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The characters in Andrew Stevovich's paintings exude an almost otherworldly calm.

The people portrayed in the paintings of Andrew Stevovich tend to be social creatures. They congregate in places like an internet café, a cocktail lounge, a casino. They line up to file into theaters or to place wagers at betting windows. They fill buses and trains and subway cars. Occasionally they dance and dine out or even get their fortunes told.

Yet with rare exception, they seem all but immune to the friction so often generated by social interaction. They glide along, unruffled by the crowds that swell around them. Like the card players and gamblers Stevovich is partial to, they may eye one another sideways, suspiciously, but almost always with cool detachment. That detachment is also present in the generically descriptive titles of the paintings: Cigar Store, Popcorn, Foreign Movie, Red Hats.

I had never heard of Stevovich until I walked into "Andrew Stevovich: The Truth About Lola." And I must confess that I was initially a little put off by the seeming chilliness of his work. But after hanging out with his paintings and drawings for a while, I began to think of him the way you might view someone you met at a party whose sly, dry wit took you off-guard: He's fun to be around. Just don't expect big laughs from him.

Andrew Stevovich's Eating Hair.
Andrew Stevovich's Eating Hair.

Details

"Andrew Stevovich: The Truth About Lola," through May 31 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Mizner Park, Boca Raton; 561-392-2500; www.bocamuseum.org.

I also came to respect Stevovich's visual ingenuity to the point that I don't think I would ever encounter his distinctive style again without recognizing it. There's a roundness, not to say obesity, to his subjects, who are all soft contours with only the occasional hard edge (and who are almost never seen full figure). And they invariably have almond-shaped eyes that make them look almost, but not quite, Asian. It's an odd combination that makes Stevovich's cast of characters unmistakably his own.

Part of the artist's appeal is also due to the narrative possibilities suggested by his work, as indicated by the gossipy tinge of the exhibition's title. What is the truth about Lola? We may well wonder, but given the secrecy among the people in a typical Stevovich painting, we will probably never find out.

Those suggestions of narrative are what give Stevovich's work its edge. In canvas after canvas — he works almost exclusively in oil — we are left to question just what these people are up to. As curator Bartholomew F. Bland notes in his fine catalog essay, there is usually an air of expectation or anticipation in a Stevovich painting. The people are always about to do something, whether it's see a film or play a hand of cards, and those pregnant pauses before the activity imbue these images with the quality of enigma.

We get so accustomed to being on the verge of the action that when something actually happens in a Stevovich painting, when potential action comes to fruition, the effect is startling. In Discord (1999), the dozen or so people crowded into the canvas are all frowning or grimacing, and the discomfort is palpable. Actual violence erupts in Four Men Fighting (2005), with a golf club and a knife being brandished as weapons and one man awkwardly grinding his shoe into another's face (although it's worth noting that, through it all, the men's expressions remain relatively neutral).

Stevovich even has a laugh at his own expense with Fallen Diva (1981-82), in which he renders an inherently dramatic situation with his characteristic calm. The unconscious (or perhaps even dead?) statuesque diva of the title stretches across the breadth of the canvas, while the five men attending to her are so seemingly unperturbed that they might as well be unloading a sack of grain from a pickup truck. The tone is about as far from melodramatic as you could reasonably expect.

According to the catalog essay, Stevovich's primary influences are the Old Masters, particular the early Italians, and you can see them in Fallen Diva, which on another level can be seen as a grim parody of paintings dealing with the aftermath of the Crucifixion. Although born in Austria (in 1948), Stevovich grew up in Washington, D.C., on a steady diet of classical art from the National Gallery, where he absorbed his extraordinary sense of composition. The gentle comedy in his work may come from the disconnect between his lofty influences and his much more modest subject matter.

Stevovich apparently thinks of himself as an abstract painter, which will come as news to anyone who sees his work. Maybe he really does believe that his preoccupations with form and composition place him in the company of other abstractionists, which at any rate helps explain what comes across as detachment in his paintings. Or maybe Stevovich is just putting us on. His work is so strangely engaging that I don't much care one way or the other.

This exhibition, organized by the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, New York, is the first Stevovich retrospective of its kind. The Boca Museum is also currently its only other venue, so we should be especially grateful that such a pleasant surprise has come our way this spring.

 
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