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September 10 - 17, 1999

[Art Reviews]

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Off base

The abstract, alternate world of Andrew Stevovich

by Leon Nigrosh

TWENTY YEARS OF PAINTINGS, DRAWINGS, AND PRINTS OF ANDREW STEVOVICH At the Danforth Museum of Art, 123 Union Avenue, Framingham, through November 7.

ANDREW STEVOVICH Stepping into the main galleries of the Danforth Museum of Art is like stepping into an episode of Sliders. You're surrounded by images of people doing very ordinary things: they eat; they drink; they play cards; and yet, something is slightly off kilter. That's because you've entered artist Andrew Stevovich's alternate world.

Through the 62 artworks culled from the past 30 years of Stevovich's repertoire -- now on display at the Danforth -- we're taken on a mesmerizing trip not only of the artist's finished works, but also of how he got us -- and himself -- there. In one of his earliest paintings, the Three Servants, from 1969, the elderly gentlemen, in full mufti, stand near a wall decorated solely by their shadows. By 1983, the shadows have disappeared in Lobstaland, a tableau visit to a seafood restaurant. And in Stevovich's 1991 nightclub Chez Lou Lou, any suggestion of depth is achieved not by chiaroscuro or perspective, but by tonal-color construction and scale changes, which make his figures appear to recede into the background.

In a novel approach, the museum's also included several of the artist's working drawings, adding insight to the complexities of Stevovich's work. In the full-scale pencil drawing for Chez Lou Lou, the waiter is depicted in a relaxed pose, serving mixed drinks to the couple seated in the second stall. In the finished painting, the waiter has adopted a formal stance and is serving a single girl in the foreground. But -- here is where the mystery begins -- he proffers the young woman two drinks.

Stevovich claims that he is an abstract artist, simply concerned with placement, pattern, line, and color -- and that his paintings just happen to look like people. But if this were true, why would we be so swept up in the moment's magic? It's partly because, in virtually every painting and drawing, there isn't any eye contact between the participants, not even between the apparent lovers in Betting Windows or Movie Goers. Instead, such contact occurs only when a character casts a furtive glance outside of the painting, eerily catching us off guard.

The works further captivate us because of their attention to infinitesimal detail: every eyebrow hair on every character can be counted; every finger is perfectly manicured; and every participant is focused on his activity. In Stevovich's most recent and largest painting to date, Local/Switch, dozens of people are pictured inside and outside a subway car. Women, seated, clutch purses or packages to their bosoms. Some feign sleep while others stare into the distance. Still others stand together in clusters, waiting, as the driver sits poised to press a little, red button -- and is that one girl looking at us?

Here we see the culminating magnificence embodied in Stevovich's work. The characters are rendered equally, in almost brush-less strokes, their features accomplished as if in flawlessly carved alabaster. The curvilinear people are framed in the precise horizontals and verticals of the mechanical conveyance -- yet everything is flat. Like all others in the exhibit, this engaging work is defined by color placement (the red-beret icon shows up not once, but three times), the oval and rectangular patterns that recur throughout larger rectangles, and the carefully conceived spatial arrangement of the separate individuals, which, together, make up the complex-yet-simple composition -- typical, of course, of work by an abstract artist.

Stevovich sets all this aside in his latest work, a suite of eight etchings, based on fables by Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695). Each simple line-drawing, rather than an illustration, is presented as the artist's reaction to a particular fable. For example, in House of Cards, we see a man laboriously constructing a pyramid of playing cards. This is Stevovich's take on de La Fontaine's story, "The Mountain that Labored," which tells of a mountain that, after much groaning and straining, gives birth to a mouse. Both the etching and the fable suggest that grand plans often produce nothing but hot air. These prints are even more compelling evidence that Stevovich's milieu must be seen -- irregardless if, afterwards, you still cannot believe it.

The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Call 620-0050.


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