“Pop Cultural Memories and Nature of Nature,” New Orleans Art Review

By Karl F. Volkmar


[T]he paintings of Allison Stewart are the refined expression of the artist’s poetic vision of nature through art. There are three major themes represented in the current exhibition of Stewart’s work at the Arthur Roger Gallery, each involving the thoughts and feelings of the viewer varying according to the empirical experiences of each as images, ideas, and facts commingle in the experience of the artist’s work: the elegiac idylls of Fading Dreams, the ontological poetics of Wicked Beauty, the symphonic movements of Natural Wonders, and three minor subthemes that comfortably fit within the rubric of Natural Wonders: Bloom, Silent Tide, and Air Borne.

Fading Dreams are mixed media on panel, each eighty inches in height by thirty-two inches wide, similar in proportions, five to two, and subject matter, to those of Japanese folding screens. The conflation of images lies in a transparent palimpsest of luminous layers, a synchronous montage of shifting depths of field. Lines and colors and shapes float in an amorphous volume of light as if in the ongoing process of becoming and dissolving.

The light and lines are the expression of an exquisitely delicate beauty and a slowly aching sense of helplessness in a Brigadoon of light as one can neither fully engage with nor let go of vaguely realized desires until the time for their fulfillment has passed. Suggestions of continuity from panel to panel along shared sides are thwarted by inconsistencies and discontinuities echoing the organic continuities of Redan’s fabulous landscapes and De Kooning’s subversion of expectations. Geometric regularity is eroded by layers of light, colors are drained of intensity, and serpentine lines disintegrate into an amorphous luminosity in iterations of iterations of iterations like the meandering lyricism of the paintings of Ma Yuan aka One Comer Ma and Mu Qi.

The artist’s ephemeral visions are like pages from a note­ book in the artist’s mind, reminiscent of da Vinci’s suggested possibilities of ideas, dreams and visions, of what might be. Stewart’s art is an expression of dreams as imaginations of what does not exist, a phenomenon of processing memories, a visualizing of what might come to be represented as a floating world more elusive than the Edo ukiyo in an elegiac poetry rendered as a topology of possibilities.

What is, or what are, Wicked Beauty? The subthemes of species of herbs and mushrooms –le bolet bigarre, l’agaric chanterelle, le boletfoie, subruts, lefigue,fenouil, tamarindus, lefeuille inconnu -might be the ingredients of magical potions or poisons. Slang usage of wicked as euphemism for great, i.e., wicked beauty meaning great beauty, may bring one closer to the artist’s intentions. Wicked as intransitive verb, pronounced as if one syllable, wick’d, meaning to draw off as a liquid (confer wick as noun and verb), might refer to beauty that is drawn off, as in wicked away, a beauty, or great beauty that is drawn from the inspiration of representations of natural things. Being wicked away as a wick formed of twisted grasses or fungi draws liquefied fats into itself through capillary attraction the ignition of which creates heat and light, as a phenomenon, would be an extended application of this interpretation. Does not the art, reflecting knowledge and beauty, mirror the phenomena of though, and illumination as metaphor?

The Wicked Beauty works all measure sixteen and on half inches by eleven inches, the approximate size of folios of prints illustrating species in nineteenth century scientific journals. The French names would appeal to Francophone literati, adding an exotic note for some, appealing to the sense of privilege of the cognoscenti even though they might not be familiar with the individual species. The hand-made nature of the artworks parodies scientific literature in a medium that has been replaced by the digital, interesting perhaps for historical interest, and as substrate for art in a technologically driven world.

The geometric precision of the rectangle and the regularity of the column of dark circles disrupting the unpredictable irregularity of the curving lines along the lower tier and the awkward calligraphy of les dentelles de la reine, occupies an oxymoronic limbo where gestural expression and impressionistic description are engaged in a dance like threads of DNA in mating dance. Line is deployed as idea and expression in taxonomy of possibilities mimicking the organic nature of living beings growing, maturing to a state of fruition in which the passing on of genes begins anew, dying and disintegrating, the awareness of which is more significant than recognizing differentiation of species and hierarchies of organization with which mind organizes and categorizes knowledge.

