California Symbolism: Painter Timothy Uriah Steele

Timothy Uriah Steele. Courtesy of Maitland Foley.
Timothy Uriah Steele. Courtesy of Maitland Foley.

Since opening its doors this spring, Maitland Foley has been making a name for itself in the shadow of LACMA with its recent retrospective (and retirement) show for Bert Rodriguez and its latest offering: Hexes, Divinations, and Concussions, the solo debut of rising New York-based painter Timothy Uriah Steele, who has made notable appearances in recent years in group shows at The Hole, Joshua Liner Gallery, and Centre548 (where Jerry Saltz marveled over the "encyclopedic rebuses" he was making at the time).

"This show progressed out of very vague notions of color and wanting to create this watery, blurry idea of color before allowing these narratives to grow out of that," says Steele, a California-born RISD grad whose densely-layered acrylic paintings over the years have referenced everything from his psychological relationship with psychedelic subcultures (specifically DMT) to the sci-fi surrealism of Thomas Pynchon and the Finish Fetish materialism of Billy Al Bengston. "Largely it's about having some relationship with chaos, letting it enter more into the beginning of the process, like starting with a dice roll, rather than adding it later as some cliched trope."

While his older works featured pour paintings erupting through volcanos that punctured the canvas, this new round of breakthrough works begins with primed canvases that Steele intervenes on via overhead pour paintings that form everything from psychedelic seascapes and flash floods to uncanny beach scenes, one of which will be available in an exclusive edition from the gallery.

"It's all wet paint and a lot of pouring and throwing down chunks of paint to create barriers," says Steele, who takes a photo of the resolved pours to inspire a matrix for his epic gradient atmospheres. (He's also been known to construct gradient paintings for some of art world's heaviest hitters.) "The very beginning of the painting is the relationship between the background and the pour. The white canvas is so full of shit — your brain, society, the art world — so the process is sort of a hollowing out of all that."

The narratives are meant to be remnants of emotion drawn from the pours that create associations with various art historical references (constructivist ideas manifested in a canvas with a boat crossing under a rainbow and a volcano which reference Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus); fetish (in a piece depicting a pink teddy bear hanging from a cross fitted with a resin-pour window); a viking funeral (amidst a swirling ocean scene with shockingly vibrant match stick flames); and paranoia (via a spaceship intervening over a hypnotic desert scene with two monolithic totems plucked from 2001: A Space Odyssey).

"The title of the show is sort of my process," explains Steele. "Hexes are projecting into the chaos with ideational things. The divinations are the readings of the signs that emerge from the pours that draw forth the narratives, almost like reading a palm or a turtle shell or the I Ching. Then concussions are the dark precursor to the entire creative process, something has gone wrong in most of these paintings, similar to when you get rattled, bruised, and become unconscious about something that's driving your life."

Given the gobsmacked reactions by the fashionable opening night crowd — from a gang of celebrity stylists to Rob Pruitt—Steele's surrealist hexes won’t wear off anytime soon..

Open through October 27 at Maitland Foley, 6130 Wilshire Boulevard,