“Securing Abstraction”, The New Orleans Review

Securing Abstraction



Allison Stewart is yet another abstract romantic, but her temperament is distinctive. Although she is conceptually allied with Marden and Dunbar— complete with an overmastering theme — she does not share their restraints. The immediate tone of her work suggests emotions freely and unapologetically felt. In a new suite of paintings recently at Arthur Roger, she affirms both her own authority and the abiding authority of a truly passionate mode of abstraction.

The other restraint Stewart eschews is the formal one. The plodding, rigorous manner seems foreign to her. She is a stylist, a natural one. And she relishes all the painterly maneuvers that such a label might entail. Her devised shapes, all alluding in some way to landscape, are patently mannered; her most effective compositional motif, an undulating panorama, has the delicate grace of a Monet Water Garden. And, most important, she handles color like a cinquecento Venetian — the pictures are suffused with sensuous golds, magentas, Prussian blues.

This is not the usual stuff of exalted topics, at least not in contemporary times. In fact, her technical approach is reminiscent of an easy going 1970s movement called Lyrical Abstraction. It was a Color Field tangent that supplanted Minimalism with the sheer optical pleasure of pigment on canvas. Some Lyricists were maligned/reviled as merely pretty, as unprofound. But at that moment, the politically heinous early seventies, a foray into aesthetic hedonism was perfectly in order.

Now, some twenty-five years later, there is further use for it. Especially if the gratifying style is channeled with thought and serious purpose. That’s a difficult balancing act, but Stewart has managed it for some years in a unique mode of landscape-as-abstraction. The result is far beyond mere lyricism.

Bayou Haiku, 2006

Her handsome surfaces are an enticement; she posits them as the first step toward a personal philosophy of nature, a philosophy that extends the traditional Romantic stance. The old romantics — mainly the 19th century Germans such as Friedrich and Runge — were passionately reverent, essentially “kneeling” before a spellbinding wilderness. They perceived God behind the veil of his grandest creations, and were staggered. Stewart’s attitude is spiritualist too; her apparent conviction makes it so. But the overall, sustained quality is not reverence. Rather, it feels mournful. At times, her paintings verge on the funereal. Ultimately, we can see her art as a pictorial lament for today’s environment — specifically the imperilled environment of our own Gulf Coast region.

Her latest effort, the Arthur Roger exhibition, is by far the most convincing to date. Her technique was never so lucid. She retains much of the spontaneity and grace of the earlier Lyricists, then amplifies the effect. Composition is practically anti-composition. In a work such as Bayou Haiku, her forms loop and scatter, seemingly at random — like the automatist sweeps in an Action Painter’s “arena,” and yet one perceives a convincing balance. It comes from Nature itself—an endless sensation of movement, an unregulated order. Her color, though, is harder to pin down. It is at once fragile and forceful, translucent and rich. She layers opaque passages upon washes and then, apparently, applies more washes. The outcome is a complexity that raises echoes of chromatists from Bellini to William Baziotes.

Very likely, Baziotes is also Stewart’s most significant forebear—and the best reference in approaching the essential thrust of her art. He was Abstract Expressionism’s most sensitive painter, its most surreal, and its most romantic. Whereas his peers allowed vague insinuations of the natural, world, Baziotes made symbols of it: a system of refined equivalents.

Stewart treats nature similarly; the new paintings are filled with “equivalents.” But hers occupy a realm of Friedrich-like spiritualism, moody and quietly intense. In the German romantic’s view, the central issue was religious desire usually expressed by rapt human figures in a state of longing — agonizing frustration before God’s enigma. In Stewart’s Bayou Haiku, as in most of her work, the longing is replaced by loss. She presents exquisite abstracted fragments of plant life, suspended and melting in a poisonous, umbered vapor. Perfect beauty defiled. This is the artist’s crytallization of an ongoing ecological tragedy, one that resonates in the soul. She is painting the death of God’s emblems. The emblems are indispensable.