To view Ilgvars Steins’ work is to take a journey into a parallel universe. His exhibition at Arts Underground ranges from whimsy to tragedy, through fantastical compositions of line and colour.

Realism to Surrealism provides not only a glimpse into Steins’ extraordinary mind, but also a curious alternative view of the world as we know it.

The exhibition was curated by Steins’ son and artist John, and is a small sample of Ilgvars’ more than 50 years of artistic practice. The works are primarily small to mid-sized drawings, illustrations and mixed media paintings dating from his earliest days as a student to his most recent years in Dawson, 2008 and beyond.

Looking at the realism, Steins is indeed a master of his craft. His works are exquisite in their perfection and their attention to form. Each work is flawless and his small recent works are like colourful, opulent jewels.

As for the surrealism, these jewels are not your grandma’s still life canvases. There are several small, snapshot-style paintings in his recent work. They are not mere scenes of the everyday, but ponderings on a parallel surreal world.

In this world, Soup du Jour is a soup bowl with a green hand floating in it.Ubiquity is a perfect purple boot with fat worms crawling in and out of it. Fish in a Hat is a splendid fish nestled alongside a marching band-style hat, looking as if it has just slid out of the water, left gasping and gurgling for its hat.

A number of the works in Realism to Surrealismspan a period of approximately 20 years and explore human archetypes and emotions.

Among these is the Warrior(1998), a portrait of a face cleft open by sorrow.Suspicion (2002) is a face completely obscured, save for the barest hint of human features.

These portraits are not pleasing or flattering, but are grim, complex and fanciful all at once. At the same time, they are rendered in Steins’ steady hand and playful colours, without judgment.

One of his notable earlier portraits is The Wrestler (1985). It shows a grotesque and ugly man who has evidently undertaken many years of vocational violence.

The man’s distorted face is monochrome, but wears a muzzle of red that could be many things: the stain of blood, the mask of self-hatred, the gorge through which we see the wrestler’s true self.

The portraits progress into a series of small character studies: The Taster, The Simpleton, The Imbecile, and The Jester all date from Steins’ time in Dawson.

Several are alien-like faces, stripped of their most endearing human features. Instead, they are richly layered with colours and textures that resemble geological formation, as if exploring the complex substrata of humanity.

As for sources, Steins is an intellectual whose works abound with classical and literary references (The Phoenix from 1970 and Icarus from 1995 are two examples).

Among the most striking of these works is the Homunkulus (1995). It is hung in the gallery surrounded by meticulous works, and it is the only one that reveals any of the physical process that went into its creation.

The painting has not been matted; it displays the raw edges of the painting surface; there are visible smudges and notations.

This subtle revelation of the process seems apt. The homunculus, or little human, is a symbol used in many contexts throughout history.

In some narratives, the homunculus is born of alchemy, or transformation. In other accounts, it is the essence of a human form, a tiny, fully-formed human that must be nurtured into the full-sized human.

Steins was born in Riga, Latvia in 1925 and graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1959. He held many day jobs, notable among them as a botanical illustrator for Agriculture Canada. Though not exhibited here, the precise, animated style of botanical illustrations has clearly carried over into his own art practice.

Steins’ style is formal, but spirited. Visual caricatures proliferate: a boot is more than just a boot, a fish is more fishy than one could ever hope for.

Visiting Steins’ world is like a trip to the carnival. Colours are intense, lines are warped like a fun house mirror, and the seamy underbelly of the world is revealed.

This exhibit is not for the faint of heart. Steins is able and willing to visit murky places in the human psyche, and his each of his works urges us to go there too.