Last week, we of Phenomenal Nobodies had the honor and privilege of attending the opening reception of Clintel Steed’s first solo show in New York City at (Art) Almalgamated. The show, CLINTEL STEED: WORKS, 2008-2012, remains up until April 14, 2012. In doing our research on Steed, Phenomenal Nobodies came across this essay about his work. After a tedious legal battle in which PN threatened to take our case to the Supreme Court, we finally obtained the legal rights to print and forever maintain the essay Clintel Steed, The New “New Negro“. We consider this be our greatest victory (thievery) in contemporary writing about art to date. Thus, along with a selection of Steed’s work, please find a slightly revised version of the essay, penned by an obscure art critic who wishes to remain anonymous, below. As always, we of Phenomenal Nobodies, wish nothing but the phenomenal for you.
The New “New Negro”
In a 1925 essay entitled The New Negro, Howard University Professor of Philosophy Alain Locke identified the role of the African-American artist as one who must “smash all of the racial, social, and psychological impediments that had long abstracted black achievement.” Approaching a century later, despite social advancements, economic progress and legislation indicating and meant to fortify American social progress and the progress of the African-American community, this incisive assertion continues to be the calling of many African American artists and their work. One needs to look no further than the work of one of the, if not the most celebrated contemporary African American painter, Kehinde Wiley, whose uber polished work aims to subvert the hyper masculine, and all too often brutal identity of black men projected by American media and, to some degree, internalized and celebrated by black men in the public realm. However, such work also raises the question of whether or not African American artists, before being perceived as black artists are perceived of as human artists. If the answer even risks being no and an African-African artist is dealt with and must deal with society as an African-American first and a human being second, than the insidious product of what definition by skin color inflicts upon both a society and an individual’s soul continues to limit America as well as the work of the African-American artist. Thus, one must wonder what might happen if a young black artist, through his inventive search, subject matter, and particular perspective transcends social impositions and constructed limitations.
What might happen if, in addition to the ethnic/cultural imperative of combating the implications and structures confronting the African-American in America, the artist sheds, or at least navigates the regulations and requirements of being black; that is, being too black or not being black enough? Such questions of identity and social inventions are faced by no other artist in America to the extreme degree; such questions, and the inherent limitations they impose on the uniquely idiosyncratic nature of every individual risk being, if not for all men than certainly for the artist, comparable to enslavement.
This begets the question that if such an artist exists, what type of work would we be confronted with? What form would the artist’s expressiveness take? What would be the medium, the subject matter? In Clintel Steed’s work, we are introduced to such an artist and thus the soul of the liberated and self-determined, and through his work we are taught that such a soul is not created by rebellion or declarations of independence or by identifying and criminalizing oppressors and oppressive structures, or by subversion, but by the celebration of multifarious, surprising and spontaneous unique events and forces that shape, create and are the foundations of all human life. We are drawn into landscapes of Harlem and Brooklyn just as effectively as we are wooed by rural landscapes and birds eye views of airports, stadiums, and train stations. We are given distorted portraits that maintain a fluid symmetricism and we are offered portraits that capture the joy and sadness of the subject’s soul. We are given narratives of what it means for Steed to be black in America and we are given paintings of what it means to Steed to be absent, to be a witness of worldwide events. There are moments that we know that Steed is African-American and there are moments when one could not guess if Steed was black or white, man or woman.
Thus, confronted by Steed’s work, the audience must believe that what will define African American art in the 21st century is the fact that black art can and will continue to not only succeed as black art, but as art that wrests and envelopes the emotions of its viewers by bravely employing themes and ideals related not to a specific group of people but to the universal nature and sensibilities of humanity. In Steed’s work, before cultural or ethnic identity, before governing notions and parameters, we see an artist and a man who, if never allowed comprehensive freedom because of the implications of being black in America, demands, possesses and proudly proclaims spiritual and intellectual freedom with each mark. The product of such courage is Steed’s paintings, which through the employment of unique color, the fracturing of images, and the simple renderings of intimate occasions and relationships between the artist and the subject matter, as well as the artist and his inner self, portray heartfelt and therefore essential narratives.
Quantitatively, Steed’s artistic success lies in his ability to create continuously evolving and varied work. Qualitatively, Steed’s success lies in the fact that he is not an artist who acquiesces to social definitions and parameters. But the truth is Clintel Steed is not a painter nor does he construct art. Rather, Steed is what the wholly liberated man does, be he black or white, gay or straight, etc… Steed bares his humanity, from its fractures and inconsistencies to its most empowered parts; and in doing so, his paintings prove that the freedom that resides in every man’s dreams does exist, is attainable, and must be celebrated.
Clintel Steed was born in 1977 in Salt Lake City, Utah. He earned his BFA in Painting from The Art institute of Chicago in 1999. In 2001 he received his MFA Indiana University. In 2005, he completed the Advanced Studies program at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. He has had solo exhibitions at Mark Borghi Fine Art, Bridgehampton, NY and Tobey Fine Art, New York City. He has shown at the 181st annual Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary American Art at the National Academy of Design 2006.