New York

Hugh Steers, Morning Terrace, 1992, oil on canvas, 72 × 54".

Hugh Steers, Morning Terrace, 1992, oil on canvas, 72 × 54".

Hugh Steers

Hugh Steers, Morning Terrace, 1992, oil on canvas, 72 × 54".

New York City’s cramped tenement apartments were the standard setting for painter Hugh Steers (1962–1995). Within these intimate environs, Steers most often depicted male figures—alone or in pairs—in various states of solemn embrace and ailing woe, evoking the emotional carnage of the AIDS crisis, which ravaged the queer community and claimed Steers’s own life when he was thirty-two. For the exhibition “Day Light” at Alexander Gray Associates, these signature interior scenes were paired with a lesser-known group of outdoor pieces Steers made while in residence at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in idyllic Madison, Maine, in 1991. Together, the two bodies of work illuminate, quite literally, the artist’s deft handling of natural light, both indoors and out. The show also revealed the psychological through line of Steers’s paintings: a “soft glow of brutality” that the artist said marks the American scene.

The rural surroundings of Madison allowed Steers to try his hand at renderings of the sun’s rays shining across verdant landscapes. In works such as Raft and Telephone Poles, both 1991, daylight falls on lush greenery and rippling water in vivid hues and evinced by choppy, impressionistic brushstrokes. These outdoor paintings evoke the accessible American Regionalism of Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton, yet they also evince uneasy undercurrents: In both works, a lone figure stands in a landscape with a paper bag over his head. This ambiguous yet fraught motif recurs throughout Steers’s oeuvre, shrouding his pictures in an apprehensive air.

A similar tense anxiety pervades Steers’s interior works from New York City. In the large-scale Blue Uniform, 1991, for instance, we find a seated, nude figure clutching his stomach and neck in apparent anguish while a standing figure in briefs seems to deliberate over what to do next. Meanwhile, a black cat casually crosses the foreground—a premonition of dire circumstances just around the corner. Like the paper bags in the “portraits” described above, black cats are a fixture in Steers’s work. In Falling Lamp, 1987, a small canvas painted the year the artist was diagnosed with HIV, a dark feline tips over a light on a table. Pictured midfall, the teetering lamp symbolizes life on the brink, while a solitary man stares despondently out the window.

Indeed, Steers’s work is haunted by the specter of AIDS. Although representational painting was far from the style du jour of the late 1980s and early ’90s, Steers’s figuration, like that of contemporaries Martin Wong and Frank Moore, has received increased recognition in recent years. Steers’s allegorical imagery provided him with the tools to render the tragedies of his time, most resonantly in his late series “Hospital Man,” 1993–95 (not on view here), in which a gaunt patient in a hospital gown and high heels reigns over bathroom and bedroom scenes among pills, bandages, and an IV. A precedent for “Hospital Man” can be found in the 1992 canvas Morning Terrace, the most striking painting on display. Through the open window of a New York City apartment with a radiator, the bottom half of a high-heeled figure is provocatively pictured on an outdoor balcony, the figure’s lower legs warmly lit by natural light, the thighs and buttocks obscured by a smudged windowpane. A gendered uncertainty hangs over the scene, as the shoes could belong to either a man or a woman. The queer identity and intimacy that was burgeoning amid the devastating impact of AIDS informed the radiant yet melancholic aura of Steers’s impressive body of work. We are left wondering what he would have done next.

Alex Fialho