Emil Dryburgh – 10 July, 2014
The works' pastel tones and modernist edges operate in tandem with fictive decors. These are implements - not propositions - of contemporary aestheticism. And in this tradition of beauty for beauty's sake, Stewart successfully baits Melbourne society. One admiring blogger described her work as a 'vistas made of ice cream', an appropriately gluttonous description for Stewart's pastel tone arrangements. Another - who presumably had hosted the artist's work - claimed he could have sold Stewart's work ' 3 times over'. Such giddy statements personify the fanfare that accompanies Stewart's work.
Endless, That’s the Problem
5 July - 26 July 2014
Endless, That’s the Problem is the self-aware title of Esther Stewart’s latest installation at Utopian Slumps. Perhaps it’s a reference to the infinite arrangements possible in Stewart’s geometric playthings, or the on-going - seemingly endless - reverie for Modernist inclinations.
Stewart’s synthesis of a Memphis colour palette - the playful ironies of salmon and eggshell blue - along with the utopian glitz of twentieth century abstraction, has the appearance of newness, of something neither modern nor post-modern. Their beauty - or perhaps purity - is almost perverse. No rippled marks as the tape lines were removed, perhaps these were machine processed? Drawn up on an iPad App and shipped to the artist along with a new subscription of The Gentle Woman.
Traced across the room are sections of painted marble, a recurring - if not central motif - in Stewart’s work. The feature is illusionistic, a persistent sleight of hand that provokes the viewer to inspect the surface. Renaissance artists similarly employed the painting of material surface - principally marble - as a means of touting an artist’s technical mastery. Harking back to this game of painterly showmanship, Stewart plays a fair hand.
Stewart’s hard-edge movements exist in the lineage of abstraction, but unlike the work of Kazimir Malevich a century ago, these works lack all provocation. Stewart’s re-productions of an historicized school of painting feels vapid, like silly sweet renditions of colour fields, a commodified display of ”cutting-in”. Once the initial lustre of colour and form had worn off, I started to think of Stewart’s knee-high sculptures as coffee tables, living room adornments in the style of Martin Boyce. While in Boyce’s work the language of Modernism is as an abused ruin of a utopian ideal, Stewart’s use of it seems as simple admiration.
The works’ pastel tones and modernist edges operate in tandem with fictive decors. These are implements - not propositions - of contemporary aestheticism. And in this tradition of beauty for beauty’s sake, Stewart successfully baits Melbourne society. One admiring blogger described her work as a ‘vistas made of ice cream’, an appropriately gluttonous description for Stewart’s pastel tone arrangements. Another - who presumably had hosted the artist’s work - claimed he could have sold Stewart’s work ‘ 3 times over’. Such giddy statements personify the fanfare that accompanies Stewart’s work.
The near-perverse appeal of these works was enshrined on the opening night’s work list. A trail of ‘SOLD’ all the way down the page - presumably pre-sales - indicating the esteem which Melbourne collectors hold for Stewart’s work. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the paintings were destined for the hallowed interiors of Brunswick and Gertrude Street. The scale, only slightly larger than ‘domestic’, is a subtle pronouncement of the object beyond the world of interior.
I wanted to probe the world of Stewart’s work, and turning to Google I found Photoshop composites of Chloé models on top of Stewart’s utopian curves, a pristine emblem of in vogue. These web-based syntheses of trends described the quagmire - or paradise - in which Stewart’s work exists. Her work resonates with the world of fashion, decor and Sunday arts columns. These lenses through which we view her work are far more prevalent than the white walls of Utopian Slumps.
Perhaps the world of contemporary art is increasingly transmitted in these terms? As a special feature in a home magazine, art becomes explicitly connected to the prospective buyer’s tastes and identity. Stewart works are composites of trend, a reflection of prominent taste. But provocative objects should teeter on the edge of good taste. And while Stewart’s work is certainly “of our times”, this is hardly adventurous when trying to define them.
I don’t often write negatively about art.
In my art world - a place where nothing sells - I think it is easy to delude oneself into thinking that an artistic life is a kind of economic penance. I probably hold on too tightly to the gallery in the ‘public’ sense, a seemingly unmonetized critical sphere, and a friendly place of cognitive association. Perhaps I’m even surprised when I see a gallery operate as a booming commercial venture; I almost forget it’s an option.
Reflecting on my recent jabs toward a culture that could be called ‘Hipsterdom”, I am reminded of an Andy Warhol saying:
“Nothing is as bourgeois as trying not to be bourgeois.”
It’s a snappy quote, and a useful reminder not to feel self-conscious of our cultural selves. I think Warhol would have liked these works. Stewart ploughs an exhausted field of image culture, and crams the gallery to the hilt - at which point the works appear like mere components. And in the truly Warholian tradition, she appears unfazed about swimming in fashionable currents.
To read a transcript of the panel discussion “Whose Oceania?” held recently in London, and more on NZ arts abroad, CLICK HERE
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