Andrew Stevovich: Solitary Demons

Andrew Stevovich: Solitary Demons
Adelson Galleries

That Andrew Stevovich describes himself as "an abstract painter" could come as a surprise, given how, to most others who see them, what initially stands out in his paintings is its pictorial nature and strong psychological content. Stevovich, however, looks at them simply as "compositions," and insists these evocative images exist to provide "a path into the painting itself" while his real preoccupation is with color, composition, form, and line. Although it's true that all good figurative painters must have at their core a strong sense of abstraction, most would not be so reluctant to acknowledge the impact of their subject matter. However the people Stevovich portrays also seem at odds with their emotional nature—they're going through the motions that constitute daily life, trying to fit into the pattern society has set for them, yet are not fully engaged and expressed.

Stevovich's overriding theme is isolation: the sense of isolation one can feel in spite of being surrounded by a crowd or when, in a relationship, meaningful dialogue is thwarted. His people, except for a few devilish whisperers, are strangely mute. Caught up in their own inner machinations they are, for the fleeting moment he captures them, unexpressed. Lips sealed shut, they communicate with their eyes—Stevovich must be the master of the furtive glance—or with gestures: from a benign offer of food, a kiss on the hand that we can tell is completely insincere, up to violence between men bent on strangling each other (even here Stevovich is opaque; when asked why he chose to paint men fighting, a persistent theme at one period in his life, he mildly commented on the opportunity for the "interesting complexity of line" that subject matter presents).

The people Stevovich has created share similar physical characteristics. Except for a few lecherous old men, most are the same indeterminate age—anywhere between twenty and fifty—and have cheekbone—less round faces, long straight noses, full lips, and lash-less, vaguely Asian eyes that are either half-open or half-shut, depending on interpretation. They could be from the same ethnic group—Eastern European perhaps?—or even an extended family. Highly stylized, but far from idealized, they seem to represent Everyman (or Everywoman) yet at the same time we see them as individuals. With the subtlest of gestures—it's all about body language and the play of eyes—Stevovich manages to imbue their bland countenances with such complex expressiveness that we're convinced we know what each is thinking and feeling.

Formal Dancers, 2001, depicts, as the title suggests, a man and woman dressed in eveningwear, ballroom dancing. Although they're dancing, the couple is hardly moving with abandon. In fact we don't even see their legs; rather Stevovich's close cropping focuses on their awkward embrace and lends an air of claustrophobia. Confined by formal clothing, these are two people whose cultural conventions oblige them to take each other in their arms before they are sufficiently intimate, and their discomfort—as well as attraction—is evident. They're interested in each other but cautious; with the chemistry they feel tempered by suspicion borne of previous disappointments. She's thinking, "Is he the one?" knowing that she's asked that question of herself before, while he's hoping she won't turn out like his ex-wife. That's one story; there may be as many as there are viewers.

Whatever narrative the painting elicits is inspired by details gleaned through the most minute of hints, yet despite the painting's charged atmosphere, Stevovich is right: it's an image that adheres to such strict concerns of form, line, and the play of flat blocks of color, one against the other, and is so completely devoid of any attempt at realism that it has as much in common with, say, an abstraction by Stuart Davis (an artist Stevovich has admired) as it does with anything figurative. The small black triangle of the man's tie and the white rectangle of his cuff are equally as intriguing as his wary gaze, as is the little pattern set up by the couple's fingers where they gently overlap.

From another painting, entitled Tortilla Factory (2003) we get the sense that Stevovich chose the subject matter not because of any particular interest in tortillas or assembly lines, but because it gave him the opportunity to place the white-garbed workers between delightful grid-like patterns of circles—the tortillas on conveyor belts—that run diagonally across the picture plane. In Subway Station, 2003-2004, which depicts a rush hour crowd moving toward the trains, the pattern is made up of the people themselves. Blanketing the entire surface of the painting, most of the faces are the same size and turned in the same three-quarters direction, a sea of heads that sets up an abstract rhythm of form and color. Complexity and repetition make it nearly impossible to stay focused on any single face so that the eye jumps from one to another, moving around the canvas as it might when confronted with a Pollock drip painting.

