Charles Steffen: Alligator People, One-eyed Nudes and the Creation of Art Brut


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Author: 
Michael Bonesteel

When he put pencil to paper, Charles P. Steffen created some of the most unpredictable, outrageous and impossible images one could imagine. It was as if he had never been to a life drawing class, as if he did not know quite what the human figure looked like, as if he were a portrait artist depicting some alien race of alligator people who subsequently shed their scaly skins to reveal a cartoon version of the human species - and all as if it were a perfectly normal, natural phenomenon. Both Steffen and his work reflect the art school training he was briefly exposed to, as well as the deeply personal and idiosyncratic development of his own creativity. He had a working knowledge of mainstream art history and was a great admirer of both classical and modernist masters.

While this remained an intellectual backdrop to his own art, he seems to have applied almost nothing of what he knew to his actual work - except for his very early sketches, which were copies of paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Steffen's striking body of work only recently came to light. It remained in storage for more than a decade following his death, but in late 2006 and 2007 two gallery exhibitions and a showing at the Outsider Art Fair gave the public their first glimpse of Steffen's oeuvre.

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Raw Vision #62