Recognizing empathies and sympathies in form and function among objects and phenomena produces metaphors as hypotheses suggesting paths toward expanding understanding, and rejection of no longer useful understandings through the abstracting power of language, of naming, and the syntactic force grammar. Stewart’s drawings are like the evolving of species represented in various stages of the life cycle, from fluid beginnings, a denser conflation of the lines like grasses twisting into a stem, heading and flowering, and the brittle skeletal lines remaining at the end, falling downwards in the direction of the grasses, form disintegrating into lines as entropy increases. There is an intriguing interplay between planes, defining the limits of possibilities like notations above the sigma sign, between chaotic and rigorous, the plant itself and its various states, abstraction and representation, order and disorder, a statement of the problem and the pertinent facts, a for­ mal equilibrium, a metaphorical algorithm.

The lines of fenouil and the shapes of I ‘agaric chanterelle and le bolet bigarre are art as illustration, art as development of visual idea, and art as understanding and explication of form. The drawings continue beyond the objective description of scientific illustration to handmade variation and interpretation, beyond nature seen through the objective eye of the scientist and presented in hand drawn illustrations reproduced in historical print media from the time when the contemporary media were the means of recording and transmitting knowledge gained through empirical, firsthand experience, and the medium for a viewer’s vicarious exploration of the world. With a cultural sleight of hand, the ephemeral nature of vicarious experience experienced through modem digital media through which one has access to virtually everything everywhere simulacra, no more real than the pseudo-agons of reality shows, are revealed in the art experience where one employs subjective and ephemeral language for that which intends to be ambiguous and therefore real.

The intense colors and contrasts of light and dark, chromatic richness, dramatic, expressive brushwork, entangled net­ works of lines, and clouds of washes in Natural Wonders suggest an empathy with the chromatic melodramas of the late Turner as he deploys Goethe’s theorizing about color, the lyrical landscapes of the Southern Song, and the expressive gestures of Asian calligraphy and Western abstract expressionism.

The artist’s visions are like interpretations of earthly, intracellular, submarine, and cosmic realms where black hole nebulae and flowers blossom, and the meandering paths of seeds through the flesh of ripe melons. Similarities between Natural Wonders #20 and Wicked Beauty-les dentelles suggest a common origin, as if Wicked Beauty had been preparation study in preparation for the former. There is a similar relationship between Natural Wonders #14 and Fading Dreams, the former characterized by a more assertive line, stronger differentiation of shape whether with line or color, and the spatial movement across the surfaces, and the interplay between of planes vis-a-vis planes. The transparent volumes and dark tensions of Natural Wonders #2 suggest a kindred spirit abstract expressionists like Still, Gorky, and the European Wols, the destruction of the world through the globalization of exploitation of natural resources and humankind filling the earlier role of the world war in a more subversive way.

The rich warm colors and expanding forms of the diptych Bloom are expressive of the phenomenon of the blooming growth. When compared with the artist’s other works like Wicked Beauty, the crescendo of form and color seems the dynamic expression of the phenomenon rather than the fact of flowering, a Gotterdammerung of pulsing shapes of color, dynamic thrusts of form, contrapuntal movements of chromatic masses reminiscent of expressive dynamics of Motherwell elegies, Kandinsky’s early abstractions, and Gorky’s referencing to natural phenomena. In­ fusions of color insinuate themselves into expanding masses of colors. Injections of darker colors temper the pace of interaction like water streamed into a bed of glowing coals at a campsite.

The suggestiveness of Silent Tide and Air Borne, the phenomenal associations they evoke, the restless cyclical movements of the tides coming in and going out and the peaceful interludes between each going and coming, the seemingly weightless flight of seeds wafted into the atmosphere is a virtual animation. Characteristic colors, shapes, and patterns evoking associations each with their theme: Silent Tide: water, shore, birds, seaweed, waves, currents, tree branches carried along the flood… Air Bourne: air, wind, clouds, movement, flowers at the stage of disseminating seeds.