BY MICHAEL LUONGO | A still life in kinetic motion. That could be a description for a moment in New York, where even in a quick glance or an image captured in a photograph, the scene still always seems to be in motion. It’s also one of the best ways to describe the paintings of artist Michael Steinbrick, a native of Newark, who is having his first art exhibition at the Victoria Hanks Fine Art gallery in Upper Montclair, New Jersey.
Steinbrick, who works as a trainer at the New York Sports Club in Chelsea when not painting, said, “What I try to capture in my work is stillness in the midst of chaos. New York City — it’s frenetic, in all of it, but there is still a stillness, a quietness, and any of us can have access to it and find that.”
Many of Steinbrick’s paintings show the energy that is Times Square, whether focusing on the multitude of clashing billboards or on individuals walking contemplatively on city sidewalks.
“My work veers toward photorealism,” Steinbrick said, “but the difference in my work is that it jumps back and forth between extreme detail and others that are more painterly. I try to convey a mood that is not necessarily there with photorealism.”
Steinbrick’s method of stillness in the midst of chaos is something that also describes his own life and how he has met challenges since he was a child.
Raised in Newark’s North Ward, the city’s traditional Little Italy, Steinbrick said he can vividly recall the race riots that decimated the city in the late 1960s.
“Some of my earliest memories revolve around extreme racial tension,” he said. “One of those memories was staring out of my living room window as a gang of young men searched the streets with bats in hand. They were looking for any black individual to take out their aggressions on. As a child I couldn’t understand why people were being treated differently because of the color of their skin.”
Later, in school and in church, Steinbrick would begin to experience his own feelings of difference, due to his sexuality. From eight years old on, he explained, “I was targeted for being gay, and the bullying became relentless.”
He found solace by making himself invisible.
“I learned that the safest place was outside of the center, somewhere in the background,” he recalled. “And this is how I began to live my life.”
It was also in his childhood that he began to draw and paint, at times receiving compliments from fellow students who would make fun of him in other situations.
Years later as a young adult, Steinbrick would gain strength from the community many of his childhood neighbors did violence against.
“I got a job working at a department store in downtown Newark,” he explained. “It was here that I began working with a group of black women who would bring me out of my shell. These women taught me the meaning of inner strength.” Learning from the example of these women, he said, followed naturally from his youth, when “I fought everyone who seemed to me to be a racist.”
When Steinbrick decided to continue his education, he earned his bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts at Montclair State University. After working in Chicago as a scenic painter for several years, he moved back to the New York area in 2000 and took a job as a gym trainer, putting aside his desire to paint creatively. That is, until some of the most historic events in American history allowed him to see New York differently.
Steinbrick credits the election of President Barack Obama as the motivation for resuming his painting. In Times Square, he photographed the spontaneous celebrations that erupted on Election Night and when video feeds broadcast the inauguration there. He viewed the city anew, through an artistic lens.
In paintings of Times Square, as well as other locales across the city, Steinbrick said, he wants to examine “the stillness in the chaos… capturing a feeling that is there in New York with crazy frenetic energy that works. Glitz and grit, doom and dark, light and dark.”
He added, “There is not another city like it — and this cohesiveness in New York, you don’t see anywhere else. This melding of contrasts.”
Steinbrick lives in Jersey City, and his mother remains in Newark. He said that in the future, he’d also like to paint his hometown.
“I would love to capture that old industrial grittiness of Newark, because some of that is beautiful,” he said.
Steinbrick, whose website is at MichaelSteinbrick.com, will be in the Victoria Hanks Fine Art Gallery to discuss his work with visitors in the afternoons on June 22, 27, and 29. His paintings are in exhibition with Tony Zaza’s photographs and mixed media and Victoria Hanks’ works on paper.
MICHAEL STEINBRICK | Victoria Hanks Fine Art Gallery | 202 Bellevue Ave. at Northview Ave., Suite 2 | Upper Montclair, NJ | Through Jun. 30 | victoriahanksfineart.com or 973-459-1866