2015 - 2018 Rubens in New York

 Iconic puzzles offering multiple solutions

These New Yorkers convey such energy! Catherine Van den Steen has captured them in a perpetual movement, a quasi Brownian movement, of crossings, thrusts, meetings, conversations. They talk to each other, kiss each other or simply speak to their phones that they never seem to leave and sometimes walk their dogs… We see them move along great lines that highlight the city’s power. These lines are those that the artist has borrowed from the subway’s solid steel structures, genuine subterranean roots of Manhattan’s buildings. These New Yorkers are terribly human! Diverse, passionate, tender, busy, their heads in the clouds or dropping with fatigue, weary or full of energy, caught up in stories beyond them or eager to force their destiny.
To characterize their mobility, to shroud it, comment on it, to turn it around, Catherine Van den Steen has not found better than to summon a few works of Rubens, the master of Baroque - The Lion Hunt (1621), The Garden of Love (1633), The descent from the cross (1612-1614), The rape of Proserpine (1621) and xxxx (1600-1608), drawing inspired from Battle of Constantine against Maxentius (conceived by Raphaël for the Vatican and executed by his students after his death)-, that she inscribes in watermark or in overprint in her paintings, with colours inspired by Pop art…fittingly from New York.
Here, the painting of history and the history of painting are inter-weaved in a play of confrontation, clashes, break-ins, inversions installing a visual imaginary of underlying powers that destabilize the natural deciphering of these silhouettes, that one could have encountered in the city just now. With Rubens, the viewer is reminded of the shock of passions and the violence of history. In so much that there is nothing anachronistic to mix up time periods. On the contrary, from their convergence surprises arise which put at work impacts of meaning and interpretations that can simultaneously be poetic, political and analytical. It’s a never ending game of interpretation, a kind of pictorial cabal that Catherine Van den Steen’s works offer us. One understands quickly that as in all the great tradition of painting in which they inscribe themselves, these canvasses in the shape of iconic puzzles with multiple solutions are not to be looked at in passing, but at length to savor their richness and consistency.

Jean-François Bouthors



Making of

Making the painting series  Rubens in New York  is based upon a careful protocol that the artist has fine-tuned in the course of her work. The first paintings were used as an experimental field to achieve a composition method that includes photography, drawing, painting and computer work. The following details this work protocol as it was applied to each canvass.

The first step is to choose the pieces that will enter in the game of interpretation and that the artist is going to display on the canvass intended for the viewer. Sorting the photographs taken during a stay of several weeks in New York (September-October 2014). Selecting metal structures photographed in the subway. Spotting a collection of silhouettes taken from the same photograph albums. Choice of a Rubens work of which the drawing reproduction on the grid of the canvass will bring other dynamics and energies while offering a depth of meaning and additional interpretation.

 The second step is the graphic appropriation. Pencil drawing of selected silhouettes. Pencil reproduction, in value and in small scale of the Rubens’ painting. Isolation of the structures with gouache on laser prints. The canvass is then colored with a semi-transparent paint and then the structures are drawn. The canvass is then coated in white - except for the parts corresponding to the metal structures that appear then preserved.

Other drawings of Rubens’ work


The third step is the first composition stage. It is carried out on a computer screen by juxtaposing the drawing of Rubens’ work on the drawn grid of metal structures. This allows for a precise adjustment of the two main dynamics in the painting. For composition 10 a layer has been added to this stage to incorporate a screen shot image showing a Wall Street trading room.
The fourth step is the first act of painting, which consists in transposing on the canvass itself the Rubens drawing from the layout that was established on the computer. At this stage, a new choice is made regarding the colour that will give the painting’s foundation.
The fifth step covers the second composition stage. On the computer, a photograph of the canvass in its state of progress allows for the positioning of the penciled silhouettes. It’s a long process of adjustment for each figure to find its size and exact position, given the fact of what is already laid out on the canvass. The outcome is a printed model in A4 paper format which will then be projected on the canvass to position each character.

Penciled silhouettes

Model Composition 12

The sixth and last step is the final completion of the painting, from the reproduced disposition on the canvass. The characters are first sketched with a semi-transparent red paint before they are painted. The painting of the whole canvass then resumes: work develops with the perpetual quest of finding balances, connections, lights and densities. The different elements of the composition intertwine; interpenetrate to open the viewer to a maze of possible readings and interpretations.