Seventy years ago, painter Edward John Stevens Jr.’s opalescent, mystical narratives caught the attention of critics, collectors, and curators. He sold hundreds of works. In 1950, the year he turned 27, he peered solemnly out from behind a canvas on the cover of Life magazine for a story about young American artists.
What happened to him? One of the many figurative artists who lost purchase when Abstract Expressionism swept the art world, Stevens never regained his ground. He died in 1988.
“Edward John Stevens Jr.: The 1940s,” now up at Beth Urdang Gallery, dusts off a long-buried treasure. The artist, an avid traveler and student of indigenous and ancient art, made works on paper in gouache and watercolor that read as part travelogue, part parade of animalistic deities and demons. The first occasionally skid toward sentimentality, but his creatures — painted with tiny, stitch-like strokes and exuberant patterning — are thrillingly weird.
EDWARD JOHN STEVENS JR.: The 1940s
Look at “The Water Bird,” a splendid fellow with speckled rose and gold plumage. Its tail arcs into a spray of pink speckles, like fireworks. Its round human face sports a prominent, aquiline nose. A luminous bonnet secures long brown hair. The effect is glorious and oddly ugly. In the distance, deep-sea divers climb up a ladder toward the beacon of a lighthouse. The bird itself acts as a beacon, calling us toward those awkward parts of ourselves that may yet prove magical.
Space feels faceted in “The Water Bird” and other works, opening out in translucent, layered grids of diamonds and triangles. In “The Romantic Cow,” Stevens flattens space in pale white lines on an indigo ground. The piece looks more like a textile than a painting. The cow — there’s nothing romantic about it; it resembles a prancing, demonic goat — could be at the center of a constellation.
The beguiling “Little Lost Cow,” meanwhile, might be a white cat with an udder. It has a giant, triangular face and mournful yellow eyes, and it is also patterned like a textile. Stevens’s painstaking technique, multicultural riffs, and fey surrealism merit attention. It’s never too late for a comeback.
Suara Welitoff’s videos and photographs at Barbara Krakow Gallery go through so many edits, iterations, and processes that the very stuff of film and video seems as malleable as paint. Her photos — blown up, scanned, photocopied, removed by generations from the originals, which were mostly shot in the 1990s — read more like evidence of the blur and cant of memory than like documents of reality. All as the artist moves nimbly from analog to digital, pushing old images, such as a self-portrait, into a new visual grammar.
Welitoff, primarily a video artist, alters found video in a manner that has us peering into the cracks of something we’d taken as seamless. She slows footage down, changes the palette.
For “Untitled (spiral)” she borrows a short clip from François Truffaut’s 1970 film “The Wild Child,” about a boy discovered wild in the woods who is captured and socialized. Welitoff shows the boy drawing an endless spiral on a blackboard. Her video runs on a loop, so the spiral never ends; with edits, it begins again, or cuts to the middle, but always the form imperfectly rounds itself, just as the video does.
“Interview,” my favorite piece, features edited black-and-white footage of an interview with the Italian actress Anna Magnani, who stands in a field. Welitoff scrubs the audio and snips out the passages in which Magnani actually speaks. The actress listens, she gestures, she takes a deep breath. Her eyes move dreamily upward as she contemplates. She shrugs.
Her lack of words in this talking-head format feels gloriously spacious. Each gesture is an opening, while what she conveys feels unpackaged and even intimate. We read her as we would those close to us, whom we often need no words to understand.
Welitoff makes familiar visual tropes fresh, affirming that we will always find something new in the past, if only we know how to look.
“Animalia” is a frisky, occasionally prickly group show that doesn’t take itself too seriously, curated by Terry Gips and Brett Warren at Galatea Fine Art. Among the more lighthearted works are Pamela Blotner’s personality-filled felted wool critters, mounted on the wall like hunting trophies; her dainty “Miss Putselschwein Regrets” is the primmest of boars.
In Gips’s Creamsicle-colored “Orange Sheep” monoprint, the delicate dapple of their wool imbues the animals with movement and ethereality. Another printmaker, Vicky Tomayko, devises botanical tangles in monoprints that are at once gothic, creepy, and romantic. Her fire-engine-red “Spider Love” weaves a heart into the mix — one with aortas and ventricles, not the simplified Valentine’s Day card symbol — and a large, lurking spider overhead.
Meg Walker’s gestural painting “The Pursuit of Happiness Encounters the Rooster From Hell” sets the bold white outline of a fierce but ragged bird, wings splayed, over spiky black forms on a contained ground of red and blue. Animals act as metaphors and stand-ins for us in art, and here they range from frightening to funny, in work that is consistently smart and well made.
SUARA WELITOFF Sometimes Time Trembles
At: Barbara Krakow Gallery, 10 Newbury St., through March 15. 617-262-4490, www.barbarakrakowgallery.com
At: Galatea Fine Art,
460 Harrison Ave., through Feb. 28. 617-542-1500, www.galateafineart.com
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.