Quiet Light: The Art of Alex Steelsmith

by C.George.Byers (from a review of Alex's art at the Newport Art Museum)

        So much great art has been produced in the name of "capturing" light that we tend to neglect the very difficulty of painting or drawing even the simplest representation of the miracles that light performs: changing colors, lengthening shadows, altering shapes, creating mood. The Art Museum this Friday opens an exhibition by an artist for whom light is practically everything. Light informs all his paintings and many of his drawings either as a mood creator or distorter, or as a reflector. Alex Steelsmith's imaginative eye is let loose to roam about an imaginative mind, and the result is a vision that treads surrealistic traditions but doesn't seem surrealistic at all. It's much too personal to him.
        Alex has been an itinerant painter for many years, supporting his travels and his art in sundry ways: teaching, serving as a personal care attendant for people with disabilities, working in a vineyard in France, and rebuilding a 12th century historical site in England. His European tours have been interspersed with cross-country ventures and time in Canada, Mexico, and many other countries. So does he paint with the breadth of a world traveler? No, he paints with the breadth of a man who hasn't wandered far from himself for very long. That is to say, the paintings are geographically universal for the most part, but they represent a subject matter variety that reveals Alex is a free man, and he certainly feels free to paint what he wants to paint - no specializing involved.
Alex's oeuvre, if one needs to call it that, is light. Light, light, and more light. Shards, slivers, circles in darkness, scenes bathed in it, scenes pulling it from the sky, scenes breathing it, scenes begging for it. In some cases the light is brilliant, in some subtle. But always it has a magical quality that transforms what would be an ordinary scene into a vision that insists on emotion.
He paints people and things "in their element." His portraits are as much studies of how people look in certain environments as they are studies of how people look in and of themselves. His father lights up a pipe in a warm room, light filtering in here and there to identify items in the room; and in the corner over the father's shoulder is a fetching spot of rich blue from a late afternoon sky that suggests his father relaxing after a long day. Nothing tells more about the scene than that patch of blue, and the blue is formed totally by the light of the time.
        Alex does this in many of his paintings. One in particular, a late dusk scene in large format, makes the darkening light seem almost palpable, a trick many artists would give up their past to the Uffizi to accomplish. The light, a brilliant yellow-orange in its reflected state on the house windows, balances with the sliver of brilliant red-orange sky along the horizon as the sun says goodnight. The evergreen trees and the house itself become spooky shadows against the sky, but Alex tempers the surreal nature of the scene with yet another tiny detail bespeaking humanity in comfort: a young woman sits reading in the living room. The scary onset of darkness and the loss of light are made not scary at all by this detail, and the painting exists as a purple poem to what is a spectacularly beautiful time of day.
It occurs to you after looking at Alex's treatment of light that he is as much interested in time, that in fact light and time are intertwined, and they both affect color and perception. He paints a small bedroom scene in daytime with extremely even light, and it becomes a rainbow of color with only slight differences in tone brought on by shifting light. An attic is dark except for sharp late afternoon light that streams through a window in a front room like a spotlight and bathes a back room to give full detail to a cozy chair. Alex's light is almost always warm and quiet.
Perhaps most surprising of all Alex's works are his pen drawings. He combines realistic scenes with surrealistic interpretations that simply sweat with detail. One, a close-up of a face, is a bi-play on shape and perception. The face is next to a window, opened wide and stark, and reflected and distorted as if by a fisheye lens. This Alice in Wonderland vision beckons the viewer in deeper and deeper to study the detail, to join in the joke, to appreciate the sense of the artist as he toys with notions about how we see ourselves and each other and the world. Everything about this drawing is intriguing, from the face to the exterior which we study to see that Alex has reflected it properly. Great fun for us, and probably for him too.
Alex's imaginative viewpoint leads us into the clouds with a flock of geese as they quietly pass over carefully sculpted land. It is an expertly drafted work and an imaginative one. Alex listens to his mind and his heart, and his art has considerable integrity for that reason.
The exhibition continues at the Art Museum through January 30. The Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m.