Stevovich is an ardent student of art history, ancient and modern, and one of the most compelling aspects of his work—an element which, along with the exquisite detail of his rendering and the richness of his glazes, gives his images continuing interest when viewed over a long period of time—is the way he has been able to synthesize all of his seemingly disparate art interests into a very spare style that is his alone. So while one is able to reference Pollock when looking at Stevovich's painting of commuters, there's also evidence of a close relationship with the frescos of the early Renaissance. Giotto and Duccio, for instance, built on an artistic tradition of depicting groupings of people, usually on—looking crowds of petitioners or angels, in a way that forms a repetitive pattern of line and shape. This association adds an ironic, vaguely religious tone to Stevovich's portrayal of commuters, who are hardly likely—at least not at that moment—to be contemplating their spiritual life. The architecture of the subway station, too, with its arch, columns, and the grille behind which ticket-buyers are shown in complete profile, is reminiscent of that in religious paintings, medieval and later. Long straight noses and half-shut (or open) eyes show up in Masaccio, whose gift was that he didn't depict religious figures solely as archetypes, but presented them as humans with feelings rooted in physical life experience. In that same way there's something both symbolic and intensely personal in the people and ambiguous interactions Stevovich portrays.

So here we are with Stuart Davis, Pollock, and the early Renaissance painters all rolled up in a single image, but one can find many more references in Stevovich's work, and equally diverse. His fully frontal portraits are like African masks, while his frequent pictures of women bathing have much in common with Pop artist Tom Wesselman's Great American Nudes—and most likely both were inspired by Matisse, who made much use of background pattern as Stevovich does. Gauguin was a major influence—for his color and composition as well as "humanism, abstraction, and discipline"—and then there are Indian miniatures and Japanese prints, most notably those of Utamaro ("They're stylized," Stevovich says, "but depict many emotions"), Malliol, particularly his erotic woodcuts, Heckel, Munch and Beckmann, the line work and flat surface of Egyptian art ("the way they say so much with an almost symbolic line"), Klee, Motherwell, Miro, Diego Rivera, Hopper, and Balthus. Even Seurat comes into play, if not obviously—Stevovich admires his color and psychology—and Mondrian shows up as well, most evident in the way Stevovich divides up the space and places the segments of red, white, and black in Red Hats, 1992. One could have a field day trying to identify the influences—down to Fra Angelico, of whom Stevovich says, "Real sincerity is a component of simplicity."

Obsessed with paring down compositions to their essential elements, Stevovich has a passion for simplicity. Yet he's also fascinated by complexity—pattern and repetition—which, by its nature requires a plethora of shapes or images. His work, therefore, is all about the marriage of these seeming opposites. An artist who is fond of picturing people in front of a background of leaves, Stevovich sees this same conundrum in nature, pointing out how "a tree is visually simple and complex at the same time," and found this dichotomous quality expressed in the early Renaissance painting that was his first art love.

Stevovich discovered Renaissance art at a young age, when as a child, he lived near the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and spent many hours on his own in the museum. His father, Vlastimir, an analyst in the Defense Department, and his mother, Ella, who worked as a manager at AT&T, came to this country in 1950, when Andrew was two. His parents met and married in Austria, where Ella fled after the Russians invaded Poland, and Vlastimir ended up after leaving Yugoslavia as a German prisoner of war. They emigrated to the United States each speaking a different language, to which Vlastimir had added English, having learned it in the POW camp. Stevovich's second wife, Laura, describes the family as, "Two adults and one child, different even from each other" and sees the figures in his paintings as "alienated and alone." "There's a silence there," she says, and refers to his self-portrait (reported to be the only painting of his that his mother doesn't like) in which she sees Stevovich revealing himself as "disengaged, a little separate"—a condition to which many, if not most, artists would relate. Being different and apart allows one to be, if not a participant, an observer, and in addition to the rich resource of the National Gallery, there was much in Washington for Stevovich to see.

