Outside, Inside, Future, Then, and Now
Andrew Stevovich: The Truth about Lola,” is a time/space warping experience organized by the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, N.Y. On view now at HRM, then traveling to the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Fla. this spring, it is an intriguing exhibition of complex oil paintings, prints, pastels, and working drawings that play on the ambiguity of space (and by implication, time) and on our recognition of life encounters and visual/sensory associations. It is also the first major museum show devoted to the glittering themes of café society.
Stevovich shows us an alternate universe, or perhaps our own three-dimensional universe, but flattened and stretched by funhouse mirrors. He is a contemporary painter of stylized figures existing in a clearly secular space while evoking religious Renaissance scenes. The abstractions of his formal structures interpenetrate the narratives and psychological issues of his figures. The artist stands with one foot in early Italian traditions and his other foot solidly in today’s fast-paced, alienated, superficial society as it portends serious consequences for our accelerating future.
Born in Austria in 1948, Stevovich grew up in Washington, D.C., spending hours studying the intense, pure colors of Old Master paintings and their formal repetitions of line, shape and form. His work pulsates with substrata rhythms and syncopations while featuring bold, flat colors and keen attention to detail on his highly polished surfaces. His hidden geometries recall the Dutch architect and furniture designer Gerrit Thomas Rietveld and the De Stijl movement that was active during the early twentieth century. Stevovich bolsters the “push/pull” architecture of his compositions with subtle “negative space” images; he carefully articulates dense crowd scenes that branch off to appear either inside or outside an area, while human limbs transition into and out of spaces. And he loves to play with scale to further complicate the whole!
The artist’s innate design sense was nurtured during undergraduate work at the Rhode Island School of Design and when earning his master’s degree in fine arts from Massachusetts College of Art. Recent solo and group exhibitions include the Danforth Museum of Art, New Britain Museum of Art and the Portland Museum of Art. Stevovich’s work is in the permanent collections of the Addison Gallery of American Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
When the show’s curator, Bartholomew F. Bland, curator of exhibitions for HRM, questioned the artist about his painting process, Stevovich said, “I work backwards. First I draw the faces and foreground objects, rather than beginning in the more traditional way by blocking colors.” He went on to describe how he maintains the luminosity of his colors that are reminiscent of those in Renaissance paintings, “I don’t do any underpainting and I try to keep the canvas as white and pure as possible.”
Andrew Stevovich studies people who visit cafes, nightclubs, the cinema, carnivals, fortune tellers, and gaming halls in formal dress. Most figures are “alone in a crowd,” a few are coupled, where one may solicitously caress the other, or they are glowering with thinly masked hostility. In the catalogue essay, Bland tells us that “Chez Lou Lou” is an excellent example of Stevovich’s inspiration from classic Italian painting. The nightclub booths designed for the diners’ pleasure resemble pew boxes and the gloved waiter takes on the role of the priest performing the sacred ritual of presenting the wine.” Only here the wine is a cocktail, the pews are impossibly narrow, and the dark isolated figures in the background hint at the confessional. Perhaps these and the entrapping bars everywhere that one looks account for such solemn faces.
Stevovich had planned to study filmmaking when he was an undergraduate at RISD. Though he eventually opted for a career in fine art, his interest in entertainment and film posters continues to inform his subject matter. “French Singer” makes the tension of theatrical anticipation palpable; will the fetching allure promised in the posters actualize or not? Ambiguity rules! The faces of the three male patrons (voyeurs?) are enigmatic. The prim and apprehensive looking ticket seller and the woman behind her provide effective antitoxins to the bare shouldered siren posters in triplicate.
Most compositions by Stevovich are crammed with crowds, but occasionally he paints a woman drinking alone, a close-up of a lone-woman-as-survivor. In “Eliza with Saigon Martini,” we see a woman whose one hand holds a cocktail that has been virtually absorbed into her low décolletage, while the other hand holds up a cigarette in a questioning gesture; the cigarette’s shape echoes the glass stem and stirrer. Who is she questioning? The painting’s warm neutral palette is accented only by the soft pink of the object in her glass, her fingernails and lips, and by the intensely red, oversized tray for ashes below her heart.
Stevovich often uses the formalism of playing cards – their repeated, constant size and alternating colors and significant shapes and patterns – to punctuate and to establish rhythms. The faces of the cards also provide symbols associated with chance and fate. Of all his card paintings, “Twenty-One” is the largest and most complex. It is symmetrically balanced with the isolated dealer (the pyramid shaped female) in the center and lateral groups of six “supporting” figures on each side. The two end figures are shown in profile, while the woman to the dealer’s far right appears uneasy as she protectively covers three stacks of brightly colored chips. The other players’ eyes dart suspiciously around the table. Cards are placed in a circular arrangement, each pointing to one of the surrounding players with the Ace of Spades dead center, in line with the dealer. In Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” the popular interpretation presumes that the Savior has just spoken the fateful words, “One of you shall betray me,” and the disciples seem to be asking “Lord, is it I?” The eyes and gestures of these suspicious card players seem to be saying “Is it you?” in a major moral societal shift. Be sure to also check out the abstract patterns on the wallpaper.
While bright stripes dominate and demand our attention in “Circus Wheel,” curiously, none of the actors come even close to looking at this “Wheel of Fate.” The commanding female on our right, so reminiscent of the central figure in “Twenty-One” (though off-side here and with pointed diamonds on her shirt), has her back to the wheel and to “fortune,” though still seeming to control the play… in her own way. She is compositionally balanced by the tentative-looking couple on our left. The young man is passionately searching for response in his partner’s face while her focus is intent on removing bills from his wallet. The elegant wheel is a target; it’s a wheel with lots of points, card suit symbols and disembodied heads. If you follow the suits around the wheel, you will discover that the missing heart symbol is covered just where the man’s own heart should be. Could that wheel be a metaphoric halo for our vulnerable young man?
Bart Bland’s essay tells that” Andrew Stevovich’s best work is filled with unique signifiers that are truthful contrasts to reflect human nature… his paintings are perfectly balanced in numerous ways, using geometry and perfection of detail to contain the messiness of the subject matter: the pleasures and sorrows of daily living.” With impossible physical and psychic spaces and quantum time leaps through history, Stevovich’s art holds a critical funhouse mirror up to humanity and to our foibles.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fine catalogue with the curator’s essay. After leaving the NY venue, “Andrew Stevovich: The Truth About Lola” travels to the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Florida, where it will intrigue you from March 17- May 31, 2009.
Artist and educator Adrienne Garnett has long contributed reviews to Art of the Times.