Frank Stepek’s “Guardian” is part of the local artist’s current show, Dream World, at Catalyst Café.
After an hour of talking about his work, Missoula artist Frank Stepek throws out a fact about his show Dream World like it’s an afterthought: “I couldn’t have done this show,” he says, “without my digital camera.”
That’s hardly a standard piece of equipment for a painter such as Stepek, who worked with oil paints on canvas for his current show, which aims to connect his inner visions to other people’s perceptions of the world. But the camera facilitated Stepek’s imagination.
In Dream World, Stepek portrays figures from religion, mythology and fantasy in surreal hues. Shadows take their natural shape in the kneeling figure portrayed in “Guardian,” but assume unreal colors as red trumps gray and blue leaks into spaces naturally reserved for black. A luminous, expressive dragon and winged female rider fly above an alien landscape and below an impossibly divided sky in the show’s title painting. An intricately detailed winged figurine stands at the center of “Balance,” bats and birds rising from its hands to meet in the air. The images are alluring sometimes and disquieting at other times, but a transformation of perception in each case.
Translating singular perceptions into visual art motivates Stepek. Glancing through a book featuring the work of painters from various historical periods, Stepek dwells briefly on work by Expressionist painter Wassily Kandinsky—“He was definitely in his own world,” says Stepek—but halts at length to praise the work of William Adolphe Bouguereau. Bouguereau’s dreamlike images of mythology inspire Stepek, as does Bouguereau’s anachronism. “He was painting this stuff,” says Stepek admiringly, “in 1905 when Impressionism was happening.”
Stepek’s own efforts parallel his mind-bending mentors. “I try,” he says, “to bridge the gap between my weird artistic mind and the public.” Stepek characterizes the resulting work as “pop surrealism.”
By incorporating images from art and commerce in his work, Stepek is also concerned with addressing the tension between a take-off and a rip-off. Many pieces in Dream World incorporate imagery from the real world, sometimes juxtaposed against one another as in the giant coffee pot with El Camino of “El Caffino.” At other times, Stepek has the images standing alone but transformed, as in his take on mythological figures in “The Three Muses.”
Stepek’s concern for authenticity led him to remove one painting, “Wheel of Fortune,” from Dream World after a fellow artist commented to Stepek that it too closely resembled the tarot card on which it was modeled. Standing alone, Stepek says, “It feels like a rip-off…you think, you know, this is just not my idea.” In the company of additional paintings done in the same style—a half-dozen other tarot cards adapted to Stepek’s style—he thinks it might pass muster.
But Stepek seems unlikely to be sure until the series is complete. He says he often works by impulse, painting what occurs to him and then undoing his work if it doesn’t satisfy.
“Part of my painting style is that I put it in there and if I don’t like it I just take it out,” says Stepek. “I don’t stress out about that. A lot of people do. I just do it.” Such impetuosity only sometimes lends itself to speed.
“Lady with Dragons,” a painting from Stepek’s May 2006 show at The Raven Cafe (now Dauphine’s) in which a Victorian-looking woman poses with two leashed dragons, took two days to complete. “Obsession/Myth,” the painting he completed just prior, took months as Stepek added and removed features, seeking an ideal arrangement of serpent, blocks, flowers and lawn for something like a sci-fi garden party. The show took five years to put together and Stepek decided he needed to expedite the process.
With the digital camera and imaging software he now uses, Stepek condensed the process of searching for novelty. He composes the elements of an image to fit his ambition for a piece digitally and then puts paint to canvas, adding colors over shapes without fidelity to how they appear in the digital image.
Stepek has only had his digital camera for a year and he says, “It’s changed a lot for me. I was really anti-technology for a long time and then I realized as an artist you can’t be anti-technology…If you want to be a cutting-edge artist, you have to embrace all the new technology that’s out there because as artists it’s our responsibility to know that it’s there and that it’s just another tool.”
Holding the camera viewfinder to his eye, Stepek says, “It’s so much easier now. Before you had to do this.” Pushing the camera to arm’s length and so the larger screen, Stepek adds, “Now you can hold it like this…I can just step back. It’s like stepping back from a painting and really looking at your composition…You get a lot closer to your mind’s eye.”
Frank Stepek’s Dream World is on display at Catalyst Café, 111 N. Higgins Avenue, through the end of November.