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East and West Inform the Abstractions of Maxwell Stevens

By Brian Smith

Special to the Post-Dispatch

      Abstract paintings tend to be about so much more than their subject matter.  By their very nature, the works allow an audience to project meaning upon them, and knowing an artist’s intent and influences also helps in the understanding and appreciation of the work.

      However, what may be most important is whether or not the viewer desires to return to the work, believing that more can be learned and perceived with each visit.

      And so it is with Maxwell Stevens’ current exhibit at Elliot Smith Contemporary Art.  Stevens is a young, local artist who holds a graduate degree from Washington University.  He has done a good job of filling up the large gallery space at Smith with a body of new work that explores several different motifs, linked by Stevens’ obsessive mark-making – a process that results in textures becoming forms in and of themselves. 

      Stevens’ work speaks to different traditions, both Asian and Western.  He is fascinated with mark lines and is obviously influenced by Chinese scholar rocks and Japanese landscape stones.  The minimalist compositions shown here also reference such contemporary artists as Agnes Martin and Brice Marden. 

    There are also nods to cubist shapes, not unlike ones that showed up in the early abstract-expressionist paintings of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.  But Stevens’ works are not raw or emotional, nor are they cold and sterile like some of his earlier 70’s-style paintings.  Instead, they are reflective, with a playful sense of energy that clearly attempts to bring nature forward to the surfaces. 

      The variety of scale in the show reveals a diversity of compositional devices.  Small, physically compelling and heavily textured oils at first look like slabs of sod – even swatches of shag carpet.  Larger works evoke landscape, and the medium-sized pieces refer to an enlarged microscopic world. 

      Some of the pieces intimate a need to be larger.  There is an uncomfortable cropping in horizontal works such as “Blue” and “Olive,” but the rich, measured monochromatism works against any compositional flaws.  It is an interesting exercise to see what colors lay underneath the small, textured paintings (examples being “Lapis Lazuli”  and “Exit Strategy II”) paintings that could be terrifically impressive in a larger scale – yet would probably bankrupt the artist in that they require the use of so much paint.

      Stevens’ “Movement” series may contain his best and most consistently fleshed-out ideas.  The works do just as the title implies.  Dozens of small, rectangular black marks dance around one another, creating a kinetic force reminiscent of bees in a hive.  It seems appropriate that Stevens would also use a beeswax surface for the work, although this may be coincidental.  Intriguing in their layered translucence, the surfaces are also gouged and recessed like the viewing stone Stevens has on display in the gallery.  It is not clear how these surfaces relate directly to the imagery, but it is affecting and engaging nonetheless.

      It would have been nice to see more examples of the other motifs in the exhibit, but the overall result is that of a young, directed artist developing intelligent work in a sophisticated way.

Maxwell Stevens

New Paintings

Where: Elliot Smith Contemporary Art,

4727 McPherson Avenue

When: Through Oct. 22

More info: 314-361-4800

image insert: "Olive" by Maxwell Stevens, Oil on canvas

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