Mike Stevenson

New Zealand artist Mike Stevenson carefully copies famous photographs in fuzzy, heavily worked charcoal drawings and his models are, to say the least, carefully chosen. These instantly recognizable desert landscapes and gallery interiors appeared in the art magazines of the late ’60s and, since then, have illustrated a thousand texts on the dematerialization of the art object. Twenty five years ago, they were documentations of earthworks by Walter de Maria and Michael Heizer and now, in Stevenson’s exhibition “Some Latter-Day Art,” a few extra details have come into focus as if the edges of each image, previously cropped by picture editors, had now been restored. Stevenson has selected photographic sources that are familiar, modifying them as little as possible so as to maintain that sense of familiarity. Old Time Fun, 1994, shows several seminude bikers almost out-of-frame, circling behind a prone de Maria and the two chalk lines of his Mojave Desert work, Half Mile Long Drawing, 1968. Depending on your preference, de Maria is either the victim of serious art assault or is working with feral assistants. We Have Come for Your Daughters, 1994, highlights the oft-noted complicity between the counterculture, postobject art and, in the late ’60s, subcultures. A Heizer earthwork now has a beaten-up Combi van and, of course, more motorcycles hovering behind the piece’s narrow trenches. Everybody seems to be having a good time as if, the morning after the artist finished the work and left for New York, Earth Art sites became cultural pit stops on an Easy Rider itinerary.

Stevenson’s additions colonize their documentary sources, just as his reworkings of Bruce Nauman’s or Dan Flavin’s neon installations add slogans and a layer of millennial apocalypse to the originals. They are able to do this because the drawings are just bad enough to fool the viewer for a moment; almost immediately the viewer inevitably makes so many congratulatory noises about his or her ability to spot the artwork that the additions seem like nothing more than corrected imperfections. Through a type of deliberately inadequate forgery, the drawings complicate a search for the canonical artist. As we take in the old Combi van of We Have Come for Your Daughters, we mentally note the original image’s formal purity, which seems so much more contrived than its misreading. Stevenson mobilizes these misreadings just as postcolonial theory elaborates the potential of mimicry to creatively recycle the texts of the colonizers. I don’t think, for this reason, that the artist’s primary motivation is satirical or even humorous, for the soft-focused monochrome images are mournful, tragic, and distant. This mimicry becomes, as suggested above, both resemblance and menace: a faded page of Artforum here, a vast misunderstanding there. Stevenson once painted a series of works representing the collections of kitsch dogs woven from used cigarette packets in the ’60s and ’70s by New Zealand farmers; these little paper animals were dual monuments to death and a surplus of labor. In “Some Latter Day Art,” Stevenson has overexposed the metaphoric associations of documentary photographs. In the process, certain ghosts surface, of which the first is the improbability of understanding. The second is the countercultural chic that led to Altamont.

Charles Green