Allison Stewart

Allison Stewart at Arthur Roger
Art in America, April, 2005 by Susan Elizabeth Ryan

Beset by overbuilding, subsidence and erosion, the Louisiana coastline is disappearing at an alarming rate: a total of more than 900,000 acres has been lost since the 1930s, according to the Louisiana Coastal Area Final Study Report released in November 2004. It was a coincidence, but not a negligible one, that Allison Stewart's show of new paintings was on view the same month. A biology student in college before earning her MFA, Stewart has long been inspired by and anxious about the local environment.

These large, mixed-medium canvases (3 to 5 feet high on average, all works 2004) offer characteristic, if nonspecific, scenes of the coastal South that evoke romantic landscape painting, from the 17th-century work of Claude Lorraine to 19th-century American Luminism. Stewart paints atmospheric approximations of swampy habitats and abstract, gesturally rendered plants and flowers. Though they participate in a tradition in which lush beauty is the rule and serious messages are not required, Stewart's works softly defy expectations. Her branches and flowers are actually the brittle and withered remnants of once-lovely flora; her yellow and brown tonalities convey decay. There is trouble in paradise.

Arabesque #4, one of 14 paintings in the main gallery, is a diptych done predominantly in acrylic and crayon, broadly brushed with some finger painting and finished with oil glazes. The work evokes the dichotomy between beauty and blight: nostalgic landscape on the one hand and, on the other, darkened plants and a sour wash, from muddy ground to sallow sky.

The moody Lost Lake #3 recalls Victorian murals and painted lampshades: dark purple and blue foliage theatrically frames a fiery sunset punctuated by a bough of dead leaves and a blasted tree worthy of Thomas Cole. Lachrymal drips of paint veil the scene. Contemporary loss and malaise are diffused by bittersweet belle peinture.

Stewart's alternate vehicle for environmental statement consisted of four long, narrow works in the rear gallery (two hanging vertically, the others paired in a horizontal diptych) that reference Asian landscape scrolls. Working with ink, acrylic, wax and collage on board, Stewart abjures color for tans and creams. Across bits of Xeroxed maps, graphs and newspaper columns that enumerate hard data about the disappearing wetlands are expressive, calligraphic black brushstrokes that double as ragged undergrowth. The inclusion of these works, more explicit and severe than the paintings, suggests that Stewart has found a way to negotiate between a fundamental urge to paint beautifully and her desire to issue a call to conscience about the imperiled landscape.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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