@George Steeves, 2019
GEORGE STEEVES: BE WARNED
BY PEGGY GALE
First published in Border Crossings, Volume 38 Number 4, Issue 152
George Steeves deals in dangerous information, and his long-running series of over-painted photographs can be startling and precise. His book, Excision of 2017, assembles diary notes and photographs from August 2009 to the end of 2010, recording the first year of his marriage to Ingrid Jenkner, which coincided with a nearly simultaneous diagnosis of Jenkner’s advanced colon cancer. There could hardly have been a more cruel burden imposed, for their “sudden cohabitation after years of solitude,” which would have been a challenge under any circumstances. The book’s text and images are by turns angry and tender, anxious and desperate, and sometimes, eventually, joyful, grateful, exultant. It is a difficult journey: hard enough to read, and only too possible to imagine.
Though trained at Carleton University (Ottawa) and Cornell (Ithaca N.Y.), with a long career as senior research engineer at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (Dartmouth N.S.) Steeves has maintained a photographic practice for many years. Originally interested in images of urban landscape, since the early 1980s he has focussed on the human figure, often nude, in provocative or erotic poses. Working in black and white and developing the images in his own darkroom, Steeves has perfected his technique and pushed his subject matter towards a further intimacy. For a four-person exhibition at Galerie La Castiglione in Montreal (3 April–11 May 2019), reviewer Jérôme Delgado notes in Le Devoir, April 13, 2019, “The key to the exhibition, however, is found on the part of George Steeves, an artist rarely shown because of his direct approach to sexuality and the human condition,” with a casual reference to Steeves’s “pornography.” The indication is apt, though with different intent. The direct gaze, proffered buttocks, or the artists’ own bare body, are given careful attention. A personal touch, one might say.
With the shock of her diagnosis in 2009, Jenkner immediately decided that her (their) coming trial by the fire of cancer should be fully documented by Steeves: a significant demand for both of them, as a living record of their first year of marriage but also very possibly the end of her life. The work was relentless, as were the months of massive chemo-therapy treatment, major surgical intervention, and ongoing recuperation and adjustment. Throughout, Steeves maintained a daily journal while producing 920 photographs, of which 48 are included in the book. Seven years later, when he published Excision, he was able to state in the epilogue, “Ingrid is still alive; her cancer has not returned. We are still together.”
With these utterly painful photographs, Steeves points out in the book, “Only by over-painting them could I administer the necessary corrective. The paint is not intended to obscure; it tells the truth slant,” quoting Emily Dickenson.
But what truth? Pushed further by fragments of narrative, the book is a work of love and anxiety, where within weeks he notes, “Life has deteriorated since retirement, as I knew it would. Mere survival now,” and the following day, “waiting for events to save me.” Throughout, there are sombre recollections of other deaths: anniversaries of Ingrid’s late husband Mickey Handy, of George’s mother and father, and a memorial for artist Gerald Ferguson, a recent suicide; other close friends receive cancer diagnoses. At the same time, “I don’t want Didy’s beautiful body carved up,” and then, “A very sick woman is in the house.” Obsessive sex is a recurrent theme, as is its sometimes desperate lack. A close-up portrait titled Anger/Despair, February 2010, depicts Jenkner’s face smeared with yellows, brown, and bruised-avocado green, the eyes and mouth ringed loosely in pink. Then spring 2010 brings Who Am I Now?, Jenkner’s head ringed with a pinkish frosting and her chest a seeming vaginal slice with circled, dark-grey breasts in muddy rose. Rising Anxiety appears in the book in two versions, the head thrown back and dressing gown spread wide to reveal a body scribbled over in ochre, or broad strokes of deep mauve and pink over breasts, face, neck and abdomen. The paint follows Jenkner’s body, whether to name pain or to offer caresses. How could one’s response be anything other than complex, even confused?
