New York

William Steiger

Condeso/Lawler Gallery

William Steiger’s sepia and black industrial landscapes—isolated water towers and abandoned factories against ominous, rain-filled skies—are marked by an eerie tension. With the eight paintings featured in this show, Steiger brings a new level of intensity to his ongoing project of distilling monumental, urban-industrial motifs into essential forms. Anything but realistic, these works, with their quirky formal economy, often lapse into abstraction.

The five works that feature a single motif are deceptively simple—only after digesting the central image does Steiger’s formal sophistication begin to reveal itself. The planar, canvas-hugging passages articulating the angular water tower in Mahwah (all works 1992) most clearly evidence the tension between flatness and the illusion of depth that animates all of these paintings. Passaic features another massive tower, and though the largely blank background reads as infinite space, such an illusion is collapsed and contradicted by the shadows cast against what appears to be an opaque wall immediately behind it. A similar vacillation between an initially vast but ultimately claustrophobic mise-en-scène operates in Pequonnock. In this piece a streamlined, Y-shaped water tower juts upward into the night-sky, which upon closer examination is revealed to be a low-hanging ceiling, giving the scene a stifling, nightmarish quality. In each case, Steiger’s clever game of formal incongruity results in an image that is radically simplified and foregrounded, like a fragment of a dream or a memory.

The series “Rotations and Limited Movements,” comprised of three large, multipart ensembles—rectangular grids of twelve evenly spaced panels with industrial images—marks an interesting departure for Steiger. Although the objects depicted range from drill bits to machinery parts, any clues to setting or scale have been withheld, creating a leveling effect that is ultimately disorienting. In Rotation and Limited Movement 1, a cog seems identical in size to both a gyroscope and a water tower, and in Rotation and Limited Movement II, a screw looms as large as an expanse of scaffolding. By devising a format devoid of compositional hierarchy, Steiger challenges the viewer to contend with a constantly shifting visual totality, a task made all the more difficult by the palpable sense of movement created by the repeated circular shapes of the individual images. In this series, as in the larger paintings, seemingly benign representations inevitably collapse into quasi-abstract forms—the uncanny remnants of a familiar reality.

Steiger’s reductive but restless paintings eschew verisimilitude to approximate memory itself, and together they comprise a selective visual history of the industrial Northeast. In his choice of subject matter, he has often been compared to Charles Sheeler, but while Sheeler’s paintings idealize industry in a newly modern America with confident, precise geometries, Steiger’s cast an ambivalent, backward glance at the relics of that same era, now past. A postindustrial romantic, Steiger avoids nostalgia, approaching his task instead with the extreme selfconsciousness—of visuality, medium, and history—shared by the best post-Modern painting.

Jenifer P. Borum