New York

May Stevens

Dintenfass Gallery

With the social and political ferment now developing in the art world, political art has acquired a new focus, and for women artists a subjective one. May Stevens, who early in her career painted political attacks on American racism and then abandoned openly political art for a while, has now turned to political satire in her “Big Daddy” series of gouaches, silkscreens, and acrylics. The result is a tough and poignant feminist critique of the patriarchal power structure as allegorized in the recurrent figure of a pompous but sad, dangerously paternalistic figure, usually shown with a porcine bulldog, the two of them in a variety of costumes and poses.

Previously, Stevens was preoccupied with mournful interiors, inhabited by alienated figures and worked out in a soft, emotional, painterly oil technique. A brief and eventless transition through hardedge oils led to her present cycle, touched off by a delicate oil portrait of an elderly gentleman in the triste and restrained manner of her earlier work. Now the figure has been abstracted and stylized as an omnipresent Big Daddy, in a limited palette of mainly reds, blues, whites, blacks, and pinks, usually against an intense blue background.

Big Daddy: Twinned and belligerently confronting himself in the nude. Or coupled with a female companion who is virtually himself in drag, the pair against newsprint photos of GI’s in the Vietnamese jungle. Or flanked by the various costume-uniforms of his multiple careers of oppression—executioner, army officer, policeman, butcher. Or with his head and the dog’s on the bottom edge of a canvas, and various kinds of headgear (soldier, cop, etc.) at the top edge, or draped in an American flag and wearing a silvery hard hat (in radiator paint). And on and on. Large lucid paintings, simple iconography. The great numbers of objects and details and the small stroke brushwork of earlier canvases, in which the entire picture area was filled out, have yielded to a limited group of shapes and things, perspicuously bound to vertical and horizontal axes within a generous (and partly negative) space and reduced to a few bright and unvarying colors. The face is tenderly penciled and then painted in careful, almost affectionate lines—likewise rooted in Stevens’ earlier style, as is the occasional painterly smudging that mellows the bright colors, caricatural lines, sharp, crisp edges, and cutout shapes. A significant iconographical component is the multiplicity of uniforms and headgear, which in one smaller, somewhat cluttered gouache, encircle Big Daddy like so many passion attributes and reveal the tiny flaps of paper doll clothing: the artist has taken an innocent toy, conventionally assigned to female children, and raised it to a more sinister use. The solidity and coolness of the presentation strongly contrast with the aggressive sexual assault and sexual put down expressed by so many male satirists (for example, Peter Saul) whose admittedly exciting and turbulent iconography screeches to his canvases straight out of Zap Comics and thereby uses sex as insult and injury. Such a puritanical and basically antisensual approach defeats the very concept of freedom for which such artists pretend to be struggling. The complete absence of this male double standard is proof of May Stevens’ honesty and sophistication.

Joachim Neugroschel