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Overview

"Working with metal and stone enriches my spirit. The strength of the materials and the physicality necessary to manipulate them into a sculptural object has always activated my creative heart." --Gregory Steel

Sculptor Gregory Steel: Putting Ideas into Practice

 

Born and raised in Detroit, Gregory Steel has been a working artist long before receiving his advanced academic degrees in art. He also has a doctorate in philosophy, making him a man of ideas as much as a master of construction. We are living in theoretical times, which sometimes dominate and erode art’s capacity for visual pleasure. But Steel, despite forty years of study of both Western and Asian philosophy, knows that the primary impact of art is visual. One of his most striking sculptures is called Iki (2018), a Japanese term meaning stylishness. It consists of two sets of rods, steel blue in color, set on the edge of a thin limestone slab, nearly white in hue. The elegance of the sculpture cannot be denied, and this, it seems, is what Steel is after: a pronounced poise created from the virtuous use of materials, along with an intellectual orientation informing the solid construction of simpler shapes.

 

The tradition of steel sculpture is highly evident in Steel’s art. On seeing his work, one often thinks of the precedent structures of David Smith and Anthony Caro. But the Japanese elegance of Iki also informs Steel’s work. Steel’s formalist abstractions often seem to chart philosophical concepts which make him an artist of greater import than if he were just describing visual structures. In Spirit Path (2018), also made of steel and limestone, a circle consisting of steel rods is attached to two flat panels of steel which in turn, suggest two ascending paths. The panels, in turn, are joined to a roughly contoured boulder, indicating a living presence outside the one we know. At the base of the panels are two circular disks--such shapes have often signified unlimitedness. Binary ideas permeate this work, as well as Steel’s other sculptures, pointing the way to visual choices that ultimately support one another and lead to the same conclusion.

 

Still (2020) might be described as an abstract still life. It consists of two groups of steel rods, wrapped tightly by metal bands. These two groups are supported by vertical ovals of steel; one set rises above the ovals while the other goes no further than the oval’s highest point. Everything is colored a rust-red. The title might just as easily be directed toward the mind’s stillness in contemplation. But with Still we are not reading philosophy- we are experiencing a state of being. In Still Standing (2020), Steel has set up two dark, vertical steel beams, with another, shorter beam crossing both near the top of the work. The title refers to the angle downward of the two verticals, which makes them seem as if they were about to tip over creating a delicate balancing act. 

 

Yuugen (2018), a Japanese term meaning a deep awareness of the universe, is indicated in Steel’s welded-steel work, which is composed of slightly curving steel-blue planks with rims rising on both edges of the steel planes. It is another beautiful piece about balance. The artwork consists of a curving piece of steel, and another curving beam steel beam crosses it toward the top. At the bottom of the sculpture is another beam, very near which a couple of steel disks occur. The color of all the components is an exquisite gray-blue. The notion of balance and equanimity, achieved by long stays in meditation is central to Zen Buddhism.Yuugen embraces the awareness that comes from the contemplative mind. Like most of Steel’s works, it embodies a quiet that is as much Asian as it is Western, although the language of Western abstract sculpture is predominant. Ultimately, Steel is a master of sculpture that describes the delicate balance between space and being. 

 

-- Jonathan Goodman

 

Biography

"The art of ideas is fundamental to Steel's working process and is at the heart of his work to date. For Steel, art and life are not separate spheres. Instead, his art is only an extension of who he is and is thus fully integrated into his life." -- Sarah Evilsizor

Gregory Steel was born in Detroit and raised by his maternal grandparents in the Motor City's East Side's richly diverse neighborhoods. From an early age, Steel was encouraged by his grandmother's innovative use of ordinary materials in constructing unique objects and arrangements. Her novel approaches using environmental resources, combined with her support, positively influenced Steel's artistic development. Teaching himself art practice in his spare time, Steel held jobs in various disciplines to support his work. Still, after many years of making art independently, he realized he needed a serious art education.

Attending school part-time and working full-time, Steel received a BFA from The College for Creative Studies in Detroit and an MFA from the University of Michigan. Completing his studies, he took a position at The College for Creative Studies, teaching sculpture and experimental media. Steel is currently an Associate Professor of Fine Arts & New Media at Indiana University Kokomo. Gregory completed his Ph.D. In Philosophy from the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts. His dissertation is titled, The Sublime: an existential and ontological alliance with mystery.

The art of ideas is fundamental to Steel's working process and is at the heart of his work to date. For Steel, art and life are not separate spheres. Instead, his art is only an extension of who he is and is thus fully integrated into his life. Navigating academic discourse and Modernist and postmodernist dilemmas, Steel soon came to depend on his instinct that art is an internal process. His influences include Joseph Beuys, Allan Kaprow, David Smith, Mark DeSuvero, Anthony Caro, Alice Aycock, Joeseph Wesner, Jay Holland, Isamu Noguchi. Experiencing contemplative objects is foremost in Steel's work. To this end, Steel employs a variety of materials and techniques in his art, including video, object making, digital imaging, book publishing, installation, performance, and innovative technology, as well as traditional sculptural methodologies. 

A brush with cancer in 1998 affected his work in many ways that give him a higher focus and sense of urgency to complete his life's work. As an idea artist, he views the various materials he uses as merely a way to fulfill the art's function. Through this diversity, he resists easy categorization. Unable to be pigeonholed and deeply integrated with his life, Steel's artworks are a richly layered and evolving experience. His concerns about the human condition and social change and his hope for humankind are evident regardless of his final product. Whether Steel is collaborating in a groundbreaking physiological monitoring system with Cybernet Systems of Ann Arbor, creating intimate and humorous tableaus replete with miniature figures in outlandish settings, or constructing a monumental steel sculpture, his art emerges as thoughtful and timely. Steel's work has been shown across the United States and Europe, most recently in China, Russia, London, and Barcelona, Spain.

 

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