Incredible Lightness of Stevovich
''I consider myself an abstract artist,'' Andrew Stevovich says in the catalog of his current retrospective at the Danforth Museum. Viewers standing in front of his paintings, which clearly depict people placing bets at the racetrack or zoned out on a subway ride, may be puzzled to hear this. But then,Stevovich considers Giotto an abstract painter, too. A painting succeeds or fails on the basis of its structure, not its subject, runs this argument, which Stevovich isn't the first figurative painter to make.
The Austrian-born artist who studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Massachusetts College of Art, and has been based in Boston since 1970, cites affinities with predecessors more recent than Giotto, including Gauguin. You can see Balthus in the slipperiness of Stevovich's figures, and even Alex Katz in the insistent flatness and seamless brushwork. Stevovich's fascination with glass and reflections harks back to Netherlandish painting. But the association with Giotto and other early Italians - whose work Stevovich learned to love as a child growing up in Washington, D.C., spending time at the National Gallery - is strongest.
The superficial similarities of Stevovich's paintings with those of masters nearly 700 years older include tapered, boneless fingers that can grasp objects with no apparent muscular effort; elongated eyes narrowed to slits; a voluptuous palette of blues and greens breathlessly balanced with golds and reds; and figures that seem weightless, even buoyant. The blond Brunhilde starring in Stevovich's 1981 ''Fallen Diva'' is balloonlike: You can't tell whether the four men surrounding her are holding her up or down; they're certainly not straining.
Look closely at the hair in a Stevovich and you'll see that it falls in tiny ridges of paint, a textural detail akin to the embossed halos in Renaissance paintings of saints. But the similarities go deeper. Like painters at the rebirth of humanism, Stevovich zeroes in on intense interactions among people. He may be showing three butchers contemplating steaks, but they have the momentous solemnity of the Three Kings come to worship the Christ child. And Stevovich's people purchasing movie tickets maintain the quiet composure of people at prayer. Quiet is key. Few folks are freaking out in early Renaissance painting, even in depictions of earth-shattering events. They absorb rather than vent, as the characters in Stevovich's paintings do, too. No one at that racetrack is screaming.
The Danforth retrospective, ''Andrew Stevovich: Twenty Years of Paintings, Drawings and Prints,'' actually includes 30 years of work: The artist couldn't resist last-minute additions to this exhibition, which is his first major Boston-area show in two decades. While covering a large chunk of time, it ends up demonstrating a dogged consistency. Stevovich's evolution is, to the casual observer, infinitesimal. You have to pay attention to note that his paintings, tiny to over-the-sofa in scale, have gotten smoother and simpler; the shadows have all but disappeared; the details have been edited out. This all accentuates the sense of remove, of heightened, otherworldly paces - the same effect those early Italians got with gold backgrounds.
There's a Hopper-esque nocturnal loneliness in Stevovich's 1976 'Neon Night No. 1,'' a small painting of a bare-breasted woman sitting propped up in bed, reflections from a flashing sign outside her window outlining her body. Later paintings lean toward the metaphorical. The figure in the large 1994 ''Woman With Autumn Leaves,'' which is the image on the catalog cover and the centerpiece of the show, is also alone - except for a dog, the traditional personification of fidelity. The woman sleeps on a sea of crisply outlined autumn leaves; the dog is awake and vigilant. The 1996 ''Woman With Bird'' is more than someone going nose to nose with a feathered friend; the 5 /2-inch-high painting evokes that creature's age-old role as stand-in for the human soul.
Stevovich's settings are theatrical, framing the story. The heap metal verticals that divide betting windows at the track serve the same function as the columns in a 14th-century painting of a loggia: They organize the action, and give it visual rhythm.