Angela Stewart: Three Women

Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery 28 May - 27 June 1999

On one level, Angela Stewart's Three Women is simply a celebration of the her-stories of three vital, elderly Western Australian women: Eva Sounness, Julianna Kotai and Joy Burns. This being the centenary year of Women's Suffrage, moreover, it's a timely tribute to their full, creatively rich, lives. However, as we face Stewart's deliciously sumptuous series of portraits, the catalogue information about the female subjects seems to drift away and we're left to respond directly to the way the works speak about issues central to our shared humanity.

One of the strategies Stewart employs to make the leap from the portrait as a study of a particular identity to something more generally relevant to the 'problem' of our being-in-the-world, is to locate them within a frame of white paint. Spied through a kind of key-hole cinema, we catch glimpses of the private ministrations of these elderly women - a set of hands isolated from the rest of the body, a finger pushing glasses in place... Now, one interpretation of Stewart's juxtaposition of intimate, lushly painted portrait-fragments and milky-white 'frames-within-the-frame' is that she is drawing our attention to the fact that frames create meaning. But, we can rule this out - her project is not didactic. On the contrary, Stewart's works play, compellingly, with the dialectic between separation and intimacy. As Helen Carroll puts it in the catalogue foreword, Stewart "acknowledges the ultimate impossibility of knowing another person completely - and suggests that portraiture can only ever capture fragments of identity". As much as we are drawn close to these women, therefore, they cannot be fully known, and we're left, hovering, outside the paintings pondering whether this may be a basic condition of life itself.

In the suite of larger portraits, such concerns are given another twist. In a work like They Didn't Like This Bubble Paper, for instance, we find Eva holding a shopping cart and shut off from a world that has become a hazy backdrop of blue. While these (visually) alienated women often stand-out in these spaces, however, they equally appear to be at the point of merging into the broad expanse of nothingness behind them and might be read, symbolically, as images of people on the verge of slipping, alone, toward the great beyond.
And, this sense of 'falling' into another world is also addressed in the large, darkly sombre, charcoal drawings in which the body and that which 'sparks' life within it, is referenced as something that only momentarily surfaces - in the grander scheme of things, it's nothing much, but on the personal level it's absolutely everything.

Which is why memory is so precious, and why we see Stewart's women sifting back through the years, gently tilling the cognitive soil. But, unsurprisingly, the past is allusive and their memories are present as signs only, not substance - their actuality always beyond the viewer. So, as we read the snippets of sentences recalling aspects of past lives that act as titles, we become aware that, maybe, we're only ever (partial) eavesdroppers on other people's lives.

Ultimately, then, Three Women is something of an existential meditation - or challenge, depending on how you take these things. But one of the most interesting, even exciting, aspects of the show is that we are never lectured to about these humanistic (and/or spiritual) concerns. Rather, we are seduced into their contemplation as Stewart's impressive technical facility brings an almost gorgeous gentleness of feeling to the works. Combined with her self-conscious manipulation of the language of painting - that sees her never forsake pictorial and intellectual rigour - Stewart's exhibition makes it possible to say what we all knew was possible, but were finding less and less evidence of: yes, there is such a thing as smart and moving post-modern painting...

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