In a Station of the Metro
There are people—there are always people—in Andrew Stevovich’s paintings and they all pose a question, a question that’s often a riddle. Who are these men and women? What are they up to, and what exactly is going on?
Here is an artist who sets the table, puts into play with remarkable polish the situations and players of his unique dreamscapes. We find ourselves at a carnival, a nightclub, a race track, a card game, a movie theater, a coffeehouse, or we come upon a woman alone with a butterfly, a tulip, a cat, or a drink. We arrive at some unknown chapter in their stories as witnesses, if not voyeurs, and are tugged upon to join these specimens in their strangely sealed worlds.
Reaction to Andrew Stevovich’s work is seldom mild, and often fierce. He is not for everyone. Once lured, however, it’s difficult to take your eyes off his people, their worlds, the painterly surfaces and the spell that he casts over them. His paintings are full of windows and glass, shades and screens that accent only further that these men and women, and we with them, have been apprehended in this artist’s poetic and particular dioramas.
The sidelong looks of the almond-shaped eyes of his people have become fabled—the furtive glances that Carol Diehl refers to in her trenchant essay. The faces hold a stylized host of feelings. In them can be reflection or worry, fear or caution, suspicion or boredom, anger or what sometimes seems to mock the very possibility of nothing at all; or rather, not nothing, but some further closely held, cloaked emotion. Their very faces seem another veil or screen to successfully hide behind.
These faces are seldom without the company of their hands—hands that have such prominence that they become beings of their own. They can be languid and cumbrous, or they can be busy and extremely specific in the gestures they make—whether smoking a cigarette, rubbing a chin, sneaking into a pocket, or touching another’s cheek. Inanimate or animate, they perform an accompanying ballet and manifest the personalities of the faces they belong to.
All this occurs as Stevovich’s people wait in these scenes for what is about to happen—or has just happened, or might have happened, or should have happened—in the ordinary places of our days and the darker dens of our nights. They wait, along with us, suspended in these charged instants.
The influences and antecedents upon Andrew Stevovich’s work have been well charted by critics and by himself from Giotto to Gauguin, Botticelli to Beckmann. Carol Diehl and Anita Shreve offer others, and there are more to be wondered at in their play with abstraction, like Stuart Davis or even Patrick Henry Bruce. While clearly aware of such a laundry list, Stevovich most of all—and most pleasingly of all—is staking out and charting very much his own territory.
He reaches beyond his people into his successful fusion of the classicism of the Flemish and Italian Renaissance painters to his contemporary subject matter. In the richness of his palette and the sheen of his canvass, Stevovich lifts his human creatures out of their frozen moments and gifts them with a remarkable glow. His paintings carry an inner light.
It’s easy with the incandescent finish of Stevovich’s paintings and the gravity of his work to neglect the humor and what one critic described as the “delectable sense of visual wit,” that rides along with astonishing confluence in the paintings. There’s a deadpan tweak to his world, a sly emotional crackle. Just an example—consider the advertisements and posters that populate his work: how often they have people portrayed in them; how often these faces seem larger and livelier than the “real” faces in front of them; how these faces can dominate those “real” faces with their alluring edge and beckoning visions, both ordinary and mythic.
The degree of darkness or irony in Stevovich’s wit is difficult to decipher exactly, perhaps intentionally so, but it calls up mention of a wide range of literary bedfellows. They range from Carl Jung to the cartoonist Peter Arno. Nabokov has been invoked; the Canadian author Robertson Davies should be. Kafka lies in wait, and perhaps most on point in tone and tilt would be Gogol.
It’s this combination of “old-master formality and the ironies of the present tense” that mark and complete the true originality of his vision.
A sense of “theater” comes easily in relationship to Stevovich’s paintings because they carry such narrative weight. He is a storyteller, and the frozen moments he seizes upon could be frames of film while giving hint, like Edward Hopper’s paintings “at a larger drama beyond the limitations of the picture’s frame.” (Gail Levin) Call up a screenplay description—wide shot, two-shot and close-up—it suits Stevovich’s work, and he finds and fits the drama to the size and scope of them.
Wide shot? Paint a subway—he’s taken it on several times, getting on, getting off, riding one. Crowd scenes, jams of people. The most ambitious, Local/Switch, is an intricate, dense cram of enduring passengers, both real and surreal. Where is the drama? It’s in their composure and their clothes and hats, in the very composition itself. The painting lifts out of the most mundane and everyday an intricate, dense, and beautiful radiance.
Close up? Paint a woman, a woman alone—Stevovich’s done it many times. Pick Flora as an example: the spare presence of objects, such caring and lapidary attention to a certain few details—the wave of her hair, the single flower, the stillness of her glass, the jewel of a reflection in it. In the perfection and luminous finish around her gathers a beauty, but the beauty is mysterious; it seems as much camouflage as revelation. Looking at Flora—or Lola or Nadine or the many women without names—she and they seem so clean and fresh. A number are recumbent, quietly erotic, lying with grapes or amongst leaves. It makes you want to sit or lie or go with them. It makes you wish life was like that, but why then is Flora, for example, so pained? Or is she? Is she?
The questions that haunt Andrew Stevovich’s paintings rise again along with the riddles, and the elusive glimpses of an answer. What is the story? Who are these people? Deny it, fight it, or embrace it—they are a piece of us.