Immodest Modesty: Beth Stuart

Toronto painter Beth Stuart talks about her painting in a way that confirms how good you already think it is. (Her recent collection of paintings and sculpture, called “two sticks in a shed” was on exhibition from January 14 to February 26 at Battat Contemporary in Montreal.) “My paintings are kind of obstinate and ornery and I’m not trying to be coy in saying that they have very strong, distinctive personalities, so they dictate where they get placed and how they need to relate to each other.” Stuart is fascinated by states of in-between-ness, a condition that has personal, cultural and political implications for her work. She plays in a space between dimensionality and non-dimensionality and between some version of figuration and some kind of abstraction.

Politically she emphasizes her attraction to negotiation rather than argument, while personally she recognizes something nebulous about her identity, a feeling she describes “as being neither here nor there. It’s not as if they are pushing to all out glamourous drag or that they are performing a kind of alternate gender. Instead, it is a work-a-day androgyny, an elegant inelegance that is neither male nor female. These are definitely and decisively androgynous paintings.”

She is also interested in paintings that are deliberately awkward, that “jostle against one another in ways that are not comfortable.” They are extremely physical and, without ever becoming figurative, they insinuate an undeniable bodily presence. It’s a presence that shifts towards the bawdy as well and in this regard, she is not averse to their becoming profane. In DADODADODADO, a line from a nipple in the upper section of the composition connects to an area that could easily be read as a crotch in the lower reaches, and in *The Muffler *something rude hangs out of a slit in the painting. The intimate scale of the work is connected to its visceral intensity. “As far as the scale is concerned,” Stuart says, “I’m interested in making modest, immodest paintings.”

One of the most compelling states of in-between-ness in the work is embodied in its aesthetic dimension. In the single sculpture called Heddle and Reed, a trio of slightly surreal objects are themselves of indeterminate identity. In the same way that her paintings are neither totally objects nor totally pictures, her sculpture uses the material of the paintings (linen and pigment) in its engagement with three-dimensional space.
Stuart’s work is never only one thing but many things simultaneously. Even her naming employs a sense of overlapping meaning. The Fall, is named for its somber palette, a Dutch punk band “with a very particular aesthetic,” and with Stuart’s own painting methodology. “It has to do with the space I occupy when I make the work, with how much the work leads me, with how much the process is a falling into.” This uncanny and brilliant exhibition makes it clear that Beth Stuart is engaged in some kind of fortunate falling.

Volume 30, Number 1: Production

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #117, published March 2011.

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