Another pair of black and white photographs from late January 2010 is titled The Ring and Sound Asleep, both over-painted with blue-patterned faces and lemon-yellow hair but to very different effect. The first has a staring white eye surrounded by short, scratched lines, the crook’d arm at her chin left unpainted against a swirled mauve pillow; the second shows a striped ochre and soft blue face outlined firmly in black, the bent wrist a deep, brushed aubergine colour with matte black background. And there are happier, brighter images – Serenely Detached, November 2009,
After Radiation,” 2009, After Sex and Postcoital, both 27 June 2010 – but trauma is the underlying theme.
There are musing and troubled thoughts, experiments and questions. The hand ranges over the selected photo image, blown up to 11x14 inches for reworking. As he notes in a September 2019 email, “I use a wide variety of traditional brushes but I also use an other tools such as: Q-tips, cut-up hair combs, squeegees, little in-between tooth brushes, archivist’s cleaning swabs of all shapes, and regular painting brushes that have been ‘barbered.’ I paint three different versions of each image, leaving some for the shredder.” Another image is simplicity itself, In Red Velvet Chair – an unpainted torso against a brushy black ground, the body outlined in khaki green as if by a paint-charged finger with circled breasts leading down to the pubic triangle. The smooth lines and muted colour suggest a reflective air, stroking well-remembered, well-loved contours. And then, First Walk 2010 for a smiling Jenkner, brushed brown paint around the doorway as a classic frame.
Publishing Excision was surely cathartic, and easy for neither author nor reader. Even knowing the ghastly context being docu-mented, the words are rough, sometimes cruel. “Didy suffering without grace or civility, as is her nature.” “Didy smells terrible . . .
I will fight further.” “Didy is going to break me.” But, by April, “Lovely warm day, worked in the yard with Didy,” and finally, a return to lusty sex for both, “spread-eagled and upright on the edge of the vanity.” Details are impressive.
On June 10, “Haltingly started to reactivate darkroom,” and three days later, “I am grateful to have her notwithstanding.”
It must have been just awful, grinding through all those months. Despair, utter fatigue, overwhelmed by the effort of carrying on and maintaining a household not only through the ugliness and pain, but also coping with extra expenses, storm damages, car repairs, thoughtlessness from others. Luckily, George Steeves is a willing and accomplished cook. Luckily, they both like wine and whisky, and have close friends to alleviate some of the loneliness. And come December, at the Hotel Astoria in Berlin to celebrate their second wedding anniversary, there was opera, the Pergamon Museum, long snowy walks and many photographs. Favourite foods, schnapps, music, a rich and satisfying closure to that horrible year.
Friends in Halifax and closer colleagues were kept apprised of their situation, but for the many less familiar friends, the news appeared abruptly, much later. For over twenty years, George Steeves has been sending out elegant and eloquent holiday greeting cards to a list that by now numbers some 200 recipients. Having met George once on a visit to Halifax in early 2008, that year my husband and I received a card with “Happy Yuletide, & Compliments of the Holiday Season / All Best Wishes for a Rewarding New Year, 2009,” signed by George Steeves, December 2008. A black and white cover photograph of sultry ”Janie at nineteen/12 March 1994.” nude and astride the rungs of a bed, gave relevance to an enclosed all-caps text, pink paper in a purple envelope, addressing a Wayne, “AS OF TONIGHT IT HAS BEEN 2 WEEKS SINCE YOU DUMPED ME. . . . I NOW SEE THE REAL YOU AND YOU ARE NOTHING.
YOU ARE A CRUEL COWARDLY PIECE OF CHICKENSHIT THAT WILL NEVER GO ANYWHERE.” Charmed by the precision of card, layout, and George’s greeting, the total left me somewhat nonplussed. For December 2009, “Happy Holidays, & Compliments of the Wintering Season / Blessings, Good Fortune, and a Rewardingly Splendid New Year in 2010,” again signed by George Steeves, with another, unsettling cover portrait, 1997, of actor Astrid Durst-Baumann and her older “protector,” the interior text beginning, “oh I am sorry to hear about the death sentence. . . .”
