One of Michael Stevens’ thought-provoking works, “Mouthpiece Pine,” is on view at Jay Jay. Stevens and his wife, artist Suzanne Adan, are showing together.

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At JayJay, a marriage of the eccentric narrative art

Published: Thursday, Sep. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am

Suzanne Adan and Michael Stevens are showing together again for the first time in seven years. “Seven Year Itch,” their joint show at Jay Jay, starts out with a bang.

Adan’s “Sugar Daddy” juxtaposes paint-by-number paintings of clowns from a thrift store with her own eccentric clownlike figure. Stevens’ “Mouthpiece” is a thrift-store painting of George Washington with a sinister, shiny-faced ventriloquist’s dummy extending from his mouth.

Thrift-store finds are part of both artists’ work, and the artists have a similar approach to making eccentric, narrative pieces. Both are superb craftspeople with obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Adan’s large painting “Cabin Number Seven,” made up of tiny stippled brushstrokes that create a textured surface alive with visual incidents, took three month to complete.

Stevens’ tour de force “Uncle Wiggly’s Paradox,” with its vocabulary of stacked-up forms — an ax and a saw, fish, books, ventriloquist’s dummy cases and the like, all bracketing a startled Uncle Wiggly figure in a picnic basket — began with the trunk of the “butternut” tree (actually a paradox elm) cut down in West Sacramento to make room for a water-pumping station in 2010. Both sinister and silly, it’s an impressive totem made up of evocative components that often appear in Stevens’ work.

Married for 43 years, the two met at what was then Sacramento State College in the mid-1960s when they agreed to share a locker in the art building. Adan, who grew up in Woodland, was a former award-winning member of 4-H who learned early to organize projects and work toward a goal. Starting out as an undeclared major whose father expected her to be a nurse, teacher or secretary, she took a design class in the art department at Sac State and found herself fascinated. Classes with Irving Marcus, who had a big influence on her work, turned her into an art major.

Stevens, who moved to Sacramento from Castro Valley in 1955 at age 10, always drew and studied with good teachers — Ralph Goings in high school at La Sierra and Tony Berlant at American River College, before going on to study with Jack Odgen, Jim Nut and Marcus at Sac State. Originally setting out to be a painter, Stevens found himself increasingly interested in three-dimensional work and soon shifted to making sculptures in which raw wood, trunks and branches are juxtaposed with finely carved elements and eerily enameled dummy heads.

Elements of nature also come into play. Beautifully painted plastic birds sit on branches in many of his works, and bees are often painted into the kitschy landscapes, still lifes and religious paintings he finds in thrift stores. Both fruitful and dangerous, the insects seem a metaphor for his work, which is both lush and dark-edged.

Adan recalls driving up to the Candy Store Gallery in Folsom to see a show by Marcus in fall 1965. She remembers being disappointed that there was no candy at the Candy Store, but was infatuated with Marcus’ work and that of other artists who showed at Adeliza McHugh’s gallery.

Childhood plays a large part in both artists’ work. Adan’s work — tapestry such as canvasses with quirky characters and symbols usually in a mostly black-and-white palette — often references children’s games and phrases such as “Mind your P’s and Q’s,” the title of a masterful and intricate drawing included in the show. “Salty and Peppy,” another silvery pencil drawing, includes Campbell Kids salt and peppers shakers collected from thrift stores.

Stevens grew up watching television in the 1950s, which influenced narratives that often have the quality of stage sets and employ imagery based on Charlie McCarthy, Howdy Doody and Disney cartoons. Many of his works are wall pieces, such as “Frankenstein Walks Alone” which mixes macabre humor with monstrous implications, a gloss on innocence and evil.

The two began showing together in the 1980s when they were associated with the Betsy Rosenfeld Gallery in Chicago, and have had exhibits over the years in Sacramento at the Michael Himovitz Gallery, Sac State and Jay Jay. Their works complement each other, and it is always an event when they put together one of their rare exhibits.

In addition to showing together, they team-teach at Sacramento City College and co-direct the Kondos Galley there, which presents some of the finest shows in the area. For many years, they co-directed the gallery at Encina High School in Sacramento, where Stevens taught for many years, and earned a strong reputation for their curatorial skills.

You won’t want to miss the opportunity to see “Seven Year Itch,” which is dedicated to Alvar Tahti and Deborah Hopper Santana, friends of the couple who died of cancer.

Read more articles by Victoria Dalkey



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