Art-Space: Steve Banks “Ill-Suited for the Pleasantries”

On display in Bldg. 4, this month’s Art-Space exhibit, “Ill-Suited for the Pleasantries,” features recent works from Black Hawk art instructor and local artist, Steve Banks.

On display in Bldg. 4, this month’s Art-Space exhibit, “Ill-Suited for the Pleasantries,” features recent works from Black Hawk art instructor and local artist, Steve Banks.

The exhibit, which features several pieces created by Prof. Banks (at least one of which he started working on as far back as 2000), had its opening reception on Thursday, Jan. 30 and will be on display until Feb. 7.

“I call them painted constructions,” said Prof. Banks in a recent interview when asked to describe the style of his works, which fall under the “mixed-media” category, adding that his pieces don’t necessarily fall under the rubric of a painting, “but they’re clearly stuff that I’ve painted.”

With the exception of his “Tower of Babel,” the pieces feature a diverse mix of materials, including cement, wood, and ceramic pieces attached to canvas paintings, some with wooden frames designed and crafted by the artist.

“This kind of work grew out of what I was doing in graduate school, but it probably took another 5 years after that to really bring all the pieces together to where it worked. Sorta like the first time you make a stew versus after you’ve been making stew for a while. You just know how to bring in the right proportion of ingredients and how to make them work,” said Prof. Banks, adding, “It’s a weird, very non-linear process.

However, the physical media used for the pieces aren’t the only eclectic aspects of Prof. Banks’ art. His works also feature an assortment of cartoon-like characters, images, and caricatures (some similar in style, others quite different from one another), bizarre face-like pieces attached to the canvas, and images and phrases that seem to reference American history and culture as well as help illustrate each piece’s theme.

And it is within these historical and cultural references that Prof. Banks’ style gains its distinction.

“Pop culture’s in there; there’s some post-apocalyptic Mad Max stuff…Little Steven’s Underground Garage-kinda celebration of Americana…” said Prof. Banks when asked about the themes of his works, adding that the pieces are intended to express beliefs that our cultures excess is also our downfall.

“It celebrates our stupidity, but it also kinda shakes our head at our stupidity as a pretty shallow culture. It’s both sides of a coin…We’re possibly the best, most successful culture that has come around in a while, yet we’re also pretty horrible, realistically.”

One of the more obvious examples is “Delivery Especial,” which features depictions of various “discoverers,” ranging from Vikings to astronauts planting flags while the image of  a Native American lies in the background.   

“Arena” seems even more straightforward, featuring a “man” wearing an Egyptian pyramid hat shooting arrows at another “man” also sporting said pyramid on his head.

Other pieces seem slightly more ambiguous in regards to whatever message Prof. Banks is trying to convey, if any, mainly due to the playfully cartoonish style.   

“The Promised Land (of Sky Blue Waters)” features what appears as a dazed and disoriented scene in a diner but could also be interpreted as a comment on fast-food/drive-thru window convenience, while “High Noon On The Streets Of Reason” features the depiction of cowboys in a Western-style shootout.

But the overall theme of the works is clear and consistent.  Individually, the collection of images from each piece effectively communicates the type of simultaneous cultural celebrations and condemnations described by Prof. Banks, but when viewed as a whole, the exhibit seems to express a somewhat cynical and menacing vibe, almost as if to say that “just because something gets swept under a rug, doesn’t mean it’ll stay there forever.”    

The one major variation from the rest of the exhibit is the “Tower of Babel,” a grimy, rusty-looking tower piece standing approximately seven feet tall in a pile of debris.  In addition to the Tower, a few of the pieces contain a sub-theme represented by comic book style speech balloons that Prof. Banks intentionally left empty.

“It’s sort of the classic failure, isn’t it?” he said when asked to describe his interpretation of the failed tower from the Biblical tale. “God said ‘No, I’m going to make it so you guys can’t communicate.’”    

Prof. Banks explained that the Tower and empty bubbles featured in the exhibit were used to express his beliefs that meaningful interpersonal communication gets lost in the “numbing sea of white noise of our modern culture” and that “the massive volume of ‘communication’ makes it increasingly difficult to sift out what is truly meaningful to us.”

“I think, just in general, so much about what we talk about is just bullshit, where things that people say isn’t really reflective of what they feel, to the point where I didn’t even want to put words in the talk bubbles,” said Prof. Banks, explaining his intent behind his inclusion of the empty speech bubbles.

“To me the ‘Tower of Babel’ kind of ties into that whole ‘how much we talk’ versus how much of it is actual meaningful communication amongst people versus just ‘white noise’ kinds of crap,” he added.

The title Prof. Banks chose for his exhibit suggests a body of work incapable of friendly, meaningless interactions, but if “A picture is worth a thousand words” were a precise estimate, it would appear that he took great care to make sure he had something both entertaining and relevant to say.