Stevovich describes Washington as "a beautiful place to grow up," and with the international embassy population, it was a city where, he says, "you could see anything." Living in the nation's capitol in the '60s, a dramatic era that encompassed the Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy assassination, Stevovich felt as if he was at the center of world events. He had a generous and cagey friend who "borrowed" his lobbyist father's American Express card on which the two teenagers and friends had dinners at the Jockey Club, a restaurant frequented by Washington's most powerful players. Living that close to the action, which included scandals—such as the one in 1974 when married House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills was stopped for drunk driving and his companion, Argentine stripper Fanne Foxe, jumped into the Tidal Basin—caused Stevovich to be wary of corruption and hypocrisy. Cynical about politics, his stance now is hardly partisan—while he'd like to have more faith in human nature, he views the leaders of both parties as all part of the same self-serving clique.

Except for his skepticism in the face of politics, Stevovich describes himself as a trusting guy ("the easiest person to swindle" he admits) but has observed first hand how people act when they are mistrustful, suspicious, or trying to get something they don't deserve. Hence his depictions of bumbling, lecherous men, or older, rich men with younger women—scenes he saw at the Jockey Club and elsewhere in Washington.. In his 1989 painting The Audience at Club Durango, everyone seems to be on the make or take. Is that her hand reaching into his pocket? What secret is the one man telling the other? What are the men with shifty eyes looking at? Is the couple at the top really in love? Or does the other have something they want?

If they aren't bumbling, lecherous, scheming, or trying to throttle each other, the men in Stevovich's paintings tend to be passive and a little clueless. The only men who really know what they're doing are the devilishly red demons, who have appeared in his work over and over again throughout the years. There's a glint in their eyes that reveals their self-assurance; these crafty guys are confident—they understand women, and know what tricks to play to get what they want.

Stevovich's women, on the other hand, even if they appear to have secrets they're not revealing, seem much more content, and some, like Woman with Cat, 2001 exhibit mysterious Mona Lisa-like smiles. Bathing, trying on hats, putting on makeup, communing with a pet, or alone and contemplative, Stevovich observes them minutely, down to their French manicures. During his first marriage Stevovich's wife, Pamela Ives (the mother of his son, Alexander), although not named, figured in many of his paintings, the tip-off being her blonde hair and brown eyes. Now it's often brown-haired, brown-eyed Laura Larsen. Stevovich is fascinated by women's enigmatic complexity and mystery, everything about them from the mundane to the profound: their thoughts and emotions as well as beauty, hair, and colorful clothes. The women in his paintings are silent and self-contained-melancholy, perhaps—but in marked contrast to his flailing men, they appear to face life's exigencies with a Buddha-like acceptance.

This correspondence with images of Buddha was not lost on the art director who chose Stevovich's painting, Women Under Grapes, 1991 for the cover of Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama, published in 1997 and still in print. Walking down Boston's Newbury Street one day, some years before she met the man who was to become her husband, Laura remembers seeing the volume in the window of a bookstore. Gazing into the shop window, she fantasized about how she'd like to meet the person who did the illustration who, she surmised, was an acquaintance of the Dalai Lama and a student of Buddhism like herself. When, purely by chance, she actually met Stevovich, she discovered he was neither, although he was and remains extremely sympathetic to her spiritual quest. Of her husband's paintings, Laura's favorite is Autumn Leaves, 1994, where the woman with the dog, napping on a bed of fall foliage, reminds her of a sleeping Buddha. To Laura the figure is "imbued with a deep sense of serenity as well as sadness and aloneness—as if she's sad at being separate, but nonetheless taking pleasure in the contemplative life."

