Eva Steil’s riveting self portraits and the stories they could tell at Blackbird Studios

Gaga for Pandora”
Photo: Eva Steil

The Details

Babylon Sisters
April 6 (First Friday), 6-10 p.m.; or by appointment, Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Blackbird Studios, 782-0319

Eva Steil wears a shower curtain fitted tightly around her torso and flowing like a gown off the chair on which she poses. Callous, seductive and haughty, she holds in her hand a shutter release and offers a look that says she could have you any way she wants.

 "Guinivere's Arrival"

"Guinivere's Arrival"

She is, after all, “Queen of All the Tarts,” according to the title of the photograph featured in Babylon Sisters, her solo exhibit at Blackbird Studios. And then she’s “Gold Dust Woman” and “A Woman Who has Never, Never, Never Been Born,” and the Argentinean seductress Evita.

"Still Moving, Patti Smith, and Robert Mapplethorpe"

"Still Moving, Patti Smith, and Robert Mapplethorpe"

The exhibit of Steil’s self-portraits is the first display of her work in years and offers a generous peek into the inventive and experimental mind of the artist who’s been photographing herself for nearly three decades, often in brazen postures and poses.

She’s guided, she says, by personal luminaries—Robert Mapplethorpe, Aubrey Beardsley and Frida Kahlo. And if you imagined an afternoon of listening to The Velvet Underground while picking through a box of vintage photos after attending a haute couture fashion show, this is what might transpire.

The images in Babylon Sisters appear antiquated, a collection found in an old attic, perhaps, but they were created last year using a 35 mm camera with a shutter release on a 25-foot cord and cross processing that creates incidental hues and lighting effects, giving the photographs their aged look. Occasionally, her face is blurry or washed out from overexposure, adding to the already edgy sentiment.

For the myriad costumes, Steil holds fabric (and shower curtains) to her body in rehearsed poses under the lights so they mimic high-end gowns of her imagination.

Her portraits have her wrapped in fur like royalty, standing stoically and looking shrewd in one photo, and wearing a messy blonde wig, black brassiere and plastic in another. The poses’ titles, often song lyrics, come later.

Steil moved to Las Vegas in 1969 at the age of 10 and was part of the bohemian Enigma Garden Café scene.

Inspired by the costumes and hair in Beardsley’s black-and-white illustrations and fueled by the photography in Interview magazine, Steil ventured into portraiture, following Kahlo’s lead by using herself as the subject.

Her schizophrenia causes voices in her head (including Mapplethorpe’s), but most of the time, she says, they’re giving her creative advice.

“The doctors ask, ‘Are your voices telling you to hurt yourself?’ I say, ‘No, they’re telling me to wear this wig.’”

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Kristen Peterson

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