Alexander Gray Associates is pleased to present its first solo exhibition of works by Hugh Steers, featuring paintings and works on paper produced from 1987–1993. Throughout his career, cut dramatically short by AIDS at the age of 33, Steers was celebrated for his allegorical painting that captured the emotional and political tenor of New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly the impact of Queer identity and the AIDS crisis.
Dedicated to figurative painting despite a hostile artistic climate, Steers deliberately experiments with the role of beauty, manipulating the medium to create palpable tension between visual appeal and raw content. Familiar interior spaces—the bathroom and the bedroom—provide the stage for Steers' complex narratives. In Purple Velvet Dress (1989), delineations of real and imaginary, ego and alter-ego, eroticism and isolation become blurred. Later, in works from the 90s, anxiety and mortality grow in presence, haunting the corpulent figures and casting a brutal glow onto the scene. Throat (1991) takes a more literal stance, depicting the torture of anticipation as illness looms imminent.
At once biographical and allegorical, the intimate domestic scenes on view employ a style deeply rooted in art historical tradition to depict contemporary issues with extraordinary immediacy. Recalling his influential American predecessors, including Thomas Eakins, Paul Cadmus, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Demuth, Steers renders tenderness, isolation, intimacy, and psychological dilemma through dramatic use of color, skewed perspective, and radiant golden light.
Hugh Steers (1963–1995) was celebrated for his allegorical painting that captured the emotional and political tenor of New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly the impact of Queer identity and the AIDS crisis. Born in Washington, D.C., Steers studied painting at Yale University, and pursued a commitment to figuration throughout his career, cut dramatically short by AIDS at the age of 32. Influenced by historical figures of American art, including Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper, and Paul Cadmus, he embraced representational painting and figuration at a time when such approaches were especially unfashionable.
Steers described his artistic perspective in an interview in September 1992: “I think I'm in the tradition of a certain kind of American artist—artists whose work embodies a certain gorgeous bleakness. Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline—they all had this austere beauty to them. They found beauty in the most brutal forms. I think that's what characterizes America, the atmosphere, its culture, its cities and landscape. They all have that soft glow of brutality.”
While embracing the polemics of identity politics through his visual content, Steers’ emotionally charged painting took a departure from the more didactic work of his peers. The last five years of his artistic practice focused on AIDS as a subject matter, drawing on community experience and mixing dreamlike allegory with figurative realism. The resulting images amplify issues of mortality and isolation, defiance and compassion. Hugh Steers’ artwork is in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, and the Denver Art Museum. A forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Steers’ paintings and drawings will be organized by Visual AIDS.