Charles Steffen’s amiable monsters have taken up residence at Russell Bowman Art Advisory, staring from the walls of his second solo exhibition here with genial and otherworldly countenances. The Chicago artist, who died of cancer in 1994, favored nudes, portraits and flowers as subjects, often combining all three in the same drawing. Most of his works were drawn from life with the simplest of materials—graphite, colored pencil, brown paper bags and wrapping paper—yet they appear as fantastic eruptions within an otherwise mundane existence. All of Steffen’s portraits (which were usually based on friends and family members) seem to be extensions of the artist himself. Diary-like annotations written across the drawings detail Steffen’s daily routine: what he ate for lunch, how long the drawing took, his artistic touchstones (particularly de Kooning’s nudes) and his continual efforts to improve his work. Steffen tended to hybridize human and botanical forms. Flesh has the scaly texture of tree bark, fingers and hands are gnarled and knotty, bodies are either tumorous or attenuated, their limbless nether regions dangling sinuously. This was somewhat an expression of mental illness (he lived on and off at Elgin State Hospital for thirteen years beginning in the 1950s), but given the proclivity of so many other twentieth-century artists for whom radical transmogrifications of the body are the norm, Steffen’s mental state seems only secondarily relevant. Steffen clearly sought to portray the essence of his subjects; whether this aligns him with the trajectory of twentieth-century art or cements his “outsider” status is a question worthy of further debate. (Claudine Isé)
Charles Steffen shows at Russell Bowman Art Advisory, 311 W. Superior, (312)751-9500, through January 10.