Steven Assael

Steven Assael, Cassandra and Julie, 2008 © Steven Assael, Courtesy Forum Gallery, New York CityThe contemporary realism revival, first spotlighted in a few discriminating galleries, has been finding new audiences through museum surveys and retrospectives. “Steven Assael: Illusions of Reality,” at the Naples Museum of Art in Florida, offers a substantial selection of work by this remarkable painter, who combines old master skills with edgy imagination. Take, for example, Preparation of the Bride (1994). At the epic scale of eight-by-nine feet, this is Assael’s version of a history painting. The star of the multi-figure composition is the bride in her gorgeous dress of satin, lace and tulle—the painter’s handling of textures is lovely. She raises her arms, obscuring her face, and her hands flare in flamenco style. The kneeling woman measuring the skirt has the grace of a maidservant in a Baroque painting, and the sense of theatricality is emphasized by the dark void of the background. The figures on the other side of the composition—an older man in a wheelchair, a woman with an iron—have a dour, ordinary-life look that instills the tableau with a sense of melancholy. The two groups are visually jointed by the trailing tulle veil. The simulacrum is superb, but we never doubt we are looking at, as the title of the exhibition suggests, illusions of reality.  

Assael’s (b. 1957) paintings are character-driven; psychology is at play in even the most apparently straightforward portraits. Cassandra and Julie (2008) is vintage Assael, a half-figure double portrait of two young bohemians. Both young women wear winter jackets and have the sort of wild Pre-Raphaelite hair that seems to have an almost fetishistic allure for the artist. The darkhaired girl on the right is more quietly dressed and more conventionally pretty. Her companion, with her masses of crimped red hair and shocking blue eyes, has an otherworldly intensity—is she a true Cassandra, like the prophetic princess of the Iliad? Assael uses a dusky but intense palette of smoky color. The redhead wears a ruby jacket with fur cuffs that underlines her dramatic self-presentation, and the blue of her eyes picks up the throbbing blue-violet of the background. Assael’s largely featureless, painterly backdrops isolate his contemporary models from the particulars of social reality, making the artist’s encounters with his subjects feel private, even hermetic.

Assael is not a fresh air painter. Even when he incorporates landscape elements, nature is only a distant allusion. In one of his urban allegories, Passengers (2008), three young people in ragged jeans doze on a train. Behind them is a blurry landscape, but Assael signals—through the sketchy Romanticism of the depiction and the shadows cast on the surface by overhead luggage nets—that this is itself a painting, not a window to the world outside. The closed eyes of Assael’s passengers, like the mediumistic trances of figures in some fin-de-siècle paintings, suggest access to alternate realities.

Assael hovers on the edge of storytelling without drifting over into explicit narrative. Sometimes the hidden subject matter has more to do with the history of art than the lives of his protagonists. In Alex, Nathan and Morgan (2008), the trinity of figures in dark clothes has mythic resonance, especially with the glowing orange one of them holds, but the painting is really about recapturing the somber beauty of the Spanish old masters. The choice of models is crucial to Assael, be they friends, relatives or strangers encountered on the street and brought into the studio. Among his most magnetic subjects are self-dramatizing punks like the group in Club Kids (2001). With their multiple piercings, tattoos, peacock Mohawks and leather costumes, they have extraordinary tribal energy. Like Irving Penn’s wonderful Vogue photographs of Goth teens and South American Indians, Assael’s respectful depictions illuminate the universality of the urge to decorate the body as a way of shaping identity.

The exhibition, essentially, includes a number of Assael’s masterly drawings. His draftsmanship is exquisite, and the balance of line and mass against the negative space of the paper offers cogent lessons in the formal dynamic of composition. In Venus with Leopard Corset (graphite, 2002), the heavily tattooed, pierced, braided and feathered woman is presented head-on, an idol with the charisma of a goddess and, at the same time, an individual. The model for Rose (graphite and black crayon, 2006) has a more everyday beauty, but the artist  lavishes attention on her strong features, especially her prominent brows and glossy mane of dark hair. Assael brings a formidable array of skills to his unique view of contemporary life. “Steven Assael: Illusions of Reality” is on view October 1, 2010–January 9, 2011, at the Naples Museum of Art, 5833 Pelican Bay Boulevard, Naples, Florida 34108. Telephone (239) 597-1111. On the web at  

American Arts Quarterly, Volume 27, Number 4.