A Life Revealed


"White Rose Garden" by Charles Steffen

In a night of Art, Music and The Burlesque at INTUIT (The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art) a series of burlesque dancers was organized to fuse with Charles Steffen's exhibition, "Life Lines." The evening became a living document of the hidden lives people lead in search of love.

Charles Steffen produces large scale figurative drawings that unfold the body through line. He utilizes line in every way possible to create movement, form and expression. Steffen lived for the majority of his life with his Mother on the North Side of Chicago, passing away in 1995. In 1952 he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was committed to Elgin State Hospital for the next thirteen years. A standard form of medication at this time was electric shock treatment. It is as if the lines in Steffen's drawings resemble electronic waves passing around the nervous system, fluctuating in pulses. In the two portraits of his mother, she sits in a chair and the line pattern in the background directly connects to her head as if she was plugged in. We have no idea whether this aesthetic style was influenced by his mental state as only work from 1989 to 1995 survives.

The life revealed in the drawings through imagery and text unveils many unanswerable questions and leaves one haunted by the artist and the life he lived. In the text surrounding the drawings he depicts everyday life in lists: his thoughts; his materials; the content and subject matter that is at times heart-rendering. In 'Alisha Nude' he reveals the disparities in a capitalist society by stating:

"I need drawing lessons at the Art Institute, (but instead) I need all my money for doctors medication and art supplies."


"Burlesque Dancer" by Charles Steffen

The tragedy of this situation is that if he had been born in Europe he would have had a free art education and would have been provided with medication. And then what an incredible artist America could have added to its list of 'The Greats'. Steffen's plight highlights our sense of hope that one day America will choose to care for its people and then become a truly great cultural nation where individual talents are celebrated.

Steffen had a passion for the body and his subject matter reveals this. In his college days and maybe later, he frequented strip clubs and Burlesque Night Clubs - it is these women who are an inspiration in his work. His work depicts a celebration of sexuality in both the female and male bodies. Is this something to be shunned? At Intuit they decided to celebrate the content of his work by inviting two Burlesque dancers, Cherokee Rose and Kami Oh to perform at an evening of Art, Music and The Burlesque. It definitely added to the theatrical content in the work exhibited in the adjoining room. Did it bring a new audience to art? The organisers thought so, but interestingly the audience was mainly that of women dressed more nakedly than the dancers. But the audience mingled in and out of the performance with the exhibition reading Steffen's thoughts and becoming engrossed with the intriguing identity of the artist. The scale and content drawn on butchers brown paper add to the raw state of the interior world that Steffen led.

In a world that consumes performance and theatricality on a daily basis on our T.V. screens, on the internet, the majority of museums and galleries are giving space to performance in its multiple forms. With the recent performance piece by Marina Abramovic at the MOMA, performance artists are enjoying greater inclusion after years of seclusion from the 'White Cube'. Yet with the recent debacle of Joseph Ravens one is made to feel like Chicago is lagging behind. But one's faith was restored by Intuit last Thursday Night for its fearless approach to celebrating sexuality and raising important questions about male desire and the culture of voyeurism.

Eugenie Johnson was the exhibition's curator.

Exhibition is open until Aug. 28, 2010 at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 756 North Milwaukee. Gallery hours Tues. to Sat. 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m. - 7:30 p.m.; Admission: $5, Intuit Members and children under 12: Free.




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