New York

Charles Steffen

For today’s bumper crop of degree-toting, ready-made “insider” artists, the outsider artist remains an alluring exotic; his or her apparent distance from the commercial and social responsibilities that are the machinery of the art industry are viewed by many as a badge of credibility. Paul Chan regularly references the art of Henry Darger, the posthumously reigning kingpin of outsider art, while Marcel Dzama’s quietly deranged tableaux would blend seamlessly into New York’s Outsider Art Fair, sharing a sensibility with a host of practitioners who are self-taught, mentally disturbed, or just too eccentric to be integrated into the mainstream art world.

Recently “discovered” artist Charles Steffen now seems poised to enter this canon of the previously unassimilable. All the work he made before 1989 has been destroyed, though a prescient nephew salvaged his late output. Residing in Chicago with his mother and siblings, Steffen was active from the mid-1960s until his death in 1995. Probably a schizophrenic, he was institutionalized from 1952 to 1963, after which he embarked upon an extended period of prolific artistic activity, a pattern common to many artists deemed outsiders.

Steffen’s rendering of bodies in his disconcerting pencil and colored pencil drawings on cheap brown packing paper reveals a fixation on anatomical structure. Tattoolike rectangular patterns snake across the surface of his subjects’ skin, giving them the look of figures from an antique medical textbook. Anxious lines striate the faces of sitters with blank gaping eyes, frozen in eternal catatonia. Their bodies are either squat and grotesquely plump or wiry and exaggeratedly emaciated.

Steffen is his own agent of demystification. His drawings divulge information technical and anecdotal, fascinating and banal. The eponymous ecdysiast of Chinese Stripper, 1991, claps her palms together above her head ritualistically, her eyes shut tight. A sampling of Steffen’s scribbling punctuating the drawing: THIS IS THE FIRST DANCER I EVER SAW. . . . I GUESS I WILL HAVE A SHOT OF BRANDY, I AM A LITTLE TIRED, I HAVE TO FINISH WATERING THE LAWNS. . . . THIS IS THE ONLY WAY I COULD MAKE SLANTED EYES, OH WELL. Abutting the terrifying, wizened, Ewok-like creature of Elongated Nude, Suspended in Space, 1990, he scribbles, referencing her crossed feet, LIKE CHRIST BEING CRUISFI ED [SIC], IT IS HARD TO EXPLAIN, THIS IS THE BEST I CAN DO IN EXPLAINING MY FEELINGS ABOUT THIS DRAWING, IT TOOK FOUR HOURS TO COMPLETE THIS DRAWING. . . . Next to a blobby body with a huge sunflower for a head in Sunflower Nude, Standing in Front of a Red Chair, 1994, Steffen observes, I GOT TO GET SOME SLEEP, I’LL PRAY TO GOD, HE WILL HELP ME, HE DOES, I GET MAD AT GOD SOMETIMES, I SHOULD NOT. . . . DONE ON TAPED UP ART PAPER I BOUGHT AT WALGREENS [SIC], THIS AFTERNOON.

The writing compels and seduces in ways the drawings alone do not, possibly because the gloomy psychedelic appearance of Steffen’s figures has lately become a trope among many younger artists. In My Mother Bathing, 1989, he acknowledges a little red square floating disconnected from the central maternal composition: THE LITTLE RED SQUARE JUST FOR THE FUN OF IT. Steffen’s symbols and systems are invented, he references only his own experiences; he admits insecurity; he embodies society’s hackneyed stereotype of the Mad and Inspired Artist. But these disquieting drawings, and the captions and confessions embedded within them, expose a figure whose motivation was simply to make art—without the confusions of careerism—and this purity of purpose (not to be confused with purity of morality) is genuinely moving.

Nick Stillman