break up space.  It’s what the bridge translates into.  Once you paint a bridge, you’re making something that is broken up and fractured. 
It is also about rhythm. I am creating this logic of beats through a bridge.  If you paint illuminated windows on a building at night, it is like that too. Against all the blackness, the lights are like notes on a guitar. Color has a shape, but color has a rhythm too.  When you look at a building like that one over there, you get lost.  Each part has a different sensation.  The windows are a kind of pink, the sky over there is a kind of gold.  It’s jazzy.  It’s like, how could you paint jazz?  I always asked myself, how could I paint rap?  The easiest way would be for me to paint a portrait of Tupac.  But how do you translate that into a form?  That was the basis for the aerial view paintings I made.  

Clintel Steed, Radiation in the Form of Johnny Big Time Blues, 2011, oil on masonite, 64 x 93 inches
JS: Can you tell me more about this idea of translating music into form and your thought process of turning rap into paintings?

CS: I listen to music when I paint in the studio.  I remember when I was in high school, and making my first paintings. I was listening to a lot of Tupac.  But, how often could I hear the words, bitch-ass nigger?  After a while, I got sick of rap, and wanted to listen to Bob Marley, and Jimi Hendrix.  I’m a fanatic about music, because I think it’s a universal language.  If you come up with a great song, everybody’s going to know it.  Music can teleport you.  There is a power to that. How do I turn the auditory into the visual?  How do I turn the taste into the visual?  That’s the thing about the senses.
But when I’m painting outside, which I’m doing now, it’s not about music.  It becomes more about the people and the space. When I’m outside, it’s the wind, it’s the vibe of being outside. I bought this book, Matisse in Morocco.  But this is like Clintel in Harlem.  This person, in this space.  I’m not from Harlem, but I live here.  How do the people in the park affect me?

JS: Music has such a wider audience than visual art.  Why do you think that is?

CS: When you’re making a painting or looking at painting, you have to be engaged.  You can turn on a piece of music, and shut your eyes.  It’s easy to listen to music, everyone has a radio, but they’re not going to go to the library and pick up a book on Kandinsky or Klee. You ask people when’s the last time they went to the museum, the Met, and they don’t even fucking know.  10 years ago, 12 years ago. Because they don’t go. They just don’t care. It’s crazy being a painter in the 21st Century.  Because it’s been done so much, there are so many of us doing it.  It’s off the chain, in terms of how many people are painting, how many people are showing it, how many people are talking about it.

JS: Yes.  Your world is the museum, and the history.  And you had a job, years ago, as a guard at the Met, so you’ve spent a lot of time there.

CS: Art history is the bread and butter of my life.  That’s what keeps me going. If Van Gogh could do it, I could do it too. Or, you could think about Einstein. Einstein is the same as you and me.  What made Einstein different?  He focused himself, he had an imagination, and he wasn’t afraid to test it out. I would be a different person if I had not seen some of the paintings I have.  Painting can change lives.  Working at the Met and seeing shows like the one of Philip Guston.  Some of these paintings you think you’ll only see in a book.  When you get to see them in real life, you’re like, “Damn, that’s why! Shit is hot!”
People ask me, what are you going to do with this? It’s my life. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I’m out here doing it.  Whose business is it, if I’m going to make money or not.  That’s my own personal struggle. You need to do it; it’s a part of you. I always tell people - look at our life! Who invented light, why does light exist?  Who made cars?  Who made concrete?  Who decided to cut down all the trees?  Who decided to make the projects?  We did.  Why? Because we needed it.  We wanted it.  We had the imagination to make it.  It’s all creativity.  We weren’t given concrete.  Man had to come up with that idea. We created all this.  The ideas are from imagination.  Dreamers make shit happen. 

JS:  So you consider scientific invention and artistic creativity in the same category?  That’s interesting.  Painting isn’t more about the translation of reality and life, as opposed to invention?

CS:  Painting is being open to what’s around you.  But you are imagining, you are coming up with an idea, and you give in to ideas.  It is always a push and pull.  To me it’s like the computers.  It’s the opportunity to make something epic.  You ride the wave of the text until you get to the moment.  The way we live life right now is that there is a lot of jumbling.  Everything becomes fractured.  Like how music now is different from what it was in the 1980s.  Then, every song was five minutes.   There was time to take a breath. Now they are all 2-3 minutes, and that seems long. But, I was reading this book about the sublime.  The sublime is now.  I think that everybody, when they are making a painting, is trying to be in the sublime: that moment when they are not thinking, but in the present.
Photo by Janice Nowinski 

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