For Stevovich, his studio practice provides all the contemplation he needs. Although less so in recent years, many of the ideas for his paintings have been derived from dreams (for which he has kept a journal), however the initial concept can come from a variety of other places such as personal experiences, observations, or doodles. For example the Fallen Diva paintings came directly from dreams while Cigar Store, 2002-2003, originated when Stevovich, driving through Fort Lee, New Jersey, caught a glimpse of such a store with a neon cigar in the window. He did a quick sketch of the exterior and the composition evolved from these until ultimately the painting's viewpoint was from the inside, rather than the outside of the store, with buildings seen through the windows that are the result of pure invention. The aforementioned Club Durango is a composite of many different nightclubs, and although Quarter Note Club started as a sketch Stevovich did in a bar in Amsterdam, the finished image went through many changes and brought in elements from other experiences, both real and imagined. Peking Ravioli by the Sea is very much based on a real event, whileSleeping Cat Dancer simply came together as an idea, combining a theme he's used a lot—that of a woman sleeping—with a memory of a person from a long time before.

Stevovich touches on many themes, and some appear over and over again. When he's painting, he's not consciously trying to create a particular meaning or reading—"not thinking about what this or that means"—rather the works evolve as he goes along. "It's how I find out what's on my mind," he says and only afterwards, looking at and thinking about a finished painting, can he see that his subconscious has taken him down a particular path. Stevovich talks about how, when he was painting Sophie with Euclidean Tarot, he saw it simply as a journey into one his favorite subjects—fortune telling—and only later recognized how it related to finding himself divorced and wondering what the future would hold. Cards and games make frequent appearances in Stevovich's work—not because he plays card games, which he doesn't, but because he's fascinated with the concepts of gambling, and the role chance plays in life. Stevovich is not a gambler, either; at least not in the conventional sense (when asked, he said, "Of course I'm a gambler; I paint pictures"). However scenes of people gambling offer the artist a rich opportunity for psychological narrative and allow him to plumb the persistent human feelings of anticipation, greed, fear, and desire that gambling engenders. It's symbolic, too, of Stevovich's view of life itself as a gamble, since "no one," as he puts it, "knows how anything will turn out." It's not surprising for someone who admits to a reluctance to reveal himself, that facial masks appear early on in Stevovich's paintings, and rather than being an external theatrical device sometimes manifest as a living part of the person's face—the psychological facade he or she hides behind. Similarly circus activities, such as puppetry or juggling, in Stevovich's hands take on symbolic connotations. In Woman Juggling, 2003 Stevovich has transformed what's generally seen as a frantic activity into a contemplative state. Rather than looking as if she's preparing for a circus audition, his subject is wistful, as if caught in the process of weighing several life options.

Stevovich sees the broader themes—eating and drinking, people watching a film or some kind of performance, subways, neon-lit rooms, beach scenes, the subway—as common or even essential experiences in modern life, as well as subjects that offer him a wide-range of compositional opportunities. With the exception of the men fighting, all are components of his personal experiences, either direct or observed.

Once the idea arrives, the composition may take shape fairly quickly, but normally it "kicks around the studio," as Stevovich puts it, going through many changes over a long period of time. Usually he starts with a rough sketch and develops it from there as he works out the details, experimenting with different sizes and proportions until he's satisfied with the composition and scale. He can make twelve or fifteen permutations of the original drawing, sometimes with very minor changes, and by the time he has a final drawing, everything is worked out in considerable detail.

The final drawing in hand, Stevovich makes what he calls a "transfer drawing" by carefully tracing it using a lightweight paper he can see through (similar to, but heavier than, standard tracing paper). When the transfer drawing is finished, he turns it over and covers the back with pastel, usually an earth green or red oxide, to create a kind of "carbon paper." He then places the drawing over the canvas and traces the lines with a pencil, which transfers them, in pastel, to the surface of the canvas. "Basically," he says, "I'm doing things the way they were done in the Renaissance, except they punched holes along the lines and then dabbed red oxide over them, which left a trail of little red dots to follow. I prefer my way because it's quicker, and doesn't ruin the transfer drawing."

