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Karl Stevens’s whisper-soft graphite drawings and smooth-as-ice oil paintings evoke comparison to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres yet portray neither odalisques nor aristocrats. Best known as a graphic novelist (Guilty, Whatever), Stevens’s canvases and sketches, like his comic strips and watercolors, render the quotidian details of the world of a freshly unemployed artist whose girlfriend just broke up with him.
Stevens’s work is currently on view as part of a two-person exhibition at the Adams Gallery at Suffolk University, Boston, Karl Stevens + Raul Gonzalez, Two Artists and Their Books: The Lodger and Lowriders in Space. Stevens’s paintings, drawings, and strips are excerpted from a larger show from 2010 at Carroll and Sons, Boston, all of which were published in his most recent book, The Lodger (2010). The book presents the images sequentially, strips interspersed with paintings and sketches, while the exhibit clusters them together in units on the wall, labeled by month and year.
This arrangement naturally suggests the subdivided logic and geometry of Stevens’s graphic work. A strip from “May, 2009,” for instance, depicts the artist meeting a new girlfriend, Anne. Divided equally into three panels, the upper register depicts the sun coming out from behind the clouds, a cowboy getting back on a horse, and a rocket achieving liftoff. The lower register begins with another panel of the same size, of a blossoming flower. Then the pattern shifts: the next panel narrows and breaks into two, depicting closeups of the new acquaintances’ faces, their gaze apparently locked on one another. The remainder of the space is occupied by the two introducing themselves at a bar. The effect is prismatic, scattering the representation of their meeting into different modes — metaphorical, interior, and exterior, as if viewed by a third party.
This constellation of images is the first of a set that includes three more strips related to the couple’s relationship, interspersed with watercolors, oil paintings, and drawings that carry us into a lovers’ spring. The arrangement imparts the same prismatic effect found in the strips but also offers a pleasurable visual friction as one moves among the different media, each one so effortful and effective in its own particular way.
The strips utterly reject the speedy line and expressionistic form typical of comics; their naturalistic forms and value range are largely constructed from a fine mesh of crosshatchings. In this mode, Stevens is capable of virtuoso depictions of such sights as Anne playfully spritzing water in Karl’s face in a sunlit kitchen. Despite its realism, it’s a style that can coexist happily with the interplay of dialogue bubbles and a range of visual onomatopoeia that includes snores, dog snorts, and drunken karaoke singing.
The watercolors use many of the same conventions of the strips – division into panels and text in and around the images – but replaces the crosshatching with a controlled application of pigments, making use of the liquidity of his medium only in the sky and otherwise treating it like the transparent glazes in his oil paintings. The latter are equally finished and primarily portraits, such as the one of Anne, wrapped in a scarf, looking as smooth and fresh as a new-laid egg (“September, 2009”).
Stevens’s control of his media and the beauty of his mark at times clash ironically with his subjects. In the last panel of the strip depicting Karl and Anne’s first meeting, Karl’s thought bubble looms over them, reading, “I wonder if she shaves?” The viewer can’t help glancing at the fully dressed Anne’s crotch, obliged to wonder the same thing. Stevens affords us such privileged views as the toilet while the artist pees, a beagle as it jackknifes to take a crap, or a piece of semi-masticated apple in Anne’s open mouth.
In fact, Stevens repeatedly coopts our gaze. In a drawing from “April, 2009,” a minutely crosshatched montage of scenes shows Karl drawing from a live model. Closeups of his face wearing glasses are followed by those without, blending seamlessly with views of the model. If we assume the glasses are for distance viewing, then the glasses-off view must depict the artist as he draws. Thus we see him seeing his subject, then see him seeing his drawing, and see the model seeing the artist, suggesting both the artist’s increasing concentration and a deepening intimacy between the artist and model.
Another work depicts the same moment, but replaces montage with a more typical division into panels (“April, 2009”). Where the first drawing started out with Karl’s eyes, here we see the results of his work — the model, depicted in crosshatches with a wash of watercolor. Next, occupying the rest of the top register, is a simple sketch of the model, the lines loose and experimental, overshadowed by a crosshatched view of the artist’s hand at work. In the gutter between the upper and lower registers, evoking the “crawl” below a newscast, a text reads, “Why are you doing this? Who’s going to buy it? It’s just practice, though, right? That’s all, just practice. It doesn’t matter – just make it good…” The bottom panel, which stretches the whole width of the sheet, concludes the scene with a more conventional narrative view of the model, posing, and the artist, drawing, but the same thoughts of doubt and worry stream below.
In these, the viewer is positioned variously as the model, the drawing, and the artist (and as such, the viewer reads his mind as he draws). And, when the characters’ eyes stare out to gaze at each other, as in the drawing session with the model or Karl and Anne’s first meeting in the strip from “May, 2009,” we become the medium through which the gaze completes the circuit.
The play among the media is like one work giving birth to another in the effort to record it all. The effect is reminiscent of someone who compulsively records his life, but through the painstaking techniques of analog art making. The result is not so much surveillance as nostalgia for the moment, extended indefinitely through the artist’s meticulous work and the viewer’s mesmerized gaze.
Karl Stevens + Raul Gonzalez, Two Artists and Their Books: The Lodger and Lowriders in Space continues at Adams Gallery, Suffolk University (75 Arlington Street, Boston, Massachusetts) through January 25.