"I went to the studio and Jeremy allowed me to curate a show," she said, adding that she chose pieces that she felt were "strong in composition and palette."
Steele was born and raised in Immenstadt, Germany and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees there. She came to the United States in 1987, eventually settling in San Rafael where the hills and nearby San Francisco Bay influenced her work. "She loved color," noted her son, "It was her enjoyment of the beauty in the world. She would constantly remark on how the fog poured over the hill, or how the forest trees blended with moss."
Looking at the paintings, some on canvas and others on wood, it is clear that Steele loved color and the application of paint in loose, broad ??" almost wild ??" strokes. There are thick applications of paint in some areas and, then, some so thin the pigment has dripped down the canvas. Jeremy Steele said that his mother used "great destroyed brushes with wild, curly hair, wooden scrapers and great, long swathing brushes. Anything to get the intricate, lifelike texture she loved." Texture is definitely an important facet of the paintings but it is trumped by the artist's choice of subject matter.
Each of the pieces portrays figures, but these are definitely not detailed, anatomically correct renditions of the human form. Rather, they are enigmatic, ghostly presences appearing as genderless, featureless bodies that exist in the space between figuration and abstraction.
In many of the pieces, there are just one or two figures facing away from the viewer and looking out at the unknown in the background. Even in pairs, the figures look isolated and lost in their own thoughts. They are solid and grounded, yet situated in a whirl of color and frenzied brush strokes. Even with titles like "The Moment I Saw You" and "A Quiet Moment Together," there is an immutable space between figures, a gulf that cannot be bridged.
"Ultimately the figures are a Taoist, Buddhist representation of an entire person, with an entire complicated relationship with someone else. Body postures and distances begin to tell the story between the people. But she left the rest of the enigma up for the viewer to decide," Jeremy Steele said.
Although many of the paintings have a quiet stillness to them, Helen Steele was capable of capturing movement and energy. In "Rouge Reflections," her characteristic silhouettes stand in the middle ground, surrounded by slashes of pastel colors and, on the right side, a bright red zig-zag that creates a big and bold upward movement.
The painting that comes closest to the traditional placement of figure to ground is "Ashore From the Lake," in which the artist has placed two of her genderless forms in the foreground, facing out toward the outline of a boat in the middle ground. The water is rendered in energetic, horizontal strokes in virtually every color but blue.
Jeremy Steele described his mother's working method: "She worked late at night, after dinner and past midnight, usually alone. She was in such a flow state. That's why she was so productive and prolific. She truly loved the process, the colors, the images."
There is a meditative quality to these paintings. Without the need to examine details and how well the artist did ??" or did not ??" capture things realistically, we are free to just fall into the flow ourselves, of looking at color, form and texture.
Like many artists, Helen Steele worked on more than one canvas at a time. Her son recalled, "She had a great big messy studio. The floor dripped with color, 10 canvases at a time, usually aligned with a color scheme and a series. She'd find a color that she mixed together, a light ocean blue, and apply it with a wooden scraper here, some on the next canvas, an outline on the third, and down the line, like a messy Disney factory cartoon."
In addition to the paintings, Bryant Street Gallery has included several small sculptures that Helen Steele created after attending a pottery class. Like the figures in her two-dimensional work, these heads are simplified, with tiny features (except for protruding noses) that a child might produce when first introduced to clay.
"She sculpted maybe 15 or 20 heads (compared to thousands of paintings); these strange biblical looking faces," Jeremy Steele said. He also noted that his mother was constantly observing and people-watching and that these sculptures were influenced by "the long grimaces of old German mountain men."
Although no longer here to share her thoughts about her work, Helen Steele's legacy will continue thanks to Bryant Street Gallery and the efforts of her son. When asked what she hoped people will take away from the show, Imperial said, "I want people to arrive at a sense of the soul of this artist. As you look at the work many emotions come forward. There's a sense of longing, loss and solitude. A bit of sorrow, yet in that, a feeling of beauty within those emotions."
"Reflections," works by Helen Steele, are on view through April 15 at Bryant Street Gallery, 532 Bryant St, Palo Alto. The gallery is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. For more information, visit bryantstreet.com.
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