December 2010 brought another card, with “Parallelogram House,” 1998, (near Nice, France) as distinctive cover image, and interior lines from Wordsworth’s “Splendour in the Grass” of 1807. Signature: George & Ingrid. (Curiouser and curiouser. What would come next?). December 2011 pictured a nude seen through hazy glass, and a typeset note: Hotel Astoria, Berlin, with “Recollected as referential to Michael Snow’s ‘Walking Woman.’” Signature: George & Ingrid.
Each year, a card arrived, the images of Ingrid adapted or superimposed on another, or a different woman, the photograph hand-marked, the extravagant wishes in English, German and Italian. Always sophisticated, reflective, mysterious. No holly or lit fireplace here. Nothing casual or carefree; always unexpected, focused. In Geneviève Cadieux’s term, à fleur de peau. Doubled images, stopped motion, suggestive, but with formal message never made perfectly clear. An annual puzzle. I only lately discovered that many different photographs were used each year.
As Steeves explained to me in an email from 20 September 2019, “The motivations are numerous from defiance to affection. The number sent has increased over the years. For the last 10 years the number sent exceeds 200 and the number of different images is around 20. I keep a record of who gets which image and save all responses received. I reserve one of each for myself. The mai-ling list is made beforehand and the images are selected for printing in a rather whimsical fashion. I then assemble the cards and go back and forth over the mailing list searching for an image suitable for a particular recipient. I ponder the choices choosing with some reasonableness. . . . A nice little show could be curated from the whole collection.
It was not until December 2016 that the card with simple “Season’s Greetings” included an image “from the series ‘Excision’ / an expressionistic documentation on The Topic of Cancer,” adding, “Ingrid’s Treatment for Stage 4 Colon Cancer 2009-2010” and the explanatory “Numerical Reproduction of Original Oil Paint on Silver-Gelatin Print.” A year later I was finally able to reply, and the book followed soon afterward. I was grateful that this was now “old” news and in the past tense. Nonetheless, those months clearly marked a watershed that had taken Steeves years to confront and assimilate.
Further time having passed, Steeves’ exhibition at La Castiglione in 2019 included certain works from Excision, with additional images from his archive. As he wrote in Galerie La Castiglioni’s small catalogue, all of these featured over-painting, as the paint “became a way to absorb the pain, to transcend the experience and go beyond, pushing my creative process.” He notes, too, “The photograph functions as the under-drawing in a real painting. . . . The image has to have an intrinsic personal meaning, a certain quirky beauty or passionate ugliness, or a strange juxtaposition of antithetical elements. I’m interested in what can’t be seen or if seen is not noticed.”
This man knows himself, accepting both strength and vulnerability.
As I wrote to him in an email of 20 May 2019, “I see an extreme warmth there, a carnal desire embodied in the images themselves, and the over-painting tends to insist on the physicality of the images as well as the haunting tangibility of the bodies portrayed. A hunger, maybe lust, but somehow made oblique through the ambiguous poses or details included – then, again, made more complex by colour and highlighting. The colours often garish, but sometimes subtle too, or instead. Haptic. . . . Coming back to your images from La Castiglione, I am reassured that art is not simply visual; it recognises all aspects of the physical and intellectual – discerning, describing, touching, penetrating,
© Peggy Gale 2020.
Peggy Gale is an independent Canadian curator, writer, and editor. Gale studied Art History and received her Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History from the University of Toronto in 1967. Gale has published extensively on time-based works by contemporary artists in numerous magazines and exhibition catalogues. She was editor of Artists Talk 1969-1977, from The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax (2004) and in 2006, she was awarded the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts. Gale was the co-curator for Archival Dialogues: Reading the Black Star Collection in 2012 and later for the Biennale de Montréal 2014, L’avenir (looking forward), at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Gale is a member of IKT (International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art), AICA (International Association of Art Critics), The Writers' Union of Canada, and has been a contributing editor of Canadian Art since 1986.
Oeuvres disponibles / Available works
(à Montréal jusqu'au 31 août 2020 / in Montreal until end of August)
Peinture à l'huile sur tirage à la gélatine argentique / Oil paint on Gelatin Silver Print
35,5 x 28 cm (14'' x 11'')
3 000 $
Size : 14x11"
Photograph originally taken at the Belgo Building in Montreal. Building.