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Alexey Steele, Classical Underground impresario

Once a month, the painter transforms his Carson loft into a makeshift concert hall.

August 23, 2009|Scott Timberg

There are no tuxedos, no ushers, no raised stage here -- just a few thrift-store couches, some beach chairs, a table covered with half-eaten pies and bottles of wine and a dozen nudes and seascapes leaning against the walls. A few hundred people, gathered between the table and a piano, sip drinks and try not to bump into the sculpture of a goose: Russian models in strapless dresses mingle with elderly couples, and a baby, 4 months old, sits on her mother's lap at a wooden bar.

The intense and mustachioed Alexey Steele looks out over this motley crowd gathered in his Carson loft -- a high-ceilinged, concrete floor box squeezed between a cargo mover and a church -- and can't contain his excitement. "I am practicing art as an extreme sport!" he shouts, followed with a honking laugh that sounds like a throttled sea bird. Then he is off -- shouting exhortations at friends, hugging others, kissing still others on both cheeks -- before the concert starts.

Meeting Alexey Steele, 42, a passionate Soviet-born painter whose cavernous industrial space becomes an underground concert hall once a month, feels like being part of an elaborate performance art piece that could become a joke at any moment.

You half-expect the wild-haired Steele -- a cross between a classic Hollywood "mad Russian" and Borat in a fedora -- to drop the accent and turn out to be a guy from Des Moines. But he is very much for real, as is his Classical Underground chamber music series, which is developing a below-the-radar international following. The concerts offer chamber pieces -- piano sonatas, cello suites and so on -- in a very unfussy space full of true believers; it's part of the growing appearance of classical music in alternative spaces such as coffee shops, warehouses and clubs, as well as a reminder of L.A.'s long tradition of under-the-radar classical music.

The son of Socialist Realist painter Leonid Steele, he paints in an outsized Renaissance scale and burns brightly with the primal place of art. He grew up in the Soviet Union, and likens himself to a citizen of Atlantis, a nation that's sunken beneath the seas.

The place, though gone, profoundly shaped him. "In the West," he says, using a rusty knife to flip the cap off a beer bottle a few weeks before the concert, "art is a luxury. In Russia, it is a means of survival -- collective survival for everyone. Going back to the Middle Ages and the Tatars. Art carries the torch -- something that will not let the wind blow it down!"

He sees his series' roots in Paris' Belle Epoch as well as the artistic Happenings of the '60s and contemporary performance art. In some ways, though, they are as much throwbacks as Steele's paintings. The golden age of chamber music was in the late 18th and 19th centuries, when aristocrats would host private salons in their homes and invite guests to see four or five musicians address a Mozart or Schubert quartet. Steele is a kind of aristocrat in exile, and his gatherings even have the candles in common.

What's different, though, is that instead of being framed as an elite activity, Steele is using the language of bohemia: It's hard to imagine the host of a Haydn recital in a count's drawing room shouting out, as Steele does at the intermission: "Art is alive! It's heart and soul of life! Everything that is alive is underground!"

Art is his life

Immigrants have come to America to improve their material well-being for centuries now. But Steele credits his adopted home with something other than material prosperity. "The greatest thing America gave me," he says, "it showed me what absolute zero was."

That's in strong contrast to his early years, where he was the privileged son of a famous man. Born in Kiev in 1967, Steele attended the prestigious Surikov Art Institute of the Soviet Academy of Arts in Moscow.

Pianist Sviatoslav Richter once played in his living room. Sometimes, the family's prominence, and his father's stubbornness, led to less pleasant events: "At some point we had the local KGB office starting new investigation on my dad every six months. So that life of privilege was certainly of a very demanding kind."

Soon after graduating from the Surikov, he left Moscow on a trip with his parents to visit some cousins in California and Canada. Leonid was wearying of the tensions between his own individualism and his role as one of his homeland's official artists; 1990 was a tumultuous time in his native land, and both Alexey and his folks remained in the Southland.

Settling in America allowed the young man to step out from under his father's shadow, which he'd come to find oppressive. Here, he said, his surname gave him no head start. "The world I grew in, knew, loved, fought with was crumbling down right behind me. Now, that's an adventure, that's the ultimate test of what you're really made of." Soon after hitting bottom -- when he became disoriented and broke -- he realized that art was what mattered to him.

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