This technique is important because it leaves Stevovich not only with a highly worked-out image, but minimizes the amount of drawing he has to do on the canvas, thereby eliminating the possible interference of smudges and erasures. He says, "I feel that a clean white ground is important in order to achieve clear and luminous color" and believes that light can penetrate oil paint, that even the most opaque color reflects what's underneath. "Just think how many more coats of paint it takes to cover a dark wall rather than a white one," he says.

With the image gently delineated on the canvas, Stevovich starts to paint, as he describes it, "by working backwards." "Conventional wisdom," he says, "would have you paint from the background to the front, going from transparent darks to opaque highlights. I don't do this. I paint the faces—the lightest parts—first, and each takes place in a single sitting, without revision" so that the glow from underneath is maintained. "Luminosity is important to me," he says, "I want the light to come from within the painting."

What Stevovich doesn't work out in advance is the color. Unless the composition demands something specific, such as green leaves on trees, his response is entirely intuitive. Not knowing how the painting is going to turn out is what makes the work exciting for him. The phase where he ties it all together—when the image on the canvas is completely painted but not yet finished and he makes color changes either by glazing over existing colors or scraping them out altogether and starting over—this is his favorite part of the process. This is where he adds all the delicate color shadings and textures, that add so much richness to his paintings but which, at the same time, are so subtle they rarely show up when the work is reproduced in books and catalogues. This development of execution and subject matter has evolved incrementally over the years, ever since a pivotal moment that occurred in 1968, at the beginning of Stevovich's junior year at the Rhode Island School of Design, when he was studying with Gordon Peers, a professor of painting and head of the Fine Arts Department. An older man and recent widower, Peers could be difficult. "He was passionate about painting and very demanding," Stevovich recalls. "He insisted that all work have an internal visual logic and be able to stand alone without verbal explanations to support it." Up until then, Stevovich had been drifting from one style of painting to another, and while he found some satisfaction with the rhythms and shapes of color in the hard-edge abstraction that was popular at the time, he had not hit upon anything that felt intrinsically right.

Then Stevovich had a dream in which he and a blond woman were seated at a table on which was a bowl of strawberries. He doesn't really know what motivated him to make a painting of the scene, nor does he feel it was particularly good painting, but he enjoyed working on it. The formal qualities of abstraction were still there, but now he had something more to deal with; when he started adding in figures and faces a whole new world opened up to him.

At the class group critique, however, Stevovich's fellow students were unanimous and unequivocal in their negative response to his new effort. "I got trashed in that review," he says. One classmate informed him that it was reactionary, a total regression and waste of time while another asked him if he'd bumped his head and lost all reason. Gordon Peers, however, saw something of value in the painting. His encouragement of Stevovich resulted in two years of intense study under Peers' guidance, followed by a twenty-year mentorship—characterized by Stevovich as similar to that of a Zen master and his pupil—during which Stevovich, up until Peer's death in 1988, regularly carted his paintings to Peers' home in Providence for review.. That painting, which Stevovich entitledStrawberries, represents, as he puts it, "the marker between thrashing around in all directions and thrashing towards something." Even though, as mentioned before, he questions Strawberries' intrinsic merits as a painting, Stevovich kept it on his wall for many years as a symbolic reminder not to give too much heed to other people's opinions and to stick to his guns.

Stevovich followed Strawberries with a decade of artistic experimentation during which his interest in pattern emerged and his signature style evolved. Since then the work, moving at an almost imperceptible pace, has slowly deepened. On a formal level Stevovich's color and abstract qualities—line, rhythm, spatial elements—have become more important—while his message has grown more enigmatic and poetic. In the early days, his work was more overtly humorous, a single idea instead of the multiplicity of meanings or interpretation that can now be read into them. Over the years, too, Stevovich has also seen a general psychological shift, "from outside to inside," as he describes it. Where the earlier paintings tended to be records of observations, that later ones are more aligned with an inner psychological landscape, increasingly personal and reflective.

