—click on any image to enlarge—
Art is not something I discovered in museums, but rather from the seat of a La-Z-Boy and the wacky wild world of Looney Tunes. I discovered a talent for unraveling hidden layers of queerness and subversion, akin to deciphering a foreign language. As a kid, I couldn’t help but believe that Krazy Kat and Ignatz were queer lovers or feel a peculiar excitement watching Bugs Bunny in drag kissing Elmer Fudd. As a painter, this sets up a tension between traditional painting and suburban popular culture creating a hybridization of images taken from hours of watching tv, mind-numbing malls, rebellious graffiti, a forbidden attraction to men that had to be subverted.
I create a collision of worlds. Imagine Bach composing an opus set in Barbie’s dream world—that’s the audacious fusion of high and popular culture that forms the backbone of my work. Inspired by the unexpected narratives born from unconventional unions, my paintings reveal a range of forms and images that contain tension, referencing the bulbous cartoon shapes and those found in graffiti. These images exist in sharp contrast with the process of my formal, traditional use of paint.
At the heart of my painting process lies an unwavering fascination with queerness. It is a singular obsession that drives me to infuse my paintings with a distinct queer sensibility. Beyond the tired stereotypes associated with the LGBTQ+ community, I seek to challenge and transcend, delving into realms beyond Tom of Finland and glitter. Through my queer-colored glasses, I reimagine narratives, provoke thoughts, and push boundaries. My desire to make the paintings queer is a quixotic one, where I am both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
When I’m not doing fieldwork analyzing Saturday morning cartoons, I walk the streets of different cities, looking at the graffitied-tagged buildings. I see these as Mayan glyphs or displaced Disney-like shapes, a language brimming with symbolism and meaning. I harness the raw energy, vibrant colors, and fearless expression of these forms in my paintings, combining an unschooled, unpretentious, urban, and suburban visual language with a trained academic style. I create an amalgam of tension and elements that contradict one another in a way that is important to the paintings. I identify as an academic figurative painter, and yet I don’t paint the figure. I utilize contemporary conceptual approaches using casein paint—an ancient milk-based paint deeply rooted in art history—transforming it like a drag queen that playfully places a big wet smooch right on the kisser of a cartoon hunter. This inherent contradiction encapsulates my worldview—I am disciplined and meticulous, lighthearted and playful. I weave together diverse concepts and traditions using an academic structure.
Through blurring the boundaries between the unapproachable ivory tower of the art world, the down-and-dirty culture of the street, the cultural wasteland of the suburbia I grew up in, and the silly goofiness of cartoons, I engage in a perplexing dance—a delicate balancing act. The outcomes are uncertain until the painting begins to come together, and this is the exhilarating, hair-pulling part—the element of surprise, the joy of the unpredictable. Following the painting and letting it lead me is what it’s really all about in the end.
Fun fact: DeFrank trained as a luchador, a Mexican wrestler, during his stay as a Fulbright scholar in Mexico City. In his view, Mexican wrestling stands as an allegory for painting.
DeFrank has had many solo shows including at the School of Visual Arts Flat Iron Project Space, most recently a two-person show at Townsend Galley in Watermill NY. His works have been featured in countless group exhibitions, notably at Provincetown Art Association and Museum in Massachusetts. Steve was proud to be included in a group show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Oaxaca. He received the Lillian Orlowsky and William Freed Foundation Grant for an outstanding painter as well he was acknowledged by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which awarded him the distinguished Willard L. Metcalf Award.
DeFrank’s works are in the collections of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, SEI/West Family Collection, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Eli and Edyth Broad Art Museum in Los Angeles. His work has been reviewed in various publications, among the standouts are Vanity Fair, Artnews, Craines, New York, and The New York Times.