Gallery  July 8, 2024  Megan D Robinson

Hugh Steers’ Paintings Captured Bleakness and Hope

Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York © 2024 Estate of Hugh Steers / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Hugh Steers, Dropping In, 1987. Oil on canvas, 56 x 72 in (142.24 x 182.88 cm)

Conjuring Tenderness: Paintings from 1987, an exhibition of paintings and works on paper by Hugh Steers (1962–1995), recently opened at New York’s Alexander Gray Associates. 

Steers painted queer life during the AIDS crisis with sensitivity, compassion, and sensuality— also with a sense of joy underscoring the banality and brutality of everyday existence. Influenced by historic figurative and landscape artists such as Caravagio, Van Gogh, and Edward Hopper, Steers’ work is beautifully melancholy. 

According to the exhibition press release, Steers once described his work as “allegorical realism” created “to draw the viewer in through the lure of a comfortingly recognizable style and then confront him with a subject matter of a challenging nature.” 

Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York © 2024 Estate of Hugh Steers / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Hugh Steers, Kneeling and Standing, 1987. Oil on canvas 41 3/4 x 29 3/4 in (106 x 75.6 cm) 43 5/8 x 31 5/8 x 2 1/4 in framed (110.8 x 80.3 x 5.7 cm framed) 

Steers skillfully captured the intimate everyday joys and horrors of existence, creating work that feels both somber and bright, while highlighting the powerful emotional paradox of life. An artist gaining traction in the art world and garnering critical acclaim in the late 80s and 90s, Steers died tragically young, at thirty-two, of AIDS-related complications in 1995. 

The exhibition title, Conjuring Tenderness, was inspired by a quote about painting from Steers in 1994, “It's like conjuring... It's as if painting it will make it become real. That painting of a man holding another man is conjuring that tenderness, that hope that someone will still care about you and will be there.” The exhibition will also include works never before seen publicly.

Steers studied art at Yale University, graduating cum laude in 1985. He immediately moved to New York, living in cheap tenements and illegal sublets, while he focused on his art and entered wholeheartedly into the queer nightlife scene.

Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York © 2024 Estate of Hugh Steers / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Hugh Steers, White Room, 1987. Oil on board 34 x 26 in (86.4 x 66 cm) 35 1/4 x 27 3/8 x 1 7/8 in framed (89.5 x 69.5 x 4.8 cm framed) 

Celebrated for his allegorical figurative tableaux, despite figurative work being seen as unfashionable at the time, Steers used his art to spotlight and normalize everyday queer experience. 

His subjects— usually gay men— can be found: lounging voluptuously on second hand sofas in tiny beige apartments; trying on drag outfits, amidst Chinese take-out containers; comforting ailing friends or lovers in tiled bathrooms; and engaging in all the gorgeous mundanity of existence. 

Born into a political family— his uncle was Gore Vidal— Steers was an activist. After his HIV diagnosis in 1987, his art focus shifted to AIDS awareness. Dating from the year of his diagnosis, the exhibition traces subtle shifts in Steers’ subjects and presentation. 

There are figures in various situations with hoods or paper bags over their heads, a series of men in hospital gowns— some defiantly wearing heels— and lone men using megaphones to speak towards an absent audience. 

Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York © 2024 Estate of Hugh Steers / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Hugh Steers, Chess, 1987. Oil on canvas, 69 5/8 x 61 1/8 in (177.16 x 155.26 cm) 

The motif of the hooded figure evokes both surrealistic work and the practice of hooding people about to be executed. Not only does this bring into play the surrealism of dealing with untimely death, but it signals society’s refusal to recognize and respond to the AIDS crisis, as well as the consequent erasure of the queer experience. Painted with passion, humor, and pathos, Steers’ work exemplifies creative persistence in the midst of tragedy.

40.718171263668, -74.00283615

Hugh Steers, Conjuring Tenderness: Paintings from 1987
Start Date:
June 20, 2024
End Date:
July 27, 2024
Alexander Gray Associates
About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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