Steve Wasterval isn’t from here, but you may be led to believe otherwise given the authenticity and love behind each of his New York paintings. In a culture where the definition of art can often seem haughty, where the medium itself is ever-shifting, there is something beautifully traditional and startlingly contemporary about Steve’s acrylic paintings: They simultaneously represent impressionism from the days of yore while also reflecting the evolving city he adores and inhabits. Steve is participating in Greenpoint Open Studios June 2–3, so if you long to see his paintings in person after reading his interview, you’ll soon have the chance!
Greenpointers: On your site you say you make art for “real” New Yorkers. Are you a real New Yorker?
Steve Wasterval: I do say that — and no I am not. Unfortunately, I’m from Texas so I am one of those people that moved from the south or midwest and are forever trying to earn our local status. My wife is from here though, and so is her family (her grandparents were born and raised in Greenpoint on Berry Street) so I’d like to think I’m native by marriage. Plus nobody can top me when it comes to love for the city! You may think you love her more cause you’re a Yankees fan, or know where to get the best slice or whatever, but I paint her everyday. She’s all mine in that way, no one loves her the way I do.
GP: How long have you been in Brooklyn?
SW: Long enough to remember my rent being reasonable! Let’s put it this way — I got my studio on Greenpoint Avenue just after Paulie Gee’s opened up across the street and a few years before Franklin was boutiques and brunch spots. I’m definitely not a pioneer but even back then the only way I could get friends to come out was to host poker games (which I still do sometimes).
GP: What do you think about all the changes in the neighborhood?
SW: I know I’m supposed to hate gentrification, but I paint what I see and so I appreciate a changing landscape, for better or worse. I also not-so-secretly hope that when the original buildings inevitably get knocked down my paintings of them will become valuable relics. Also, most of what I love about New York is that she is always changing; things that don’t change stop being interesting. So even if I don’t like the new Starbucks across from Five Leaves, its just part of the deal. And no matter how many new condos get thrown up there will always be some original architecture that gets preserved. I like the weird mix of old and new together; it makes a good subject. Having said all that I will now complain about how freakin tall the new shiny waterfront condos are. Stop forcing me to look at you!
GP: How is your art about New York other than it being your subject matter?
SW: I was trained in Russian impressionist landscape painting and taught to paint things the way they feel, not how they look. So that “energy” everyone talks about in New York, I try to paint that way: fast, messy, and expressive. I want any scene I paint to feel like New York even if the iconic clues aren’t obvious. While French impressionism is pretty and pastel, Russian impressionism is harder and edgier, which was a springboard to what I do now and call American or New York impressionism: messy, vibrant, arrogant, gestural, naive, and gritty. When I say my art is for “real New Yorkers” I mean it’s for real people that love their city and the art of it. Not snobby collectors or people that turn their nose up at acrylic paints or want to know what school I went to. I paint for people who get excited when they recognize their street, the buildings, a specific graffiti artist’s tag or even something Innocuous like a “Post no Bills” stencil or G Train sign.
GP: So you consider yourself a traditional painter? What do you think of modern painting as a medium today?
SW: Art has gotten so conceptual and abstract that I feel like being a traditional painter is the new avant-garde. The most modern I get is that I love love love graffiti and street art as a subject. For my pieces I like to choose buildings and streets that have been enhanced by other artists, usually illegal, handwriting and artwork because that’s what makes New York New York, one big collaborative canvas with dirty, colorful fingerprints everywhere — it’s all beautiful. Sure there is graffiti in other cities but it’s evolved here, it’s not just angry now, it’s also got artistic chops too. New York does everything the best.
GP: Since your a fan of graffiti, have you tried your hand with spray cans?
SW: Those guys and gals are so talented with the cans that I will leave it up to them and continue to be inspired by it, admire it, and paint it, but I do have my own traditional painter version of public art. I make my impressionist paintings on tiny little canvases and leave them around the neighborhood for Greenpointers to go and find. I post where I hide it on instagram so my followers can go look for them and if they’re lucky scoop up a piece. So if anyone reading wants a chance to snag one, follow me @stevewasterval — I also post them under the hashtag #greenpointismygallery cause it is. My art isn’t just of the city, it’s in it! That’s my contribution to the outdoor art gallery called New York City.