Fan Mail

Fan Mail: Willie Stewart

Willie Stewart incorporates a broad range of complex, mundane, strange, and dark subject matter and cultural references into his work. His interests and references include extraterrestrials, biker gangs and punk rock groups, German artist Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau (1931–33), Mike Kelley’s book The Uncanny, and cult films such as Lloyd Kaufman’s Toxic Avenger (1984).

Willie Stewart. The Love You Withhold is the Pain that You Carry, 2014. Installation view kijidome, Boston, MA. Courtesy of kijidome and the Artist.

Willie Stewart. The Love You Withhold is the Pain that You Carry, 2014. Installation view, kijidome, Boston. Courtesy  kijidome and the Artist.

Stewart’s sculptures, installations, videos, photographs, and photocollages are all individual works, but each piece is often part of a complex and whimsical, yet bizarre, constructed environment that spans multiple rooms and gallery spaces. Each installation feels like a film or theater set.

Stewart’s 2014 exhibition The Love You Withhold is the Pain that You Carry at kijidome (a gallery and project space in Boston) began with the image of a family posing for a portrait, the kind used for a greeting card. In the picture, an infant girl, a boy around five, and a girl of about ten are shown with their father and mother. The father has a thin beard and is wearing a ragged baseball cap over his long straight hair; the mother has a hint of a smile below the frames of her large circular glasses. As a group, they seem to be sincere in their emotions and behaviors; they appear to enact a true image of themselves as individuals and as a family.

Willie Stewart. Family, 2014; digitally woven tapestry, spring clamps, wood; 89 x 58 x 48 inches. Courtesy of kijidome and the Artist.

Willie Stewart. Family, 2014; digitally woven tapestry, spring clamps, wood; 89 x 58 x 48 in. Courtesy kijidome and the Artist.

Stewart reproduced the greeting card portrait as a nearly seven-foot tapestry titled Family (2014)—a material reference, perhaps, of the way in which family greeting cards become a visual insulation from the outside world and a form of verification of a happy and prosperous life, akin to the ways in which tapestries were used to insulate walls during the Middle Ages in Europe. The original photograph that Family was derived from also inspired Stewart to write a fictional story. Stewart illustrated the story with the works in the exhibition and included some short-form writing in the press release that accompanied The Love You Withhold is the Pain that You Carry. The installation tells and simultaneously writes Stewart’s fictional narrative about love, abuse, and alien beings.

Willie Stewart. Scotty, 2014; platinum silicone, resin, child-sized mannequin, clothing, wig, wood paneling; 72 x 52 x 48 inches. Courtesy of kijidome and the Artist.

Willie Stewart. Scotty, 2014; platinum silicone, resin, child-size mannequin, clothing, wig, wood paneling; 72 x 52 x 48 in. Courtesy kijidome and the Artist.

Willie Stewart. Flyswatter, 2014; digital c-print; 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy of kijidome and the Artist.

Willie Stewart. Flyswatter, 2014; digital C-print; 20 x 16 in. Courtesy kijidome and the Artist.

Scotty (2014), a child-size mannequin wearing a sweater, a button-down shirt, and khaki pants pulled halfway down his legs, is posed standing between two retro wood-paneled walls, ready for a spanking as the placement of the framed print Flyswatter (2014), on the wall behind, implies—or perhaps for something more sinister. Scotty is modeled as an older version of the boy in Family and is the key protagonist in the narrative written for the exhibition.

Willie Stewart. Harry, 2014; dehydrated green beans, glass eyes, hardware cloth, burlap, cardboard, plastic wrap, spray paint on hydrocal; 20.25 x 37 x 20 inches. Courtesy of kijidome and the Artist.

Willie Stewart. Harry, 2014; dehydrated green beans, glass eyes, hardware cloth, burlap, cardboard, plastic wrap, spray paint on Hydrocal; 20.25 x 37 x 20 inches. Courtesy of kijidome and the Artist.

Scotty is cast as a child who does not know what love is, sadly, because he has no family to love him. The boy meets and communicates with an alien creature named Harry, embodied in the sculpture Harry (2014). Harry is the last of his kind, marginalized and alone, utterly without love. The fortuitous meeting of Scotty and Harry, as played out in an accompanying video appropriately titled Scotty and Harry (2014), is bizarre and comforting, universal and unimaginable.

Willie Stewart. Teen Fantasy, 2014; white naugahyde, butterfly knife, human hair, platinum silicone, wood; 14 x 11.25 x 3.25 inches. Courtesy of kijidome and the Artist.

Willie Stewart. Teen Fantasy, 2014; white Naugahyde, butterfly knife, human hair, platinum silicone, wood; 14 x 11 1/3 x 3 1/4 in. Courtesy kijidome and the Artist.

While the installation focuses on Scotty and his story, the objects, images, structures, and sculptures also form a more elliptical constellation that gives each work its own meaning and significance. One such work, Teen Fantasy (2014), the re-created bare torso of a young man within a white Styrofoam frame with a butterfly knife resting on top, is incredibly detailed, well crafted, and engaging. In the exhibition The Love You Withhold is the Pain that You Carry, the work Teen Fantasy emerges from the cotton candy–pink wall insulation. The understated details—the hairless chest and the knife—offer a dark portrait of a lustful, potentially violent young man, perhaps Scotty in his teen years, as he searches for an identity shaped not by love but by a lack of it.

Willie Stewart. The Love You Withhold is the Pain that You Carry, 2014. Installation view kijidome, Boston, MA. Courtesy of kijidome and the Artist.

Willie Stewart. The Love You Withhold is the Pain that You Carry, 2014. Installation view kijidome, Boston. Courtesy kijidome and the Artist.

What must family life have been like for Scotty? What about Scotty’s siblings, or his father and mother? Willie Stewart’s work is crisp and psychologically fraught, compelling and vexing. In the case of The Love You Withhold is the Pain that You Carry, it gives the details of a troubled fictionalized life, one that isn’t hard to imagine at all. Stewart’s multi-room installations exist somewhere between a murder mystery, an anthropological museum, an off-Broadway play, and a cult-classic film set—incorporating and elaborating on each to create playful, disturbing, and quixotic landscapes.

Willie Stewart lives and works in Brooklyn and is a 2015 BFA candidate at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, in New York. In 2014, Stewart was a participant at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, from which he received an Alex Katz Fellowship. His work has been exhibited in group and solo presentations in venues across the United States including: kijidome, Boston; Socrates Sculpture Park, New York; 40AU, Nashville; ZieherSmith pop-up gallery, Nashville; the Louisville International Film Festival; and the Nashville Film Festival, where he won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Short Film. His work will be included in upcoming exhibitions at 41 Cooper Square, New York, and at the Herron College of Art Museum, Indianapolis.

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