Despite the disarmingly waggish manner, when it comes to art, Alexey Steele is as serious as a heart attack. His website highartforever.com contains passionate rhetoric that reads like a love letter to art and artists, phrased in Alexey’s typical hyper-intelligent, well-read, fluent but slightly cracked, English. It is part revolutionary manifesto, part poem. And even though Classical Underground started as a deceptively casual affair, it is a serious part of Alexey’s vision for the future of art and his place in it.
The purity of art is important to Alexey, who grew up in the Soviet Union, where art has historically had a complicated relationship with the state. Whether tied into the promotion of the state like the work of Socialist Realist painter Boris Ioganson, or banned by the same state like the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Soviet art has always struggled to free itself from the giant shadow of the establishment. It makes sense that Alexey has chosen giant canvases and huge ideas that refuse containment and control.
To Alexey, Los Angeles is the Paris of the 21st century, an art frontier bubbling with new energy and fresh ideas. Undaunted by the crass commercial appeal associated with a city that gave us Angeline and Paris Hilton, Alexey sees only opportunity. “It is the power of bottom,” Alexey says, suggesting that there is nowhere to go but up.
In his view, contemporary art as an institution is living at the bottom. The grand experiment of Modernism has been reduced to ashes in its pursuit of art for commercial, political, decorative, even social ends; reduced by every reason other than art for its own sake. Not that he is against selling art; artists must eat. But an artist should eat to make art, not the other way around: “Everything else we do—beg, borrow, steal—is to do this.”
Alexey is committed to the idea of art as a “kitchen”—it is all about the process, the hustle and bustle, the mistakes and the triumphs. At a CU performance, musicians are made to feel free to try new variations, new arrangements, even new compositions, and each month is a completely different experience. The paintings that surround the space are haphazardly placed and hung about, often times unfinished—the cumulative effect is more like an antique shop than an exhibition space.
CU is not a polished, finished event by design. In that way, Alexey sees it as being counter-intuitive to the way we traditionally showcase art in our society—through government and commercial institutions like galleries, concert halls, and museums. Art at such exhibits is a finished product; the pieces on display are carefully chosen, the concertos faithfully rendered. Although Alexey will be first to acknowledge the importance of those establishments, he is thrilled that his underground can offer people more than the joy of a finished product—the thrill of process and experiment.