LAUSANNE.- The oeuvre of Charles Steffen is obsessed with never-ending variations on the theme of nudes and the mother figure. Through that theme, however, Steffen confronts us with changes we ourselves experience. He calls into being the transformations he faced during his own lifetime notably illness, solitude and weaknesses for alcohol and tobacco. He holds a mirror up to us, exposing us to our own transformations: "A change of matabulism [metabolism)], metamorehiss [metamorphosis], we all change for our own satisfaction, right or worng [wrong] we do."
Charles Steffen (1927-1995) is the creator of an imaginary world peopled by creatures resembling aliens. Everything lends itself to metamorphosis: some of his figures are hermaphrodite, while others, subjected to mutations, present hybrid features straddling the realms of humankind, animals and plants.
Born to a family of eight children in Chicago, at the age of twenty-eight Charles Steffen took up studies at the Chicago Institute of Design, a part of the Illinois Institute of Technology at the time. However, his Catholic faith prevented him from adhering to the ideas set forth in one of his philosophy courses. In an act of rage, the young student set his course papers on fire and threatened to commit suicide; he ended up sinking into depression, bringing about his departure from the school barely a year after his arrival there. Two years later, he was committed to the Elgin State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital of the State of Illinois.
Over about a decade he alternated between stays at the hospital and at the family home. He left the psychiatric establishment in 1963, returning to his childhood home to live with his mother, brother and sister (Rita). Psychologically and physically impaired, he was not able to take up a job. Steffen himself often referred to his regular visits to the doctor, the medicine he had to take and the pains in his feet. He would also mention a lack of money. At home, he did help out with a few domestic chores, but spent most of his time drawing in lead pencil or colored pencil on brown wrapping paper. This latter activity involved reinventing a totally original graphic vocabulary. He would produce one to three drawings a day some up to 2 meters (6 and a half feet) long and generally signed them with his nickname, "Chas." When not drawing, he enjoyed drinking heavily and smoking (specially the pipe).
Steffen ended up producing several thousands of drawings. Once he'd finished them, he would roll them up, seal them with scotch tape and store them in the basement of his house. However, his sister, fearing the outbreak of fire, obliged him regularly to destroy them. And he himself would impulsively take to destroying a number of them from time to time. Thus, almost all his production dating from 1963 to 1989 no longer exists. Upon his mother's death, the family home was sold and Steffen moved to an old people's home north of Chicago. He was about to burn his drawings but then thought the better of it and left them to his nephew, Christopher Preissing, who had expressed interest an in his work. This represented the rescue of some two thousand pieces done between 1989 and Steffen's death in 1995.
For inspiration, Steffen looked to his own past and memories of his student days, depicting notably a woman he'd loved prior to his hospitalization (a certain Alishia), female nudes, dancers in a bar he used to visit as a student, life scenes from the Elgin Hospital, as well as crucifixions. In another register, he drew upon the limited sphere of his own daily life, portraying the bank teller who cashed his Social Security cheques, his neighbors, the artificial flowers in his home or the garden plants and, above all, his mother, in either her wheelchair or her bed.
Still another, and favorite, subject was that of female nudes, whose classicism he adapted to his own taste by combining human shapes with botanical subjects, inventing the figure of a "Sunflower Nude." In his later years, Steffen also took to annotating his drawings, turning them into diaristic supports.
The Collection de l'Art Brut extends its heartfelt thanks to Christopher Preissing and Russel Bowman Art Advisory for their collaboration. We are also most grateful to Andrew Edlin and his gallery, the representatives of the Charles Steffen Estate, for their loan of several pieces for the exhibition, as well their generous donation of several works.