Sofia Stevi’s favourite cartoon is The Eager Beaver (Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies, 1946). The sketch opens with a slow pan across a woodland river-valley, whilst a deep and distinguished male voiceover tells us that “Beavers are just about the busiest little fellows in the woods! You betcha!”. The camera continues to pan and finally settles on a group of sleeping beavers. The v/o man, upset at being undermined, clears his throat repeatedly until the beavers wake up and begin fulfilling their expected labour-purpose.
Aside from her obvious indebtedness to the smooth elliptical curves of the cartoon line-drawing, perhaps Stevi calls attention to The Eager Beaver when discussing her work because of its deconstructional mode of joke-making. A formal system is set up (here, ‘the nature documentary’) before being totally and immediately subverted. A second, maybe more subtle subversion, is the dissolution of the diegetic mode. The voiceover wakes up the beavers. The fact that a detached narrator-voice (presumably addressing ‘us’, the audience) can suddenly be ‘heard’ by the characters in the cartoon-world means the boundaries are porous, and the worlds glance against each other. It’s as if David Attenborough has suddenly yelled “Oi!” at an emperor penguin and sent him running. This moment of glancing impact is a really powerful thing, and can be mobilised in many ways – it can be funny, sure, but it’s also quite unsettling.
It’s light and dark, playful and politicised, in the same way that Stevi’s paintings are. With a ‘wink-nudge’ vibe that’s like Bugs Bunny telling ‘us’ to be quiet as he creeps away from Elmer Fudd’s shotgun, we’re invited through the frame into Stevi’s universe of flesh. In paintings like ‘proud male figure’ (2016) or ‘just like honey’ (2016) the suggestion of a classical nude, standing or odalisque, is luxuriantly dissolved, spread across the palate, lusciously, hilariously. Melt-in-the-mouth and tongue-in-cheek at once.
Stevi’s ‘nudes’ license a roving hand and a gregarious appetite, fondly squeezing and pinching the human form into a zone of abstracted figuration – a rush, a loss, a grasp, a tumble – it’s all really sexy, and loads of fun. Stevi herself calls her work ‘anthropocentric’, and the human figure – tender, febrile – is obviously a large part of her gig. But closer to the centre of her fluid acrylics, fleshy gouache, and gaseous, ethereal Japanese-Ink-washes is ‘the dream’. Her work is, in a word, ‘oneiric’, or ‘neurocentric’. The massive mural painted exclusively for this exhibition (‘turning forty winks into decades’, 2017) is a dark and occult mind-scape. Palm-readings sprouting into dreamclouds; furniture transforming into clawed monsters; female figures ‘either ascending to heaven or being abducted by aliens’ (Stevi’s own words).
Perhaps Stevi’s claims over space are a little ambitious. The paintings want to occupy a zone that’s interior, exterior and beyond – domestic and outdoor and empyreal, as well as the external human body and the internal human mind – but this effect would be greater achieved with a more variegated and explorative colour-palate. Across this show we’re sitting in one pink-and-yellow corner of the spectrum, rather than being drawn through the depths of jets and aquas that appear in her other work (see for example her installation at The Equilibrists, Benaki Museum, Athens).
But this is a thrilling exhibition. You feel frisked and frisky. The fluid genital landscapes of the paintings are sexy because phalluses and breasts and vulvae are liberated from the ontological and geometrical responsibilities of being themselves. Warped across neat bands of shape and colour – never wholly One Thing, always even less The Other – the bodies are free from their ‘business’ of being bodies. The farcical strictures of sexual energy along axes of heteronormativity, gender-specificity and procreational anxiety are exposed and dismissed in favour of the gushing bodied truths of being human and intimate. You should be eager as a beaver to get involved, you betcha!
turning forty winks into a decade, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.
15 December 2017 – 22 April 2018.
Adam Heardman is a poet and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne.