In Fall 2005, Ann Nathan Gallery in Chicago presented "Steven Assael: Painting and Drawings", an exhibition of recent works by this contemporary realist master. Assael (b. 1957), who graduated from Pratt Institute and has taught both there and at the School of Visual Arts, has an academic mastery of the nude, seen here in some inventive tondo compositions. But he is also attracted to the mysteries of human character, which he explores in individual and group portraits. The show featured several intriguing double portraits, most psychologically ripe head studies bathed in reddish light. The standout in this group, however, is a half-figure African-American couple, Nicole and James. The vertical format emphasizes their elongated torsos and waterfall of dreadlocks. The hands at the bottom of the composition hold a white electrical cord, an enigmatic attribute, but the painter focuses on their beautifully sculpted faces. They are as compelling as ancient Egyptian royalty. Assael paints from live models, and his subjects’ range from his own aged, suffering parents to outré club kids in full ritual gear. By moving his subjects (he hires some models off the street) out of their usual habitats and placing them in front of murky, amorphous backdrops, Assael isolates them from the everyday social context and shifts them intro the realm of the archetypal.
Formally, the principal pleasures of the drawing are the deep shadows that cradle her cheek and the luxuriant ripples of dark hair against the whiteness of the paper. Assael is particularly adept at giving us details in a partial image, as in the arresting Anna with Hands on Mouth (2004). The face and hands float in the center of the sheet like an apparition in the grip of some strong, not-quite-identified emotion. A mass of curls on one side of the head draws attention to the huge animated eyes. And what expression are the exquisitely rendered fingertips concealing? Anna could be a character from German Romantic narrative by Philipp Otto Runge.As an oil painter, Assael has a dark Romantic vibe somewhat unexpected in a contemporary realist, or at least in the popular notion of one. When he works in graphite and crayon, he more explicitly reveals the classicist’s love of pure line. Yet even in his highly acclaimed drawings—he is generally recognized as one of our finest contemporary drafts men—he avoids idealization, meticulously recording the flaws and quirks that give even the comeliest model individuality. In the elegantly composed Alison Holding Arm (2004), with its dynamic diagonal running form shoulder to fingertips, the young woman’s wary grace does not preclude attention to lines around the eyes or veins in the hands. The central placement of the figure gives this drawing the formal weight of an old master portrait. The more causal Vivian Sleeping (2004) combines two views of some girl on a single sheet, the rich details of faces and hair adrift in the snowy blackness of the barely sketched coverlet. With her strong eyebrows—and in one depiction incongruous eyeglasses—the girl seems a formidable personality, even asleep.
Assael has exhibited widely in solo and group shows. His works appears in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Columbus Museum of Art. Ann Nathan Gallery, 212 West Superior Street, Chicago, Illinois 60610. Telephone (312) 664–6622. On the web at www.annnathangallery.com In New York City Steven Assael is represented by Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10151. Telephone (212) 355-4545. On the web at www.forumgallery.com