Michael Stevens and Suzanne Adan @ JAYJAY
By David Roth
Published Oct. 13, 2013
If you’ve ever been betrayed, double-crossed, disappointed or threatened with violence, chances are Michael Stevens has enacted a scenario that mirrors your predicament. He does it with hand-carved cartoon characters and mass-produced paintings that he fiendishly subverts, counteracting the original content by adding snakes, stinging insects, nooses and the like. The result is a Howdy-Doody-meets-Alfred Hitchcock universe in which demons lurk behind every white picket fence and church pew.
Stevens came of age in the ‘60s, when war, assassinations and protests were undermining the innocence of American culture as it was then being portrayed in comics and early TV shows. Over the past four decades his work has mirrored its ongoing dissolution and persistent divisions. He operates in two modes. In his freestanding sculptures, hand-carved animals, figures and objects appear in unwieldy totems, reflecting hard falls that his characters seem destined to take. In wall-mounted works, the sculptural elements are affixed to paintings of pastoral or religious scenes that Stevens reworks to warn of dangers that his hapless characters seem unaware of. Few artists match his dark, caustic humor and finely honed material skills. The latter is evidenced in precise wood carving, exquisite joinery and in the alterations he applies to yard-sale finds.
His humor, however, is deceptive; it springs from how we link the physical traits of his characters to those we know, like Disney’s and to others of similar ilk. They’re cute and cuddly, but they’re only a ploy to get us to look. When we do, we see abductions, mutilations, entrapment, intimidation and plenty of psychological trauma — a direct outgrowth of the artist’s Catholic school upbringing where the discipline imposed by nuns was harsh. Stevens has made a career out of exacting revenge, but in this show, which may be his sharpest yet, he lambasts religious and political targets with even greater vigor, if not outright glee.
In The Inquisition, the grimacing face of a nun glares out at us from behind a seated figure, its eyes edged with terror. It appears on a paddle-like platform that stands out from the wall. To the right, a plastic dog observes, while further to the right a crucifix-shaped tree trunk completes the scene. The telltale feature, however, is a body-piercing wing nut that fixes the figure to the chair. Stevens doesn’t go in for subtlety.
“I’m a satirist,” he told me several years ago. “I draw on universal situations, like being out on a limb and using a comedic saw to cut yourself down,” as in Uncle Wiggly’s Paradox, a vertical concatenation of Americana cleaved by a hatchet and a saw. “The imagery that I use talks about the human condition, that theatrical predicament that we’re all in.” Chop Suey depicts the dissolution of the American dream in a similar fashion. A hatchet, a saw, a fish, a suitcase, a log cabin and a lunch pail are piled onto the back of a dog: a teetering structure of idyllic, homespun icons that flash like a warning signal saying, “This could happen to you.” Mouthpiece and Frankenstein Walks Alone comment on America’s political rigor mortis. In the first, Stevens’ Howdy Doody-like character emerges from a painting of George Washington; in the second it appears as a somnambulist puppet, sleepwalking out of a landscape that might have decorated motels and diners in the’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
Though deeply influenced by the wood sculpture of H.C. Westerman, the surrealists Max Ernst and Rene Magritte, the collage wizard Jess Collins and Tony Berlant, a college mentor, Stevens is a self-constructed hybrid.
The same holds for his wife, Suzanne Adan. Her paintings, drawings and mixed-media collages consist of visual taunts and psychological puzzles that resist interpretation. Comprised of figures, objects, animals, text snippets and symbols, they owe equal debts to ’40s-era American cartoons, Joan Miro and to Jim Nutt, a seminal influence who taught briefly at Sac State in the early ‘70s, and whose roots in Surrealism are clearly seen in the frozen-in-time dream sequences that appear in Adan’s energetic canvases. Like the visionary artists that first inspired the Imagists, Adan works in an obsessive manner; the backgrounds of her paintings consist of small scalloped marks done in a heavy impasto which, in contrast to the representational elements, flatten out the action almost completely. And when I speak of flattening, I’m not talking only about how she apportions space, but also about emotional content. Her paintings, while bursting with visual activity, always strike me as having a bound-up, mute quality — like a stifled scream.
Like Stevens, she employs a rotating cast of characters, the most prominent being round-faced, robot-like animals and humans with Pinocchio noses. They’re surrounded and interrupted by tree limbs, toys, arcing lines, floating disks, symbolist-like orbs and swatches of plaid patterning. Where she breaks ground here is with detailed pencil-on-paper collages that employ bits of clip art and include tracts of handwriting, executed in the microscopic style of outsiders. Adan clearly isn’t one of them. But her use of their techniques serves her well. The strongest example on view, Cabin Number Seven, which measures about five feet square, could easily be termed epic, if that word can be applied to something that depicts a surrealist bestiary inhabited by extraterrestrials.
If there’s a thread connecting the two artists it’s the Sacramento home they’ve shared for 43 years. It’s a virtual museum of cartoon figures, comic books, lunch pails, toys and pop culture memorabilia from which they draw inspiration for their respective world views. Stevens uses it to rage against the machine. Adan uses it to create hermetic dreamscapes where nothing is real and everything, it seems, is permitted.