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Beth Stuart, from left: Interior (V.S), Interior, (F.S) and Interior, (I.C), 2014, lime plaster, pigment and encaustic on porcelain, each 100 × 58 cm

Beth Stuart, from left: Interior (V.S), Interior, (F.S) and Interior, (I.C), 2014, lime plaster, pigment and encaustic on porcelain, each 100 × 58 cm

The works in Beth Stuart’s solo exhibition ‘Warm.Worn.Uniform’ successfully elided abstract painting, object sculpture and installation. The show was a modular arrangement functioning as scenic parts and set pieces for a play still being written by their author. The extraordinary tactility of paintings such as Interior, (F.S.) (2014) with their sensuous silly-putty-like resonance that the eye sank into with such alacrity, were effortlessly complemented by the adamant materiality of the arrayed sculptures.

The work sprang from an unfinished play currently being written by the artist titled BLACKANDWHITEAND ALLOVER, a fictional dialogue between three historical figures: Varvara Stepanova, an artist associated with the Constructivist movement who was also a noted clothes and textile designer; Ida Craddock, sexual mystic, free-thinker, and martyr for freedom; and Florine Stettheimer, US painter, designer, poet and unapologetic maverick (she often employed the unlikely ingredient of cellophane in her designs, a level of formal invention that segues with Stuart’s own).

The fulcrum point of the installation was Proposal for a Viewing Apparatus (Mother Ginger) (2014), made from carved wooden stands supporting a pair of blown glass globes containing dried macaroni. The work was a metaphorical and monstrously big optical instrument that was a sort of optical toy, opthalmoscope or spectroscope of the unknowable. All the objects exhibited here, including the spaces in-between objects and paintings, evoked dialogue and encouraged active investigation on the viewer’s part. Retaining their own exotic personae in a proprietary way, they led the viewer to weigh the works not only in relation to one another but also in relation to one’s own body, memory and most wayward imaginative propensities. Somewhere between the boudoir and the theatrical stage space, Stuart stood her ground, staked her claim.

The conceptual dovetailing between paintings and objects was as daunting as it was indelible. Stuart encouraged her viewers to assume the role of a doubting Thomas – referring to the to the Biblical story of the apostle Thomas, who refused to believe in the resurrection until he could examine firsthand the wounds Jesus Christ had suffered on the Cross. Similarly, Stuart places on her viewers the onus for experiential verification. We are asked to consider conceptual linkages and their possibility for embodied dialogue: the massive multi-coloured paintings seemed like hybrids of paint and fabric and resembled vast breathing tablets that spoke to and signalled like semaphores.

A brilliantly subversive work of visual theatre in which the ‘set pieces’ that constitute the ‘scenery’ evoke the history of Modernism as if it was a work of Restoration comedy – or Jacobean tragedy. This maverick artist – equally deft in writing, painting, ceramics, textiles, and sculptural installations – is also an imaginative, revisionist historian of Modernism whose still-evolving body of work is singular, strange and compelling.

Issue 170

First published in Issue 170

April 2015
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