Monday, February 22, 2010

Jeffrey Steele and Op Art

Christ Carrying the Cross caused a sensation at the 1953 Royal Academy exhibition. It depicted Jesus Christ carrying the cross up Constellation Street, Adamsdown, Cardiff. It was painted by 21-year-old Roath artist Jeffrey Steele. Because his studio was situated in Metal Street, Adamsdown, he decided to include local characters and landmarks in his artwork. Bookies, shop-keepers, and the Lord Mayor were all clearly recognisable.

His style was strongly influenced by Stanley Spencer and he even once made a trip to Cookham to visit the famous artist. But Steele knew he had to find his own style. He destroyed his follow-up painting Palm Sunday in Adam Street using a razor blade, having made the drastic decision to completely change artistic direction. Steele was a bit of a rebel.

He became an artist against his parents' wishes. He dropped out of Cardiff College of Art because he didn't like their teaching methods and instead worked on his own at Newport Art School. The tousled-haired artist also objected to military service so had to spend a couple of years working as a hospital porter.

In 1959 he earned a scholarship to Paris where he came into contact with the work of Vasarely, Albers and Soto. By the time he returned to Cardiff he had given up representational art altogether. During the early Sixties he was producing two-tone, two dimensional work, influenced by mathematics. His Op Art induced the viewer to make kinetic movements when confronting his work. Viewing became an act of will rather than a passive response.

His big breakthrough occurred in 1965 when his oil on canvas, Baroque Experiment (see pic), was shown at The Responsive Eye exhibition (see YouTube) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This was the Op Art moment of the 1960s. Along with Bridget Riley, Steele became one of the best-known Op Artists in Britain. In 1964 one of his paintings had featured in an article about Op Art in Time magazine with the subtitle: Pictures that Attack the Eye.

Steele made a living lecturing at Cardiff and Newport art colleges and also at Barry Summer School. In about 1969 he co-founded the Systems Group with Malcolm Hughes - another artistic school influenced by mathematics. In 1983 his works were shown at the L'ultima avanguardia exhibition at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. Jeffrey Steele now lives in Portsmouth.

* Steele's Baroque Experiment appears 3 times during this absolutely fantastic 30 minute YouTube (in 3 parts). See if you can spot it.