It's no surprise that Stevovich's paintings give rise to a kind of wonder at life's processes, given the synchronistic events that have constituted his personal experience. Some years after painting Strawberries, he was at a party with a friend who nudged him and said, "The woman in your painting is in this room." Her name was Pamela Ives, who Stevovich married in 1977.

When one considers Stevovich's highly stylized figures, architectural underpinnings and relationship to pattern, the work of George Tooker immediately comes to mind. Tooker, of course, was a contemporary of the social realists, although he might better be described as a "social surrealist." Stevovich first saw an example of Tooker's tempera paintings—a scene in a subway station—in an art history textbook in his freshman year and, immersed as he was in abstraction at the time, dismissed it as simply social commentary. In the eighties, however, someone who must have seen the relationship to Stevovich's work, gave him a catalogue with many reproductions. From then on he tried to see as much of Tooker's work as possible, finding confirmation in the knowledge of this more senior artist who shared so many of his concerns.

Similarly, there's a crop of younger American artists—current graduate students, as well as artists in their 20's and 30's—for whom Stevovich could be considered a precedent. While the European art world has always been open to figurative painting, American curators and educators have been more parochial, wary of the painted image unless the work had a decidedly ironic or political slant or was a riff on the media. That we no longer accept previous interpretations of modern art history as an inevitable progress from figuration to abstraction has allowed for more freedom on the part of artists to express themselves in more personal and idiosyncratic ways. Gerhard Richter and Louise Bourgeois, whose work embraces both abstraction and figuration, may have provided the segue into a more accepting and eclectic atmosphere. Young artists are now looking to Surrealism—a decidedly European movement—for inspiration, and finding new impulses in the terrain Stevovich knows so well.

The zeitgeist has caught up with Stevovich in this new, as yet undocumented movement of painters whose images constitute enigmatic narratives with themes of social discomfort and alienation. Perhaps as a reaction to the neo-expressionism that began to dominate contemporary painting in the 'eighties, this work is characterized by premeditated, obsessively meticulous rendering—no obvious brushstrokes here—and stylization. Stripped of any excessive detail, these are again "Everyman" figures in unexplained situations that underscore their sense of isolation and the desire to express themselves as individuals. From Hilary Harkness' armies of female automatons to Robyn O'Neil's truncated conversations in chilly landscapes and Robin Tewes' forlorn inhabitants of generic rooms, there is an underlying story that is never revealed and therefore open to individual interpretation. James Benjamin Franklin's arcane scenarios are delineated with simple, flat blocks of color as if they were abstractions, while Jocelyn Hobbie, perhaps the first of this new breed, uses pattern to underscore the slightly ominous overtones her existential figures evoke. Her scenarios are peopled with characters whose reaction to the human condition is confusion and numbness.

In much American figurative painting—the paintings of Edward Hopper being possibly the most emblematic—one can trace a certain rebellion against the conditions of everyday life, a universal frustration of the desire to be fully expressed and individually realized, a sense of isolation in the midst of society. Yet when Stevovich was asked about this subject of "alienation"—the term his wife, Laura, chose in regard to his work—he does not entirely concur. "It may be a matter of semantics," he says, "but I don't think so. For me the word 'alienation' has connotations of anger, jealousy, resentment, and the disappointment of unrealized desires. What I feel about life is not angry or disdainful, but something more bittersweet and beyond hope of our comprehension. I think of the singers I like best—Edith Piaf, Cesaria Evora, Patsy Cline—it's true their songs are sad, but they are also poignant, hopeful, and beautiful."


-Carol Diehl