The Dispassionate Perfectionist

James Gardner, The New York Sun, October 18, 2007


The art of Andrew Stevovich is charming, though the means by which he achieves that charm are hard to fathom. Mr. Stevovich is an extremely precise delineator of reality, yet he is not a realist. Though there is an almost cartoonish abstractness to the features of the figures he portrays, they have a resonance and a seriousness that rise above that genre. And though both of these preoccupations — his enameled precision and his cartoonish abstraction — are usually antagonistic to the ambitions of pure, painterly form, Mr. Stevovich's works are filled with all kinds of visual felicity that we traditionally associate with abstract painters or artists practicing a more fastidious brand of realism.


The most immediate satisfaction of these works is the brittle, porcelaneous perfection of their surfaces. They seem to have been confected out of spun sugar that has been laid, with cool, otherworldly dispassion, across their infallibly smooth and flattened surfaces. There is no seepage of one chromatic zone into another, of one figure into another, or of one eyelash into another.


The quest for dispassion, which appears to be this artist's paramount ambition, is attained through a variety of means, perhaps most compellingly through his chromatic choices. For all their planar integrity, these fields of color have the hesitant air of halftones. There is rarely if ever anything as full-bodied as an outright red, to say nothing of yellow or blue. Rather, a painting such as "Woman About to Paint Pears" (2005) offers us a milky, grayish blue in the sky out the window. A rusty red accounts for the woman's shirt, while varying shades of mustard make up the pears, the paint bowl, and the table upon which both of them lie. Meanwhile, the walls and the easel are rendered in two tones of greenish gray, veering toward beige and off-white.


Those walls underscore a second strategy of dispassion. They approach the status of a crisply geometric grid that is punctiliously anti-naturalist. They give the lie to the curving shapes that are superimposed across them, like the woman and her pears, and are themselves subverted by those curves.


Another avenue of dispassion is the accumulation of details that manage to be winsome, without ever yielding any information worth having about the subjects they presume to define. For all the precision with which they are rendered, leaves, fingernails, and nostrils withhold by design the specificity that details are supposed to provide, and that these seem at first to promise. Such details never vary from one painting to the next, or from one application to the next within a given work.


Finally there are the subjects of the paintings. Most are informed by an unearthly stillness. A woman paints, a couple embraces, a lady sits on a bar stool. Sometimes there is an expression of energetic action, especially in one scene of a brawl, "Four Men Fighting," in which well-dressed men in 1930s attire clash with knives and golf clubs. But even here, the stillness of the movements is meant to undermine the paintings' superficial claims to action, in the process reinforcing the coolness of the artist's preferred idiom.


As though in keeping with the closed and secretive nature of his art, the catalogue to this exhibition yields up few secrets regarding Mr. Stevovich other than that he is 59 years old, was born in Salzburg, and received his BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and his MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.


Most of the nearly 40 paintings and drawings in the show were executed over the last three years, and so they give no clue as to the artist's evolution. There are, however, three slightly earlier watercolors, located upstairs and toward the back of the gallery, that are rather illuminating. They offer the same figural types as the later works, with their broad faces — as if pulled sideways — and their sloe-eyes. But they lack that enameled polish that so defines the majority of the works of the last few years. This suggests that the style we find in Mr. Stevovich's work today is a rather new development, remarkably so for someone who is fast approaching 60.


The overriding achievement of Mr. Stevovich's work, then, is the creation of pictorial idiom, especially an idiom for the depiction of the human form, that is programmatically dispassionate as well as unique to this artist. In that regard, Mr. Stevovich recalls such earlier painters as Ferdinand Léger and Marie Laurencin.


What limits his work is an undercurrent of unearned cynicism, a modish irony that is presented as a given, but that has little to teach us and that seems ultimately gratuitous. There are formal implications, as well, for this deficit. The elegant forms arrayed across his canvases seem to grasp at some meaning, some consequence, that they never quite attain. But then, as pure paintings, they may not need to provide anything beyond themselves.