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Heart of Darkness

The core of Mary Stewart’s large works disturbs.

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“From the ‘Learning Series’” is excerpted from a set of 12 works made between 1998 and 2000 by the Illinois-based artist. Each work is vertical, like a door or tomb-slab, and is taller than a large man. They’re mostly monochromatic; their dramatic range of blacks, whites and grays was created by combining the photocopy transfer technique of printmaking with pencil drawing. Each portrays an unreal space — stormy and unstable — where man-made structures and geometric forms are glimpsed through thunderclouds and churning seas. Some of these images — a half-ruined train station, a steel girder that reaches skyward from a stone circle of Roman numerals — are visually explicit. Others — door-shaped apertures that seem to reveal layers of atmosphere, a recurring rectilinear shape rendered only in outline — remain nebulous abstractions.

According to Stewart, the “Learning Series” is rooted in Socrates’ suggestion that knowledge is “inherent and universal,” while life is “a search for essential truths remembered from a pre-birth state.” So the murky man-made structures glimpsed through the gloom may represent archetypal memories emerging from inchoate preconsciousness, while the recurring rectilinear outline, redolent of the Platonic notion of “perfect” form, might represent the potential for Apollonian order to rise out of Dionysian chaos.

This rectilinear outline is reminiscent of the mysterious doorlike motif found in Robert Motherwell’s “Opens” series of paintings. In each of these, a sketchy rectangular outline — superimposed over a moody color-field like a partially formed thought — seems to offer a kind of safe passage from existential despair. One of the greatest of these works, “In Plato’s Cave,” alludes to the philosopher’s famous parable of passersby glimpsed only by their fire-cast shadows. Plato considered art a mere shadow — a representation of humanity, which was itself a representation of an ideal image of humanity. In the literally shadowy “Learning Series,” the glowing rectilinear “door” may represent an elusive hope of transcendence from doom and dissolution.

But the heart of these works remains dark. The “Learning Series” is a grim deliberation on the human struggle to find meaning and construct order. In it, Stewart searches for ancestral memory, for a collective unconscious that is tantalizingly glimpsed but perhaps impossible to grab, in a possibly futile struggle that evokes what Delmore Schwartz called, in a poem inspired by Plato’s cave, “the mystery of the beginning again and again, while history is



“From the ‘Learning Series’” can be seen through July 26 at the Marsh Gallery, located on the ground floor of the George M. Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond.

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