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Artists Alfred Steiner
Alfred Steiner (US)


Alfred Steiner_Alien (Kodos)_2017_oil on linen_81 x 102 cm_32 x 40 in_800.jpg
"Alien (Kodos)" 2017, oil on linen, 81 x 102 cm, 32 x 40 in


Many viewers may conclude, understandably, that I had in mind Arcimboldo’s sixteenth century portraits made of fruit or flowers when I made the work shown here. But like much of my work, the resemblance flows less from history than from my solution to a particular problem. Here, the problem was compositional.

When I was a student, I drew incessantly, with a few class notes squeezed in among jumbles of eyes, noses, lips and other anatomy. As I extended these doodles into more ambitious drawings, I wondered how they would change if I introduced an internal compositional logic.
At first, I tried geometric forms, but soon I was experimenting with images culled from art history, like Laocoön and His Sons or Dürer’s Knight, Death and the Devil, as well as pop icons, like Bart Simpson or Scooby Doo. Through trial and error, it became clear to me that the stylized forms of cartoon characters were ideally suited for this work. Certain axioms emerged that I seemed to be discovering rather than inventing. For example: Use as few objects as possible to recall the underlying form and Do not use the same object to replace a form, e.g., do not replace a eye with a eye. Viewers can discover other axioms by looking closely at the works.

To make one of these works, I begin by choosing a character. Then I free associate while looking at the forms that make up the character, just as one might look at a cloud or Rorschach blot. Take Spongebob’s neighbor, Squidward, for instance. His feet quickly suggested a treble hook, his right hand a ladle. Other forms were more difficult—his torso, for example (for which I have used a mola mola or ocean sunfish).
Some forms, like the ellipses of his eyes, are sufficiently simple to suggest several alternatives, which allows for some conscious decision-making. Sometimes this openness leads me to make a connection between the character and the object, like using a puffin egg for Squidward’s nose because puffins are marine birds known to eat squid. Other times, I find that my freely-associated object bears a relationship to the underlying character, whether by coincidence, unconscious influence or otherwise. These two processes often become so intertwined that I cannot disentangle them with respect to a particular character/object relationship. After I settle on an object, I scour Google Images for a suitable photographic model. If I cannot find one, I free-associate another object. Then I render the full image using these sources, which typically differ radically in terms of their clarity, resolution, contrast, saturation, etc. I use watercolor both to unite the disparate elements and to engage the tradition of naturalist illustration, keeping in mind that the underlying subjects are often wildlife (e.g., squid, snail, squirrel, plankton, starfish, crab).
These works are hybrids of the stylized and the naturalistic. They are one answer to the question: How can one reconcile the stylized and the naturalistic?
Despite their traditional medium (watercolor, with one exception) and their relationship to naturalist illustration, they are works that could not have been readily produced, if at all, until recently. This is not only because they are based on fictional characters that did not exist until 1999, but also because it would be far more difficult, if not impossible, to make them without Google Images, which was introduced in 2001. In these works, Audubon and Nickelodeon collide on the Infobahn.

Alfred Steiner, 2013

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