Pop-Psychedelia: The Steve Leary Show at Holland Area Arts Council

Steve Leary creates paintings that resemble a hybrid of pop art and psychedelic posters. They’re colorful, animated, and slightly disorienting. His deft handling of enamel paint results in surfaces that are hard and shiny as candy.

The Steve Leary Show at Holland Area Arts Council includes nearly fifty pieces, over thirty paintings, six painted cabinets, and several sculptures of Dutch wooden shoes. The show is almost too full, but it is both a debut and a retrospective, including selections from work that Leary completed since he first started painting four years ago.

The paintings in Leary’s exhibition at the HAAC can be loosely divided into several categories: American pop culture standards like cartoon characters, landscapes with architectural structures, and humorous compositions incorporating Dutch cultural imagery.

Leary has been making custom furniture from salvaged and repurposed materials for  years, but even if the exhibition did not include custom cabinets, unique frames give insight into his craftsmanship. Dutch or Die for example, features a notched layered frame inspired by tramp art.

When I initially asked Leary about his influences, he showed me several photographs on his phone that he’d used as source images for landscapes. Some time later he said that he loved Stuart Davis‘ paintings, and his bright hard edge compositions do share similarities with Davis’ proto pop paintings from the 1940s and 1950s. Leary’s statement at the HAAC indicates that he has always been interested in Kustom Kulture, which is revealed in his affinity for enamel paint and glitter, as well as streaked modeling and whiplash designs that resemble pinstriping.

I love the punk-inspired Dutch pieces. Dutch or Die shows the lower half of a figure wearing wooden shoes on a Delftware skateboard, cruising down a sidewalk lined with windmills and tulips. Visible between the legs is a flaming sun, with the small silhouette of a kissing Dutch couple–the kind you recognize as lawn ornaments. Modern Windmill features shiny blue wooden shoes flanked by tulips, hovering in front of a psychedelic windmill. The show also includes a customized lit curio cabinet, filled with several carved platform wooden shoes. Leary has genuine affection for the iconography, so while these pieces are undeniably campy, they steer clear of irony.

Leary’s outdoor scenes are my favorites. The compositions are always interesting–layered, stylized, and dense. They have a buoyant energy that reminds me of the art of Emily Carr, Charles Burchfield, and Roger Brown. The sky is often filled with jagged or loping streaks, or peculiar cloud formations. This is clearly seen in Tannery Bay, or Grand Haven. Flora is sometimes incongruously scaled, and highly abstracted, like the giant corn in Corn Sweet Corn, or the fantastic cacti in Moon Motel. The manmade structures–bridges, industrial buildings, and houses, function in these paintings like visual anchors to keep the natural world from imploding.

I first saw Steve Leary’s art on facebook and asked if he’d be interested in participating in a group show I was organizing. I was overwhelmed with the number of excellent works he had available. The basement, garage, and an outbuilding were full of paintings and custom casegoods. I felt like I was in that scene from the 1971 version of Willy Wonka, when he reveals the atrium to visitors of the candy factory.

The exhibition will be at HAAC trough September 5. Admission is free, but currently the galleries are closed except by appointment. You can see the entire exhibition on-line. You can also follow Steve Leary on Instagram.

If you haven’t been to the HAAC in a while, you should keep it on your radar, because Exhibition Director Mary Sundstrom has been consistently organizing noteworthy exhibits featuring art by regional artists.

The Steve Leary Show
July 16-September 5, 2020

Holland Area Arts Council
150 E 8th St, Holland, MI 49423
Free parking is available on the west side of the building
(616) 396-3278

by Tamara Fox

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