New York

May Stevens

Lerner-Heller Gallery

In 1967, May Stevens painted Prime Time, a tight composition pinned down by the figure of her father seated before a TV set. Arms folded, face screwed up, this closed and stolid posture might indicate the man’s reticence about being portrayed. But the portraitist’s interaction with a subject isn’t the point here. Over the years, Stevens has relentlessly posterized this image, working it through a series of paintings and drawings as Big Daddy, the leftist assassin’s ideal target. She draws symbolic connections—head like bomb, man like bulldog, American flag costume—that’ve been cliches for satirists from George Grosz to Ron Cobb. In Big Daddy Paper Doll, Stevens depicts the nude man and dog flanked by the uniform of klansman, army general, cop, and butcher. The message is billboard direct: slide him from one costume to the other. Imagine your enemy who does not imagine you, but merely deals with you. What strikes me is not so much the painting. (It’s expert enough that Lucy Lippard can collapse an analysis of pictorial devices into the moral of critique of American society which is her catalogue essay: “. . . the image is the epitome of one-sidedness, of the flat, the cruelly bland.”) It’s the kind of personal purgative enterprise that’s being enacted here, an objectification in political terms. This man faced Stevens as she grew up. Now she would say that his image faces us all as an administrator of violence, an embodiment of society’s resolute constraints.

Alan Moore