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Artist Profile: Michael Stevens

Dick and Jane

For more than three decades, Michael Stevens has used nostalgic images and icons of American middle-class life from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s to create theatrical works that blend painting and sculpture to explore the contradictions of our national character. His works, which are on view at Braustein/Quay Gallery, through June 20, combine good and evil and innocence and guilt in equal parts. A subtle and sometimes savage mix of comedy and gravity, they address universal issues that transcend the uniquely American milieu from which they arise.  Few artists manage this feat with as much wit and material invention, and in this show, "One Act Plays", Stevens, 63, is in top form.

Though deeply influenced by the wood sculpture of H.C. Westerman, the surrealists Max Ernst and Rene Magritte, the collage wizard Jess Collins and his college mentor, Tony Berlant*, Stevens is a self-constructed hybrid. “I got my MA in painting,” he points out, so “I’m more about composition than about form and structure. Most sculptors see things in the round. I want to see things the way the audience sees them, as a spectator watching a play or a TV show.”
L to R: After the Hunt in E Minor; Three Wishes
Stevens typically sets wood-carved cartoon characters of his own invention against mass-produced landscape paintings culled from thrift shops which he modifies to establish the dramatic (and sometimes searing) counter narratives that have become his trademark. He carves animals and people from pine and applies a high-gloss finish. The paintings, which function as backdrops for the sculptural elements, depict idyllic rural scenes of the sort found in motels and diners, although Stevens occasionally throws in classically themed pictures.
In this Howdy Doody-meets-Alfred Hitchcock universe, demons lurk behind white picket fences, and the works carry appropriately ominous titles, like “Cliff Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “Snake Bit”. The latter, in which a cat’s curled tail doubles as a noose, can easily be read as a suicidal thought. Others, like “After the Hunt in E Minor”, pull from obscure art-historical references (in this case the 19th century trompe-lóeil painting by William Michael Harnett);while still others remain inscrutable, sometimes even to the artist himself. In the main, though, his mix of middle-brow aesthetics, finely hewed craft and psychological intrigue centers on betrayals, disappointments and various non-specific (and sometimes very specific) threats.
Snake Bit
In the show’s signature piece, “Dick and Jane”, we confront two wall-sized cutouts of the familiar school-primer characters. Their silhouettes are rendered as a layered composite of kitschy landscape swatches; they’re the same idealized images seen in the Stevens’ backdrops. Close inspection, however, reveals that the figures are riddled with bullet holes – a reference to Columbine and other school-yard massacres.   
This bait-and-switch visual strategy mirrors Stevens’ own loss of innocence. For example, by giving an object a glossy finish, “I set something up to look really attractive. It’s like giving a juicy piece of candy to a kid. Once you draw them in you set the trap. And then, once they get involved and think there’s something there, I want to take it away from them. It seems kind of vindictive. But not everything is polished, not everything is good.” 
The Vicar’s Pup
 In “The Falsetto’s Kitty”, an obvious play on “The Sopranos”, Stevens again conflates opposites by setting a found painting of a thug (or at least a guy who looks like one) against a collection of glass bric-a-brac. This contradiction between monstrosity and domesticity is a consistent theme in Stevens’ uniquely polarized oeuvre, and it often involves animals who appear as silent or bemused witnesses to the foibles of their human masters. “The Vicar’s Pup”, for example, features the cut-out form of a fox terrier set against a bucolic landscape topped by a wooden cross – a reference to the artist’s time in Catholic school, where the harsh discipline imposed by nuns felt like "my first meeting with Darth Vader.”
“What I do as an artist,” he explains, “is attach my childhood to my adulthood because there are a lot of things in childhood that you mirror as an adult. For Stevens, who grew up in the‘50s, childhood is inextricably linked to the birth of television. “The cartoon characters, the personalities (like Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney) and the commercial icons – they were so high-impact they left a residue on the brain; and the companies merchandized those icons to the point where they became superstars.”   Stevens’ knowledge of early television programming  is encylopedic, and the suburban Sacramento house, which he shares with his wife, the painter Suzanne Adan, reflects that obsession. There are enough toys, lunch pails, Disney characters and period objects to fill a Happy Days museum.
When the relative calm of the post-WWII years dissolved into war, riots, and assassinations in the ’60s, Stevens took a dimmer view. He posits Charlie Manson and Donald Duck as examples of the gulf between the decades. “They’re both famous for different reasons, except one of them doesn’t exist and never will. But Donald Duck seems real to many people, and this is why these characters are fascinating. They both exist as part of the make up of American culture, and it’s a culture that is just as capable of giving as it is taking away. 
“The ‘60s,” he continues, “showed us who we were as a culture, and we battled ourselves for the first time since the civil war. The anger in my work has always been from that experience, and I always use the images from one generation [the ‘50s] to express the anger I feel in the others.”
Michael Stevens in his Sacramento Studio
When building a piece, Stevens does little prior planning. “I’ve been working so long I just trust my own instincts. And I don’t let not knowing prevent me from carving, say, just a head.” Or, starting with just a title. Or, scouring his storage shed for a backdrop that he can use to link disparate ideas.  “Eventually a solution will arise because it always has. It comes in like wind through a window," and it most always reflects his thoughts — about history, TV, current headlines or some personal experience where they all intersect. 
“If I’m anything,” Stevens says,  “I’m a satirist. I draw on universal situations, like being out on a limb and using a comedic saw to cut yourself down,” as in “Three Wishes,” where “you have three choices for the place where you will fall. The imagery that I use talks about the human condition, that theatrical predicament that we’re all in.”
–David M. Roth
Michael Stevens’ “One Act Plays” is on view through June 20 at Braunstein/Quay Gallery, SF.
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One Response to “Artist Profile: Michael Stevens”

  1. Louis says:

    Mike is a god. I take that back. Mike is God. Dear Heavenly Mike. Thank you for creating all things good, i.e. your art. Sincerely, a faithful devotee.


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