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Top drawer

Stewart Oksenhorn
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

When Joseph Stashkevetch finally launched his art career – or was more or less pushed into it by a group of friends – he had been out of the habit of thinking creatively for years. Not knowing where to turn for inspiration, Stashkevetch looked to something most familiar to him, and a most unlikely source of beauty: the Meadowlands, the industrial corner of northeastern New Jersey that gave rise to the plethora of jokes about the Garden State.”I grew up going to New York, through the Meadowlands area, and it was fascinating to me,” said Stashkevetch. “So there was something about reconnecting to my past; I wanted to get in there.”The first thing I did was go to the trestle bridges and climbed around in them, on the platforms in the Newark train station, on the girders and trestles.”Stashkevetch’s earliest work, drawings of the industrial, urban architecture of the Meadowlands area, was an instant hit. Through a few quick introductions, he landed representation from Paul Morris, whose gallery helped establish Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood as a center of the art world in the mid-1990s. Within a year, Morris was selling everything Stashkevetch could produce.Stashkevetch’s latest subject matter is at the far end of the spectrum from those urban buildings. His current show, his third solo exhibition at Aspen’s Baldwin Gallery, features drawings of peonies and of motorcycles. Despite the change in subject matter, and the fact that he renders both flowers and vehicles in a gorgeous black, white and gray, much of the grit has not been washed off of Stashkevetch.He continues to work in pencil, a medium that maximizes the hands-on, close-in nature of his process. The physical aspect of his art is heightened by his extensive use of sandpaper, which he uses to grind down the charcoal, embedding it in the paper. The way he describes his studio, at the northern tip of Manhattan, sounds like a factory; he gauges his productivity by the buildup of black dust on his otherwise all-white cat. “It’s like Vesuvius,” he says of his workspace. The pencils he uses, called conté, are a compressed mix of charcoal, oil – and bone.”The origins of the stuff are very blue-collar,” said Stashkevetch, whose blue-collar appearance – big neck, bigger biceps, goatee and wool cap – is offset by a gentle nature. “After years of running in the opposite direction, it took a while to recognize that I am very blue-collar when you come down to it. I do very much like the physical labor. You get to get dirty every day.”

Stashkevetch is the product of South River, a central New Jersey town known, apart from being the hometown of former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann, for its working-class nature. Stashkevetch had a working-class upbringing, as the son of a cop and a secretary. Still, drawing was always a passion, and he had an aptitude for art.”Not that anyone, including myself, thought that was important. Which is why my parents never discouraged it,” said the 48-year-old Stashkevetch. “It was very blue-collar. There was no art; it was inconceivable that you could be an artist as a career.”Stashkevetch entered the Rhode Island School of Design, but with no thought of becoming an artist. His initial ambition, which would come into use later, was architecture, but his math skills were deficient. So he focused on fashion design, of all things, and went on to spend four years designing clothing for the high-end Mary McFadden label. It was not only far removed from his blue-collar roots, but a far cry from a creative outlet. And deeply dissatisfying.”I did not understand the clothes at all – fancy women’s clothes,” said Stashkevetch. “Her concepts and my concepts were worlds apart. And it’s not a nice business. Fashion in New York was not about design, it’s about money. That knocked the stuffing out of me.”Stashkevetch wandered into decorative painting, in New York and Paris, and then into architectural renderings for a New York firm. Through these various careers, he didn’t make any art, or even think about it. His friends were thinking about it for him.

One night, around 1993, a group of friends took Stashkevetch out for dinner and twisted his arm into taking three months off to make art. “They asked, ‘How many drawings can you make in three months?'” he recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t want to be an artist. I need a job.'”That’s when he headed into the urban jungle of New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Stashkevetch’s earliest drawings were huge, the pencil markings loose – a retreat, he said, from the tight, controlled work he had done in fashion and architectural renderings. The results were impressive (“I can draw anything,” said Stashkevetch), but he still held onto that working-class notion that art could not be a career. When a friend suggested he could bring the painter Ross Bleckner to his studio, Stashkevetch resisted.”The last thing I wanted was someone of Ross Bleckner’s status coming into my studio,” he said. But Bleckner visited, offered constructive advice, and asked if he could send another visitor to call on Stashkevetch. That was Paul Morris, the art dealer. Almost instantly, Stashkevetch was reassessing his thoughts about making a living through art.”It was like shooting fish in a barrel,” he said. “I thought, well, this is easy. So initially, I had a very false sense of how easy it was to make a living.”Stashkevetch did have a rough stretch in the late ’90s, when a relocation to San Francisco coincided with Morris’ business troubles. He returned to New York in 2000, and his fortunes seem to have reversed. The current show at the Baldwin Gallery was mostly sold out before the exhibit opened (a circumstance that left Stashkevetch free to take up skiing again, after a 30-year hiatus). His new drawings sell in the $32,000 neighborhood.

Looking at Stashkevetch’s new work – as opposed to the early, grimy cityscapes – it’s easy to lose sight of where he has come from. But the peonies and the motorcycles stem not from a desire to idealize beautiful objects, but from more provocative places. “I was never interested in doing flora. No thank you,” he said of making flowers.The peonies came after reading about the firebombing of German cities during World War II. Stashkevetch learned that the bombed areas experienced a “second spring” from the superheated ground, with a second blooming of flowers. Stashkevetch took photos of nighttime bombings, replaced the hot spots with flowers, and used that as a template for his exquisite peonies. The series began just as America was going to war, another influence on the drawings: “It happened just as we were going to Iraq, which I thought was a big mistake.”People thought they were very pretty flowers, until my dealer explained to them that origin.”The motorcycles exist alongside the musclemen series. In motorcycles, Stashkevetch saw anthropomorphism, metal parts taking on characteristics of the human figure. And in his muscle men, the almost cartoonish bodybuilders are imitations of a machine.The last Stashkevetch show at the Baldwin Gallery featured work reflecting his interest in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its consequences. He proposed to the late Harley Baldwin that he would spend several weeks in Matamoros, Mexico, and get a feel for the low-budget life there. “Harley said, ‘You want to do garbage dumps, do garbage dumps. If this is what you want to show, we’ll show it,'” said Stashkevetch, who had a complete sellout of the series.Where Stashkevetch’s first professional drawings had a technically loose quality, the work has become increasingly tight, intensely so. The drawings are photolike in their detail, and painterly in the exaggerated use of light and shading. “I kept raising the bar on myself in terms of technique,” he said. Continual improvement is big with Stashkevetch. He listens only to classical or Baroque music while working, finding songs distracting and preferring the stretched-out structures of symphonic music. The one exception is jazz singer Sarah Vaughan (a product of working-class Newark, N.J.), whom Stashkevetch praises for “the way she kept pushing and pulling her instrument, and never stopped.”Stashkevetch’s technique is a physical pursuit; he refers to his methods as “aggressive.” He starts with the thickest paper stock available, then sands his markings down, sometimes to bare threads of fiber. Sometimes the paper gives way completely, a tactile risk he seems to like taking. He borrowed the technique from Jim Hodges. “He had torn the surfaces, and that shocked me,” said Stashkevetch. “I started completely tearing apart the surface of my drawings. I thought it was fun, to vandalize my work.”Commercially, I had done a lot of painting in previous careers,” he continued. “When you’re drawing, there’s more of an immediate connection to what you’re doing. What I do, it’s literally mark by mark by mark. There are no big swaths to what I do. It’s line by line by line.”I’m sure there are easier ways to do what I’m doing.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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