Preface to the Plates
Occasionally, an artist’s subject matter, technique and execution coincide with the cultural life of a given period. Such an event is occurring with Andrew Stevovich, master of wit, half-stories, pure line, daring color, and flawless finishes. To view one of his canvases is to feel as though one has just had an apple martini at the King Cole Bar, or read a Jonathan Safran Foer novel, or glimpsed on the street an enigmatic brunette in red lipstick and matching leather gloves take the hand of a bumbling European man for whom we might have fond feelings. Though Stevovich has been showing his work for three and a half decades, his representational/ abstract canvases have always seemed ahead of his time, out-of-sync, cutting-edge. In a way that defies articulation yet winks at the viewer, Stevovich’s flat faces, smooth surfaces, and rich color make his works seem so “of the moment” that one wants to tell someone about these paintings in the same way that the discovery of a new important voice in literature will spread by word of mouth.
This sumptuous volume of Stevovich’s collected work includes some 166 oils and pastels spanning more than thirty years, giving a remarkable opportunity to discover/rediscover this unique painter. A deliciously weird symbiosis of Giotto and Seurat, of Fra Angelico and Gauguin, Stevovich defies easy description. One notes that every single image has a person in it, that each depicts a moment in the middle of a story without revealing either the beginning or the end, and that the odd juxtaposition of wry humor and exacting discipline sets up a note, like that from a tuning fork, that quivers in the air and sets our imagination humming. Questions arise, riddles confound, and themes begin to reveal themselves. A substantial narrative force emerges. We understand the paintings in glimpses, we’ve experienced similar feelings fifty times over, and yet when we try to articulate these narratives, we still can’t say precisely what the whole story is about. We almost get it, but not quite, and it is this tension that makes us able to view a Stevovich over and over again without ever tiring of the work.
Stevovich is on record as saying he wishes to leave the interpretation of any given painting to the observer. But we know, from looking at the work as a whole, that he is fascinated by the psychology of composition. Stevovich shifts and reshifts his figures until he feels that the psychology of the under-story is just right. Forget perspective and vanishing points. We know we’re not in the world as we see it every day. Rather, his work suggests a dreamlike quality in which one color asks for another and produces an excitement that in turn hints at narrative. The titles alone invite us to speculate: The Truth about Lola, One-Shot Jimmie’s, Tina and the Muscle Man, Nadine with Espresso, Hector Asleep, Handsome Eddie. The men are bumbling. The women are wary. In at the Track, the sheer number of faces combined with the mad mix of subtle color leaves the viewer breathless. There are at least thirty stories going on in this picture, caught at a single moment in time during which we feel we must somehow understand them all. While we are aware that there is an event taking place offstage (presumably a horse race), the eye is searching among the tickets and the striped suits and cigars for clues to possible intimate dynamics. The painting is neither realistic (real people at the races don’t all look as though they might be related) nor abstract (there are, after all, faces, clothes, hats, eyes, and anecdotes depicted here). One senses that a single jot more toward either the representational or the abstract would completely destroy the painting’s balance.
Stevovich’s paintings tend to fall into one of several categories, among them the group painting, such as Local/Switch (Pg. 3); the film noir-like woman and man series; and the woman-in-contemplation paintings. The “single-woman-in-contemplation” theme has produced some of Stevovich’s best works. In Nadine with Espresso (Pg. 65), the woman standing with her arm resting on a bar with a cup of espresso has an almost masculine posture. One thinks, in quick succession: city, European, time-out from her job. Perhaps she is looking at the espresso machine (out of the frame) or maybe at another patron at the café. We sense, however, that she is not waiting for anyone, that she is entirely complete, despite her slightly assertive posture. We want to know what has made her so sure of herself. We begin to invent. Is she a regular? Why the blunt haircut and the hand on the hip? Who is Nadine, and what does she want? Satisfaction? A lover? Nothing at all?
Such eerie self-possession also pervades the magnificent Woman with Small Watercolor of a Tulip (Pg. 70). Like the artist’s “fallen diva” paintings of the past, the outsized Amazonian woman—yet utterly placid and defenseless, even maternal—is lying on her side, in this case with a small watercolor beside her. She is a large shape with a tiny object, and one cannot help thinking of mother and infant. There is humor here and lassitude. But how do humor, lassitude, and a maternal giantess make a story? These are components we are not used to either in real life or fiction, and yet we know there is a story here. This dissonance between the sense that a tale is being depicted and our inability completely to grasp it creates an edginess that rattles us and keeps us guessing.
A third “contemplative-woman” painting that intrigues is Woman with Grapes (Pg. 69). A blonde stands before a background of grapes, her hands in front of her, her eyes cast upward. It is difficult not to want to see this as a reinterpretation of a religious painting—a saint (in a polka-dot shirt, no less), her eyes cast Heavenward, her hands in a distinct attitude of prayer. The lush backdrop of purple grapes and green leaves says “Eve” to us, and we imagine the woman pleading with the powers-that-be not to cast her out of her particular Garden of Eden. Is that correct? Or has she merely stepped out of her house into her own lush garden to admire nature’s bounty? Is she practicing for a reconciliation scene with her lover later in the day? The possibilities seem endless.
Another favorite grouping of mine is the noirish man-with-woman-in-bed paintings. Morning in Watertown (Pg. 63), is a particular favorite, Hopperesque in tone and in its stark street scene just outside the window. A woman lies sleeping in bed. A strap hangs from her shoulder, suggesting a sexual episode. A man, sitting with his back to us at the far edge of the bed, gazes out the window and looks rather miserable. He is, we think, invaded by angst. Perhaps, looking at the dismal view beyond the room, he is reminded of the real world that he must shortly reenter. The woman, however, is clearly at peace. The odd dissonance between the utter contentment of the woman and the man’s despair suggest separate narratives bordering on alienation.
The astonishing One-Shot Jimmie’s (Pg.25), a feast of color, shapes, and amusement. A central grouping of two women and a man sitting around a table with drinks echoes a second grouping of two men and a woman in the background. On the wall are a few of Stevovich’s trademark posters, this time of prizefights and boxers. But what of the central three—the man with the cigarette, the blonde in red, and the raven-haired Madonna-esque figure in blue? What is their story? The man and the woman in blue seated directly across from him appear to be locked in on each other, while the woman in red, drinking straw to her lips, looks vaguely in the viewer’s direction. What is she thinking? Has her husband developed a sudden eye for her best friend? Is this an old threesome with a long history? Or is this simply a lonely man buying drinks for two women, trying his luck with first one and then the other? We can look, and then look again, and then come back a week later and look again, and still we may never know. We could place ten different viewers in front of the painting, and almost certainly we would end up with ten different narratives.
Stevovich’s paintings are endlessly riveting, inviting, and ensnaring. It is as though we are engaged in an interactive struggle. Can we understand only what we know of our own lives? Or can we expand our personal narratives to embrace the edgy centers of stories that may have not-so-sweet endings? Or no endings at all? Stevovich’s work awakens in us a particular tonality that seems much in keeping with contemporary life, whether it be one of alienation mixed with fondness, the slightly comic antics of bumbling men and women, or the sense of living in a cocoon within a crowd. The artist is a profound humanist who not only loves the figure but sees us for the insecure, funny, and thoroughly mysterious people we are. In doing so, he dazzles us with color that illuminates with a light glowing from within.