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Sandwiched between two other concurrent exhibitions at the Ryan Lee Gallery, May Stevens: Fight the Power, a one-room exhibit consisting of a mere five pieces, packs a mighty punch. The works, all of which were executed during the Civil Rights era, remain highly arresting, despite some minor signs of physical aging.
Stevens, a civil rights campaigner and feminist activist, was one of 20 cofounders of Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics (1977–92), whose other members included Miriam Shapiro, Joan Snyder, and Lucy Lippard. There has been much speculation that Stevens was, or continues to be, a member of the Guerrilla Girls, though she has never definitively responded to the rumors. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote an introductory essay for Freedom Riders (1963), one of the artist’s early exhibitions, and in 1965 Stevens attended the funeral of Malcolm X, a drawing of whom is included in the exhibition.
The four other works on display are from Stevens’s Big Daddy series (1967–76). Based on a portrait of the artist’s father, the recurring character represents the backward, bigoted, and militaristic patriarchy of America. Pudgy and short-sighted, Big Daddy could be your racist father, a coercive police officer, or the man who voted to deploy your son to Vietnam. Big Daddy’s bulldog, whose tongue protrudes lasciviously from his jaw, serves to visually accentuate the character’s belligerent qualities.
Big Daddy’s compressed, bulbous features recalls the grotesqueness of a George Grosz caricature combined with the nervous line of a Ralph Steadman drawing. The comparison is fair, since, like the work of those artists, the apparent simplicity of Stevens’s series serves as proof that her visual nuances are highly effective. It’s often tempting to dismiss political pop because it looks so easy, but to do so is to deny that caricature and propaganda demand a great deal of skill, in particular the need for a highly distilled and succinct visual language. Big Daddy is simultaneously a symbol of terrible injustice and a projection for the viewer’s anger. Yet he is also a pathetic, tragic, and perhaps even sympathetic figure. That he can be all these things is a testament to Stevens’s pictorial techniques, some obvious, others more subtle.
The largest work in the show, “Big Daddy Paper Doll” (1968), combines the color palette of the US flag with black and military green. The character sits naked at the center, surrounded by the uniforms of his various guises: an executioner, a soldier, a police officer, and a butcher. All of these roles provide Big Daddy with an outlet for terror and violence. In the case of the army and police uniforms, Big Daddy’s pallid, fleshy complexion emphasizes the distinction between the quality of the man and the uniform he wears. He defiles what they ought to stand for. Stevens has consciously lined up the uniforms on a gradient, so that Big Daddy’s most extreme manifestations lurk at the far sides of the canvas. The character’s machismo is indicated by his penile and bullet shaped head. Small details such as the presence of blood splattered on and around the butcher costume lend the work an unnerving, underlying violence.
Stevens humorously undermines Big Daddy by subjecting him to a game of dress-up. In another work from the series (which was displayed as part of the Whitney Museum’s Sinister Pop exhibition in 2012), Stevens adds paper-doll tabs to the uniforms, infantilizing the character by turning him into a toy. Flatness is an important feature throughout the series since it functions as a visual shorthand for the insubstantial and shallow. In “Big Daddy Three Times” (1970), Stevens has collaged three busts of Big Daddy, transforming him into a modern day cerberus. The character’s flat presentation counters his foreboding presence. The implication is that Big Daddy is a paper tiger. A straw man to be overcome.
Though Fight the Power is a tiny exhibit, the display of a few additional works on paper sufficiently hints at the the artist’s broader experimentation within the series. A single image of Big Daddy wasn’t enough for Stevens; instead, she subjected him to a number of different scenarios while continually varying his form. In “Big Daddy Beach scene” (1970), the character sits naked in front of a simple composition of red and blue stripes. Another work, “Fireplug Fountain Monument” (c. 1970), resembles a chess piece, with Big Daddy’s bulldog perched in triumphant stupor at its apex.
I don’t believe that Stevens produced these variations for the sake of it. That the artist spent just under a decade working on the series is indication that the specter of Big Daddy, and all that he represents, required a great deal of emotional processing. Stevens’s use of her father as a model lends the work an additional resonance. The artist’s approach could be described as Arendtian, since the series presents bigotry as something that can be both familial and banal. For Stevens, the complacency of bigotry, as evinced through Big Daddy’s smile, is one of its most disturbing qualities.
Hung opposite “Big Daddy Paper Doll” is Stevens’s 1968 death portrait of Malcolm X. The gallery’s press release states that the work was composed from memory, three years after Stevens attended the activist’s funeral. The drawing is so austere that it’s difficult to identify X without the aid of a title. Unlike the images of Big Daddy, X has been stripped of any identifiable context, thereby emphasizing his humanity. The visual approach is wholly appropriate, since the activist rejected the symbols of power (uniforms, medals, badges, etc) that Big Daddy relies on for validation.
While the drawing itself is not that remarkable, its scratched lines denote a great deal of anguish and pain. There are some excellent deft touches, such as a faint smudge between X’s lips which delineates the shape of his teeth. The nebulousness of the portrait, particularly around the forehead, imbues the work with the quality of a dream, like a memory that is visceral, though not quite concrete. The drawing’s warped paper lends the illusion that X’s head is resting on a pillow. This, combined with the gallery’s strip lighting, imbues the display with a funerary air. The effect is intensified by the work’s solitary presence on a single wall. It’s difficult to imagine a better arrangement of the show’s five works.
It appears that the New York art world has been historically reexamining Stevens’s work. Along with Sinister Pop, a work from the “Big Daddy” series was recently on display at the Brooklyn Museum’s Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties exhibition. Last year, Stevens featured in Rabble-Rousers: Art, Dissent, and Social Commentary at the Heckscher Museum of Art. Though it may be a tiny exhibition, Fight the Power affirms that Stevens is a talent deserving of renewed critical attention. You leave wishing that you could’ve seen more.
May Stevens: Fight the Power continues at Ryan Lee Gallery (515 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 22.