SIOUX CITY – Steve Joy won’t be offended if you stand in front of one of his abstract paintings and the combinations of brightly colored glossy rectangular shapes or reworked portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and Henry VIII don’t speak to you . He says abstract art, which has mystified people for more than a century, shouldn’t worry anyone.
“If people don’t understand, that’s fine. There’s nothing in these paintings that needs to be explained. There’s nothing in abstract painting that needs to be explained – that’s another misconception that people have,” Joy says as she sits on a bench surrounded by her works, which are on display at the Sioux City Art Center through May 6.
Joy, who grew up in the English seaside county of Cornwall and now lives in Omaha, Nebraska, sees abstract painting as a way to leave her mark on the earth. It points to ancient people who crawled on their hands and knees through the earth in darkness to paint pictures on the walls of caves.
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“To me, that’s the basic nature of abstract painting, it’s just a basic human need,” he says softly. “It almost doesn’t matter if anyone sees them. It’s something primitive that needs to be done.”
Joy developed an interest in art while serving in the Royal Air Force and traveling throughout the Far East, Middle East and Mediterranean.
“I was actually posted to the Maldives for a few years. I just started reading about art and meditating on it,” recalls Joy, who was so inspired by the American Abstract Expressionist’s paintings. Barnett Newman, whom he saw in a museum in Amsterdam, that he decided to switch his studies from religion to art after leaving the air force.
Newman, who had died a few years earlier, painted fields of color with narrow vertical bands of contrasting colors. Joy also cites Mark Rothko, another deceased American painter who wanted to create art that made people cry, as an influence.
“I think it was Barnett Newman who made me realize that you could be a relatively urban, sophisticated, ordinary person and do extraordinary things,” says Joy, whose paintings on canvas, wood panels and paper have appeared in museums and works of art. national and international galleries. “It taught me that being an artist didn’t have to be rebellious – what most people think of abstract painting. It taught me that abstract painting was actually a viable language and an important part of our culture.”
Joy enjoys the mystery and challenge associated with abstract painting. His exhibition at the Sioux City Art Center includes his Icon-inspired and Elizabethan paintings, as well as his current and ongoing series of works titled “Elegies for a Mad King” – Joy’s response to the 30-minute, one-person, composition d opera, “Eight Songs for a Mad King”, by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Randolph Stow.
“I tried to drop everything I knew,” he says. “I did all these little paintings, not really knowing what the next move would be, and they took a long time. I just felt like I had to push in a new direction.”
Sioux City Art Center curator Todd Behrens said it was Joy’s icon paintings that first caught his attention and led him to pursue his work.
“When you see them, regardless of your understanding of the art and Steve and the background behind what he does, they have such a shiny, beautiful, shimmering quality to them,” he says of the icons. “The more recent work in this exhibition is visually more difficult to grasp.”
Icons, religious works of art depicting Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other biblical figures, were common features in Eastern European Orthodox churches. Typically painted on wood, icons were often adorned with gold and silver leaf and coated with varnish.
Joy uses these same layering techniques in her large-scale icon paintings which combine bold paint colors, rectangles and squares of varying sizes, gold and silver leaf, varnish and wax. When streams of light reflect on the paintings, it produces a dazzling effect. In an underlit space, Joy says her icon paintings glow softly.
“My work is very close to the medieval idea of an icon, which is a physical link to the idea of God. It is this idea that there must be some kind of intermediary between man and God “, he explains. “It was just a desire to do a painting in the physical sense that didn’t look like everyone else looking at medieval icons in Greece and monasteries all over Europe.”
Joy considers “Netherlandish Portrait”, a mixed media on canvas, to be one of the “most unusual” paintings he has ever done. He worked on the piece in a secluded studio on an English cliff overlooking the sea.
One day, while driving to the studio, Joy listened to a NASA radio broadcast documenting the crash of the Cassini spacecraft in Saturn’s atmosphere. The event lingered in his mind and affected the painting.
Joy says painting requires “a lot of looking and a lot of contemplation”. He says the process can take days, months or, quoting Picasso, “It takes my whole life.”
“There’s so much in there. There’s so much combination of technology, spirituality and engineering,” he says.