“Painting: An Exercise in Spiritual Intellectualism”


No one knows what the spiritual is or where the inspiration for creativity comes from or why. The impulse to create art is a curious thing and artists are often the most curious of personalities. The traditional associations between art and ritual have been lost in the modern world, yet they cannot be denied, if only as intellectual interpretations of the roles of human beings and their relationship to universal values. At various periods of human history, art has been perceived as a vehicle of formal expression. This means that artists have used their media as a means of personal expression, linked to intuitional and mystic values that result in images that are often “unnatural” or distorted. In the works of Steven McCowan, it is the self-representation of his psychical state that appears as a distortion of reality and confronts us with its strange power and intellectualism.

The bold colors and refined crudeness that are immediately evident in McCowan’s paintings correspond to an intoxicated Lear25Nov08002rediscovery of human foibles and acceptable traditions. Nothing is safe from his caustic brush – not religion, history, politics, or art. He renders people and places with savage splashes of pure pigment and sordid colors, and the mood is as predatory as it is violent. It is also extremely witty and it is his bizarre sense of humor that elevates the images above the morose ramblings of a cynic to the level of astute commentary. His strong, often disapproving, moral overtones feature caricatures and personalities of remarkable power. Some are easily identifiable, such as Jesus Christ; some are universally recognizable, while others are strictly personal and part of an idiosyncratic symbolic vocabulary developed over many years.

Some of the most impressive paintings from his recent works include images from the Life of Christ, as modern depictions. Relevant to any discussion of the role of religion and spirituality in today’s materialistic and commercially driven society, these paintings portray the Christ figure with vehement emotionalism and psychological connotations, not to be interrupted in a narrowly religious or spiritual sense. In other works, he utilizes more formal elements to address dire social issues, while he intellectualizes about their more profound connotations philosophically and artistically. The compositional device of compartmental divisions, like the boxed claustrophobic settings reminiscent of Sartre’s existential descriptions, confines humanity within restrictive environments, while the radiant stained-glass effects of his personal aesthetic remind us of the beauty of color and its expressive value as a key element in the process of painting.

Enhanced by brilliant neon and fluorescent details, every image painted by Steven McCowan contains a statement about private observations, experiences, and social issues in remarkable ways. He speaks through a visual language of emotionally charged colors and brash painterly strokes that never lose their descriptive intensity. His works are spontaneous; painted directly on the canvas with pigment straight from the tube, without preliminary drawing, and full of unlimited energy. From human commentary to psychological exploration, Steven McCowan introduces the viewer to a cast of characters that is full of personality, informed by an intellectual approach to its spiritual manifestations, and as odd as it is endearing.

Carol Damian Miami, March 2001