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Steven Charles

My Life is Perfect and I'm Always Happy
Pierogi 2000

"My life is perfect and I’m always happy" claims Brooklyn-based Steven Charles in the title of his third solo exhibition at Pierogi. Looking at the excessively intricate, labor-intense, pop-colored canvases, one starts questioning if the phrase might indeed be meant literally rather than ironically. Whatever the answer, one thing is clear: Charles, who states that "the impetus for this work is my optimism," draws his audience into visual riddles that leave us cheering and confused.

In his recent paintings, Charles continues his process evolving around clearly defined rules and obsessive devotion. Without drafting preliminary sketches, he starts by pouring enamel paint directly onto the canvas. Following this almost performative improvisation, he commits to, as he puts it, "targeting" each shape. Filling in each with smaller color patches, he only leaves the outer edge of the coating underneath untouched. The repetitive dialogue between act and edit is completed when the final fill layer is as miniscule as the chosen brush allows. In other words, as soon as the first step has been taken, the composition takes Charles from there, transforming the act of painting into the interplay of physical experience and educational exercise.

As is the case in his previous work, most of the recent paintings resemble multi-layered topographical maps viewed from an aerial perspective. Think close-up pixellation on a TV screen. Within this context, each component becomes part of a smaller parcel while serving as cross-reference throughout the composition. In "noletosee," bright orange geometric structures that resemble highways, turquoise lakes, heavily outlined city clusters, differences in elevation and population can easily be read into the composition. The excessive amount of information provided signals futuristic density and hints at a slice of science fiction that feels equally enchanting and terrifying. Although structurally held together by the miniscule network of vibrant patterns, the compositions do not fail to make us dizzy, leaving us to wonder where Charles is going to take us next and how to expand the subject matter from there. Looking at the works exhibited, a suspicion rises that new roads have been scouted, but not yet been fully explored.

Amongst the varying tendencies, two dominant polarities can be found. There are works, such as the more intimately scaled "sikevi" in which the decorative quality inherent in Charles’s process, is vehemently pushed. On silver ground, the array of color splotches receives an underground glow. This metallic luminosity combined with thick layers of enamel paint that expand beyond the canvas and transform the edges into expressive ripples creates an inescapable sense of preciousness that usually seems to be reserved for ornate objects. Another direction plays with the increased incorporation of sculptural elements into the canvas. In "thunliisnowoli," sparkly hair ribbons spring from the paint bed while architecturally associative objects emerge from underneath. Part Alice in Wonderland<.i>, part outer space telescoping, the visual result rivals a confusing labyrinth in which the viewer struggles to find an overall visual focus. Here, the problem is not simply caused by an information overload, but rather by the lack of the artist’s leading hand and an underlying concept. While the dedication to a didactic technique has its advantages, it also has its obvious limitations as soon as the artist tries to re-explore and move beyond the already achieved. In this case, more work lies ahead and, considering Charles’s talent, a fascinating outcome would come as no surprise.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2003

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