“I’m schizophrenic,” artist Eva Steil tells me a few minutes after we meet. She doesn’t admit it, or confess it, or offer it with the slightest coloring of apology or concern for how I’ll react. (I don’t; I’d already heard.) She simply says it, upfront and as black-and-white as the film she uses.
There’s backstory here, a 1989 crack-up, hospitalization and bleak years — “talking to the radio, thinking the TV’s talking to you” — but this isn’t about that. This is about what she’s made of her condition since she got it under control, which is to say, this is about art.
Her studio is a small bedroom in her mid-valley home. The walls and floor are black, and we’re sitting on furniture she has to move out when creating projects like Babylon Sisters, which hung recently in her space at Blackbird Studios. Photos from that series, as well as another she’s completing — The Body of Work of Aubrey Beardsley (look for it in September, also at Blackbird) — are posted in a corner.
Steil’s images are a bracing, original mix of self-portraiture, avant-garde fashion, role-playing and boho decadence. Using black-and-white film, she shoots herself wearing wigs and dada couture (a shower curtain bunched and draped to look like high fashion; shower sponges reconstituted into a costume), then has the film developed with color processing — which results in odd, colored effects. (“If you take it to CVS, you get greens and browns,” she says. “Walgreen’s gives you sepias.”) The photos have a mysterious, fin de siecle quality; murky in regard to time, they could be artifacts from underground Berlin in the ’20s, downtown New York in the ’70s or any vanguard scene flourishing today or flaring up tomorrow.
About the schizophrenia, let’s take Steil at face value. Let’s resist the urge to wonder if, as in her photos, she’s trying on personae for artistic effect. Let’s wonder, instead, what if she really does hear voices? What might that mean in artistic terms?
“My schizophrenia is working with people like [fashion impresario] Karl Lagerfeld — I know he doesn’t know me, but he suggests things to me about my costumes,” she says. (The crumpled shower curtain was his idea.) “So does [designer] Tom Ford. Robert Mapplethorpe has been with me for 20 years.” Other members of her chorus include Frida Kahlo and 19th-century illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. She doesn’t hear them as them — Lagerfeld doesn’t speak to her with his real-life accent. “I don’t see ghosts,” she says. “I just hear instructions. Schizophrenia is a lot of that — instruction.”
So whether she really is downloading Mapplethorpe, or whether what happened on Jan. 12, 1989 (“the day the madness stepped in”) simply assigned voices to the influences and creative intuition that all artists rely on — that stuff matters less than the fact that it seems to work for her, and for her art.
“My schizophrenia is not scaaary,” she drawls good-naturedly, as light streams through the window into the small, black room. “It’s very helpful.” SCOTT DICKENSHEETS