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Inside the Lines

Former commercial artist Steve Frenkel creates a self-contained imaginary world

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Steve Frenkel's paintings are neat: edges sharp, colors bold and distinct, lines defined. The objects in the Georgia artist's paintings, on display at the Steinway Gallery in Chapel Hill, possess a primary- colored, basic-shape simplicity. His background in commercial art and illustration has clearly carried over to his fine art--whether the subject's a blockish house, a round-topped two-door, or a tubular airplane, Frenkel's objects maintain a singular shape that the artist doesn't overly embellish. This reticence gives his paintings an aesthetic based in simple shapes and snapshot-like compositions, so that the abstractions and oddities don't come across as any kind of commentary, but as pleasing quirks.

In "Vortex," for example, a town of round-topped cars and block houses is being swept into the air by an invisible tornado, but the result is whimsical rather than horrific. In "Big Dip," an ice-cream stand in the middle of a concrete lot is fashioned around a giant two-scoop cone, the top scoop of which has just fallen to the ground. Frenkel paints the result as though the structure were made of real ice cream, the fallen chunk having flattened and splattered.

Frenkel's motifs grow from his playful concern with what is essentially a dream state. His work's most intriguing aspect is that, even though cars are bigger than houses and cacti grow where water coolers should stand, the simplicity of the objects asserts that their spatial incompatibility is not problematic. Somehow, at least to the people and objects in it, this world makes sense.

Much of this is due to the self-contained nature of Frenkel's scenes. Even though they take place on highways and airports, places of long-distance transport, nothing seems to exist outside the edge of the painting. In "Mirageville," a neighborhood of disproportionately sized houses lies in a circle in a desert. The painting is divided in half by a road, making the composition practically symmetrical, and the circle of homes extends almost to either edge of the canvas, indicating a complete meta-reality within one frame. The parade of cars in "Mirageville" appears to be going in laps. Only one tiny silhouette is on the road out of town.

Another way that Frenkel achieves this sealing off is by erecting billboards in his landscapes, which have pictures of objects that are also in the landscape: a picture of a house that rests on the ground, or a road like the one that runs through the town. Billboards, as advertisements, usually display images of something you don't already have, and by doing exactly the opposite with his billboards, Frenkel further seals off the scenes of "Mirageville" and "Desert Shore Drive" from the intrusion of reality.

Similarly, in "Polka Flight" and "Teacup, Minnesota," partial circles bubble in from the upper corners of the paintings, bubbles that contain objects somehow related to the dreamy landscape. In the former composition, a couple stands in front of a tubular airplane on a sunny runway. In the upper left corner, a bubble contains a grayish depiction of the wheels of the plane, and in the right bubble rests a seat next to a window on the interior of the plane. These bubbles are superimposed over a blue sky with a few fluffy clouds. Consistent with Frenkel's theme of imagination overlapping with reality, the viewer can see the clouds of the "real" sky through the window in the imagination bubble.

Frenkel concentrates for the most part on small towns and quaint images. His incorporation of imaginary realities is what drives his work, but because of the obvious influence of his commerical art background, the paintings end up having a cute, almost comic-book quality to them, holding them back from achieving real resonance. "Polka Flight" and "Teacup, Minnesota" are genuinely intriguing, but it would be necessary to see more to know whether the artist has achieved a notable body of work. EndBlock

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