Friday, April 17, 2009

Art review: Gray, Stevovich offer different abstract realities

Eating Hair (1992), by Andrew Stevovich.


By Jenifer A. Vogt


BOCA RATON — What do Cleve Gray and Andrew Stevovich have in common? At first glance, nothing. Yet look closer and you’ll uncover similarities not immediately apparent in the two painters’ disparate styles.

Exhibits of both artists are appearing back-to-back through May 31 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. One of them, Cleve Gray: Man and Nature, showcases work from the three decades leading to the American artist’s death in 2004.

“Cleve Gray is an important American abstract artist. The power of his painting comes from the emotive use of color,” said Wendy Blazier, the museum’s senior curator. “The paintings are compelling and beautiful and draw you into them through the emotion and the intellect of their abstract qualities.”

By contrast, Stevovich’s work seems devoid of emotion, though his use of color is equally provocative. Andrew Stevovich: The Truth About Lola, surveys the Austrian-born American artist’s work from the last four decades. Surprisingly, like Gray, Stevovich considers himself an “abstract” painter, and the abstract qualities of his work are there, though the viewer has to look for them.

Ramses Series With Green (1978), by Cleve Gray.

Gray’s gestural version of color-based abstraction, on the other hand, is immediately evident. In works from the 1970s, it’s clear that he speaks through an emotionally charged paintbrush. Color and line are central characters, and there are layers of meaning. Gray provides clues — sometimes in titles that allude to history, such as Ramses Series With Green (1978) — inspired by a trip he’d taken to Egypt with his wife, author Francine du Plessix Gray, and photographer Richard Avedon.

Stevovich, however, has a seemingly figurative, literal style. Where Gray’s paintings are rash and moving, Stevovich’s evince a high degree of polish and quietude. Gray achieves his compositions with putty-like acrylics on canvas that add depth and bring out the brushstrokes. Stevovich’s finely detailed works are executed with oil on linen – giving him the ability to control fine details, create a flat surface, and convey a luminosity in his character’s faces that is reminiscent of early Italian masters such as Giotto.

The Truth About Lola (1987), by Andrew Stevovich.

The interesting part comes with trying to figure out why Stevovich considers himself an abstract artist. There’s seemingly nothing abstract about The Truth About Lola (1987). First off, who is Lola? Is she the woman smoking on the left? Is she the woman at the ticket counter? Oh wait: Look at the left uppermost corner of the painting and you see the word Lola slightly cut off. So, Lola must be the performer. That explains it, right?

Umm, no.

Because now we move to the next riddle —what, exactly, is the truth about Lola? “The Andrew Stevovich works are a great contrast to Cleve Gray’s,” Blazier said. “The Grays are large and expansive and abstract and then you go into the Stevovich and the paintings are small and activated. There is a cacophony of crowded enigmatic figures. What’s going on in these paintings?”

Stevovich’s canvases show crowded people staring blankly with little or no emotion. Of these works he has said: “(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.”

Gray rebelled against this sense of order. His style evolved in sharp contrast to an inhibited New England upbringing and Ivy League education. At Princeton, though, he studied Eastern art and philosophy and it had a profound impact on his artistic development.

“I felt I’d been dominated all through my life by my brain,” he once said. “Rationalization, structure. I couldn’t let myself continue to be dominated by Western civilization. The Chinese and Japanese influence allowed me to stop my brain from working.”

Zen Gardens No. 1 (1982), by Cleve Gray.

It seems obvious that an artist rebelling against rationalization and intellect derives pleasure in painting from his heart, and by the 1980s, Gray’s style had evolved in a Zen-like manner. He’d become an abstract minimalist of sorts. The bright colors of the ‘70s were replaced by subtler, more natural hues as evident in Zen Gardens (1982). There is unity in the work, as shape and line interact, but it lacks his earlier intensity. Gray was becoming more contemplative and less reactive, mellowing with age.

Yet, while Gray explored the esoteric , Stevovich remained firmly rooted in the mundane. He perfects, but does not change, his style. The sameness of his work is often unsettling. Nobody seems particularly happy. Who are all these unhappy people? Are they unhappy?

It’s not easy to discern, as in Eating Hair (1992). It’s not uncommon for a man to get sideswiped by his date’s hair – usually it’s a point of annoyance. However, this man is literally eating his companion’s hair. Is this supposed to be funny?

Woman in Booth With Laptop (2006), by Andrew Stevovich.

The characters look at each other blankly – the same blank expression that you see in Woman in Booth with Laptop (2006). What are these women thinking? Here you have two different situations that yield exactly the same reaction — or lack thereof. If people have no expression, no emotion, then the viewer will either look deeper or leave in frustration.

Stevovich’s work actually is abstract like Gray’s in the sense that it invites interpretation of a deeper meaning beyond the surface. The viewer must contemplate and decide. Is the man perverse? Or is that an affectionate gesture? Is the woman annoyed? Confused?

Perhaps the answer lies more in your psyche than Stevovich’s. Perhaps the works are akin to a Rorschach test. Bring potential suitors here and you may end up uncovering more than an eHarmony compatibility quiz could possibly ever reveal.

Asking more questions then it answers seems integral to Stevovich’s message because he also hesitates to explain his work and keeps a reverential distance from his narrative. Gray, on the contrary, was never hesitant to discuss his work, or explain his choices. For him, life and art merged. You get the sense that Gray would’ve morphed right into his canvases, if possible. Painting was an outlet for this deeply sensitive and emotional genius, who once remarked about a friend, “I couldn’t stand feeling his grief. It’s as if it had happened to me.”

Dispersal of the Square No. 9 (2003), by Cleve Gray.

Towards the end of his life, Gray had developed macular degeneration, limiting his ability to paint, so he experimented with oil sticks, which were easier for him to use. His style progressed again. Lively color returned to his canvases, which once again danced with expressionistic swiggles. He’d come full circle to his roots as a colorist, evident in Dispersal of the Square No. 9 (2003).

Gray and Stevovich are different. For one, emotion is what drives the narrative, and for the other the lack of emotion does the same. Yet they share the same goal: to create painting that invites analysis beyond the surface.

Stevovich expresses this poignantly when he says of his audience, “…hopefully as they keep looking more deeply, they will start to see the work on other levels. We live in such a fast-paced world, and people look at everything so quickly before moving on to the next thing.”

Jenifer A. Vogt is a marketing communications professional and resident of Boca Raton. She’s been enamored of American painting for the past 20 years.

Cleve Gray: Man and Nature and Andrew Stevovich: The Truth About Lola both run through May 31 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Tickets: Adults $8, seniors $6, free for children 12 and under. Hours: Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, 10 am to 5 pm; Wednesday, 10 am to 9 pm; Saturday-Sunday, 12 pm to 5 pm. Closed Mondays and holidays. Call 561-392-2500 or visit www.bocamuseum.org.

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