Tuesday, July 27, 2021
 
 
Ben Steele Pays Homage to Dali, da Vinci and Others
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“Dali Dog Show” displays Ben Steele’s own pup.
   
Friday, July 2, 2021
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

It started with Crayons. Then Ben Steele added the old masters into the mix.

Now, Steele’s colorful whimsical paintings are turning heads, even as they put a smile on viewers’ faces.

He utilizes the processes of the old masters with a contemporary sensibility while melding pop culture references into iconic paintings.

 
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“Cubist Cabana” pays homage to Pablo Picasso.
 

He has, for instance, paid homage to Salvador Dali’s tendency for painting animals with long legs by assigning long, stork-like legs to dogs in a painting he’s titled “Dali Dog Show.”

He’s painted a portion of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” on a pre-Prohibition bottle of rye whiskey, alongside a bottle of Merlot featuring Munch’s “The Scream” and given his own painting the name “Happy Hour.”

“These artists are the tortured souls of the 1800s. Now they get to be happy because it’s “Happy Hour” in Ben’s version,” said Yanna Lantz, a representative of Friesen Gallery.

Steele’s latest exhibition, given the tongue-in-cheek title “Steeleing the Classics,” is now on view at Friesen Gallery. And the artist will be on hand to discuss his work from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday, July 2, when Friesen Gallery joins hands with its neighbors—Gail Severn Gallery and Kneeland Gallery—to hold a mini-Gallery Walk. MESH Gallery across from Atkinsons’ Market will also open its doors that evening.

 
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“Lots of Dots” plays off Georges Seurat, whose conte crayon drawings garnered critical appreciation.
 

“I can’t wait,” said Steele. “I had my first exhibition at Friesen Gallery in August 2020, but we didn’t get to do an opening reception because of COVID.”

Born in Kennewick, Wash., the 44-year-old artist got a BFA in painting and drawing at the University of Utah. He moved to Helper, Utah—a small coal and railroad town that has turned into an artist’s colony-- for a multi-year internship under the instruction of David Dornan and Paul Davis.

He has lived there since 2003 with his wife Melanie and their three sons and now actively mentors other budding young artists in a town that boasts between 15 and 20 artists.

His own mentors told him to paint things he liked—something that would ignite a passion that would keep his interest. So, he started painting Crayons.

 
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“Night Hawks Coffee”—Edward Hopper’s depiction of an all-night diner, features the background of the original painting in the contemporary painting.
 

“I really respond to Crayons,” he said. “Crayons have bright vibrant colors that are fun. I did a few Crayon paintings, then I decided to do a coloring page. But I didn’t want to do kids’ imagery so I thought: I love art history so what if I did that?”

Steele painted da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” augmenting it with images evoking the pop culture of today. And the concept snowballed.

His current show features a painting of Mona Lisa on a bottle of perfume labeled “Profumo Da Vinci.” It is set against the mountainous backdrop of DaVinci’s famous painting Madonna of the Yarnwinder. Steele signed the piece backwards, representing Da Vinci’s habit of writing from right to left.

Michelangelo’s “Creation” is wrapped around a can of spray paint on canvas and is augmented with a light bulb surrounded by the words “Let there be light.” Steele even managed to sneak Sun Valley and the resort’s trademark sun into that painting.

 
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“Liberty Grain Co.” and “Divine Lichtenstein” are among the works in “Steeleing Classics.”
 

Georges Seurat, a French post-impressionist artist known, is acknowledged with a coloring book version of his famous painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Steele acknowledged Seurat’s pointillism, in which the artist painted small distinct dots in patterns to form an image, by overlaying the picture with Dots candy and titling it “Lots of Dots.”

And Steele painted the Statue of Liberty, arguably America’s most famous icon, onto the side of a barn  as he explored the idea of what makes an image classic.

Steele said he was surprised how few iconic images exist that everyone, regardless of their background, instinctively recognize.

“My wife and I brainstorm ideas. Usually, we find five to get started on, then we figure out who’s missing. I try not to leave out too many of the heavy hitters of our past,” said Steele. “You can’t, for instance, do a show about art history without da Vinci.”

This exhibition explores the best of the best--the artists and imagery that have informed society for generations, he added.

“Getting to study and emulate the style and craft of these images throughout my career has brought me immense purpose. And I think that getting to recontextualize these works, as other artists have done before me, allows for them to continue to exist in other forms. Otherwise, they could disappear quietly into an oligarch’s private collection or be made only available to those who can visit them in the Louvre.

“By referencing them again and again, much more of society gets to enjoy these iconic works, which I find especially meaningful because art is a language we can all speak, regardless of whether we participate as creator or viewer.”

Steele’s art has found its way into many personal and corporate collections, including Delta Airline Sky Club lounges.

Lantz said she admires the way Steele emulates artists throughout history, employing the techniques they used and using lighting to recreate a sense of depth and detail.

“I’m just so glad to have this as a summer exhibition because it’s so fun,” said Lantz. “And I love the idea of how he’s making art of old masters accessible to anyone. I love to imagine he’s having the most fun giggling as work.”

She gets no argument from Steele, who works in an art studio converted from a bottling and beer distributing workhouse.

“I do have fun,” he said. “I wake up every morning excited to go into the studio. And I’m grateful for that.”

WHILE YOU'RE OUT AND ABOUT...

J.McLaughlin is having another Sip and Shop event today and Saturday, July 3, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fifteen percent of the proceeds at the shop at 520 E. 4th St. in Ketchum will benefit The Community Library.

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