Steven Harvey

The appeal of this exhibition is in the invitation it offers to enter the artist’s studio and witness the act—part observance, part artifice—that unites artist and model on the canvas.

It is unpretentious in scale and in intention. Each painting is sized to oblige assimilation in a single look. It does not set out to make claims, to illustrate a theory or dazzle with bravura. Nevertheless, the ensemble has a bearing that holds its own among the styles and counter styles currently on view.

While Harvey holds his place within the figurative tradition, he is unconstrained by any strict canon of representation. Literal adherence to precise reproduction, as the camera seems to render, is not at the heart of his undertaking. Rather, the real subject of these paintings is the process of depiction. The scene portrayed prompts consideration of its means.

Harvey works contrapuntally, his process carried forward by contrast between thin, efflorescent passages of light and dark and the interplay of complements and near-complements: variegated blues and violets against splendid expanses of yellow broken by oranges and shifts into red.

Aware—as both a painter and curator—of the tradition which precedes him and informs his own work, Harvey is intent on creating work that is decidedly of this century in style and content. Narrative content turns on the age-old theme of the artist and his model. Yet the paintings are better described as displays of the painter’s language, informal surface performances that constitute a kind of dramaturgy. Each piece remains a première pensée, the paint kept fresh and liquid as evidence of the initial prompting.

John Goodrich’s summation of the activity within these paintings cannot be stated any better: "Harvey explores the reflected worlds within mirrors, and like Bonnard, he uses a model casually posed before a mirror to plumb the visual paradoxes of the familiar. His studio proves a fertile world, with chairs, a heater, and painting racks populating the receding spaces behind his figures, all rendered in fluid strokes and vital hues. Like Bonnard, he likes to jolt the eye with sudden contradictions of depth, to to unfold new and unexpected vistas."

Reference to Bonnard is useful on several levels. Both use the inversion of figure and reflection to probe the visual conundrum provided. Mirrors accommodate Harvey’s involvement with peripheral vision and his concern, like Bonnard’s, with flattening the field of vision. Harvey’s approach to space is also similar, his compositions conveying the sense of a space which simultaneously opens up only to close back in upon itself, airless and and confined. Suggestions of depth are noted and immediately negated by Harvey’s painterly emphasis on a flat, two-dimensional planar scheme. The figure and its reflection function as patterns rather than indications of receding and advancing forms.

For Bonnard, the motif of the nude reflected in her dressing table mirror is an intensely private, personal one. By contrast, Harvey seizes her reflection as an item of studio clutter. It is one more in the series of verticals and horizontals mingled with an occasional curve—a breast, a buttock, the slope of a thigh—that strike the eye in the hermetic world of the studio.

The tense angularity of Harvey’s models shifts away from the French, suggesting a more Northern vision.. He foregoes sculptural density for an economical, brushy figuration that is much closer in handling to Edvard Munch’s or Emil Nolde’s than to Bonnard’s. Christian Rohlfs also comes to mind.

Harvey’s figures are languid and spare in their anatomy. His women bear structural similarity to the standing male of L’Homme el la femme, 1900; indeed, to any of the male figures that Bonnard worked between 1898 to 1900, a time when Munch was highly influential among Bonnard’s contemporaries. Throughout his life, Bonnard handled the female form quite differently from these early males, understood to be self-portraits. There is little erotic charge in these attenuated males, just as there is little in the majority of Harvey’s female nudes.

An exception has to be made here for the three nearly life-sized paintings, hung close together to suggest a single unit, of a standing female figure that dominate the gallery. In each, a frontal, naked presence gazes right back at artist and viewer. Behind the figure and to the side, a mirror offers a full-length reflection of her back. A different model, longsome and poised, tenants each canvas of the tripart grouping.

The identity of the model is so distinct we could address her by name if we knew it. Perhaps because it so subdued in the other paintings, the model’s individual presence here reminds us that they are not interchangeable artifacts but three quite specific women. That recognition, and the fondness it suggests, is all that is needed to convey an erotic charge that lies quiescent in other canvases.

Nudity, of itself, primarily suggests vulnerability. Eroticism derives from elsewhere, from greetings extended to the power of flesh and its passions—including, in the case of Marthe Boursin, a passion for bathing. As a general principle in Harvey’s nudes, pleasure in flesh is not admissible evidence. Eroticism, in the end, is an easy game. Harvey earns respect for choosing the more intricate route. Overall, what matters in this suite of paintings is the opportunity the model offers to explore the kaleidoscope of vision within the fragmentary arrangements set by the restricted vehicle of the studio. Harvey accomplishes it with spirit and a communicable love of the theater of everyday life.


April 1999

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