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THE ONLY STAIR THAT DOESN'T CREAK: Brent Stewart

southern art

Contemporary Art in the South:

Brent Stewart’s “Quintet” at Zeitgeist Gallery in Nashville

A stationary camera is set on a rooftop. The camera has been loaded with grainy, black and white sixteen mm film and begins recording. A dancer stands between the camera and a city skyline. Bunker-like warehouses, a cellphone or radio tower, a telephone pole, a river, and skyscrapers loom in the distance beyond the expansive, concrete rooftop-cum-dance floor. The dancer’s back is turned to the camera. Her hands are gently resting on her head. Slowly, her fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, and hips shift like tectonic plates awakening from geological slumber. Her arms remain up and both hands hover directly above her head forming a halo. It is a gesture that recalls wholeness, perfection, eternity, and the spheres of the cosmos—our earth, sun and moon, among others. The gesture also echoes and frames the rounded rooftops of the warehouses in the distance. The dancer’s halo mutates and becomes directional, leading to an angular arm and hand formation that opens onto a smaller vista lying within a frame formed by the dancer’s fingers. The dancer shifts again, raising one hand with the other into the sky to caress it with articulated fingers while the rest of her body takes on the shape of an s-curve. From there, she turns her whole body and gently reveals her profile. One of her hands becomes a plain on which the fingers of her other hand travel across. A journey into what it means to be human and inhabit space begins in silence. 


This unassuming but substantive morsel of film is part of a multichannel film installation by Nashville, Tennessee, filmmaker/photographer/artist Brent Stewart. The film installation is titled “Quintet,” and it is currently being exhibited at Zeitgeist Gallery in Stewart’s hometown until September 7, 2012, as part of the gallery’s “A Bigger Picture” series. Within the installation, five separate, mostly fixed-frame, black and white films focused on the movements of a lone dancer exploring a series of architectural spaces and landscapes are brought together and looped on an equivalent number of slightly anachronistic television monitors placed on pristine, white pedestals. 

brent stewart southern art

Installation view of Brent Stewart’s “Quintet,” courtesy of Brent Stewart and Zeitgeist Gallery

In one of the other videos, Stewart’s dancer begins her choreography at the far end of a cavernous room with numerous, large windows which illuminate the darkness of the room from the outside. Discarded sheets of wood litter the floor immediately in front of the camera. A single column in the center of the room juts toward the ceiling which is lost in the inky darkness hovering above the scene. A black line (presumably a shadow) intersects the column. The dancer uses the line as a threshold, crossing over it with some ceremony and making her way to the foreground with a series of flourishes from one of her arms as if to introduce and ingratiate the viewer to the space. In the next film, she is sequestered in a small clearing within an abandoned warehouse space that looks as if a bomb went off inside of it. The scene is one of chaos and ruin; yet, Stewart’s dancer responds to the space with a most exuberant and rhythmically measured dance within her clearing, bringing new life to the abject gloom. In another film, the dancer occupies and maneuvers the central space inside a room that looks like an empty basement. A single lightbulb near a meandering pipe illuminates the dancer and the space. The sparseness of the room echoes the white cube of the gallery Stewart’s film installation currently inhabits.

The one film in the cycle which isn’t emanating from a fixed-camera position follows Stewart’s dancer from within another abandoned and bombed out warehouse, through a curtain of vegetation and into the sunlight and surrounding landscape. The camera is trained on her back as she navigates her surroundings. She eventually returns into the darkness. This sequence is a perfect metaphor for the path taken by all living creatures: birth, life, and death.

“Quintet” is a work of quiet and subtle power that harnesses the past to illuminate the present and simultaneously speak about enduring human concerns. It brings the viewer into a deep, mental conversation about life, death, time, place, architecture, performance, and film itself if the viewer is willing to entertain such a thing. It can also be seen as five simple explorations of specific spaces by a single dancer—no more and no less. 

Essentially, Stewart’s installation is an open source of various modernist and postmodernist ideas and techniques. If one is looking for modern grandiloquence, romanticism, and architectural fetishization, it’s there. The scale of the films, the geometry within them, the focus on purity and ruin, the finesse of half of the movements of Stewart’s dancer and the sleekness of the installation pedestals which provide a sculptural quality all point to this end. 

brent stewart southern art

Installation view of Brent Stewart’s “Quintet,” courtesy of Brent Stewart and Zeitgeist Gallery

Stewart has cited two postmodernist masters as strong influences for his work as well—the conceptual/performance artist Bruce Nauman and the aleatoric/minimalist choreographer Yvonne Rainer. Both were consumed with breaking down the previous tenets of high modernism in their respective fields, ushering in an art of spare rigor that emphasized an exploration of repetition, quotidian moments, and elementary transformations of the human body unmoored from any allusions of the sublime. They channeled the banalities of human experience into works of uncanny surrealism, yet their works weren’t surrealist (inspired by dreams or unconscious drives) at all. In fact, they were wholly empirical in extremis. Nauman and Rainer were both involved in making art films as well. With a postmodernist lens (the blinkered monitors all the films are screened on being just one), viewers can see the influence of Nauman and Rainer writ large on “Quintet” as well.

One can also view “Quintet” as a move into, between, and beyond modernism and postmodernism to what can be called the metamodern—in which all artistic and philosophical positions are entertained and occupied in an oscillating fashion or simultaneously. In this way, one can come away from “Quintet” with a dichotomy of fullness tantamount to the mindset needed to unravel a Zen koan.

It is evident that Stewart and his installation didn’t spring out of thin air. The artist has been at work, studying his craft for a while now. He’s currently thirty-eight and began his career in his early twenties with an entry into a regional Super 8 film festival. Being a Southerner at heart didn’t preclude him from attending London’s Goldsmith’s College from 2001 to 2003. Goldsmith’s is the alma mater of super artist Damien Hirst and many of the YBA’s. He returned home, though, and is currently a co-conspirator of fellow Nashville-native Harmony Korine, director of the notorious films Kids and Gummo. 

There’s definitely a certain kind of symmetry between Stewart and Korine. Stewart’s early work eschewed narrative in favor of atmospherics and languid, dreamy visuals that gently border somewhere between the commonplace, the transcendent, DIY absurdity, and horror. The polarities of youth are often a major concern in his work. Sweetness is often juxtaposed with foreboding or outright malevolence. Stewart’s young daughter seems to be his favorite photographic muse, although he has been known to create wonderful studies of spare and rough-hewn architectural geometry, as well.

brent stewart southern art

XII (Yellow Square) (2011) by Brent Stewart, courtesy of Brent Stewart and Zeitgeist Gallery

THRLLRRR (excerpt) from brent stewart on Vimeo. (Editor’s note: It’s the BOTS cover model!)

As time passed, he managed to find his way into narrative, although a healthy dose of atmospherics and abstraction have remained. Stewart has created various goofy videos for the band Silver Jews as well as a handful of shorts (Sticky Whisky, Blackberry Winter, The Dirty Ones), a documentary (The Lonely) and a full length feature (The Colonel’s Bride) which aim and achieve a more serious tone, despite their inherent whimsicalities.

Today, Stewart is at work with the artist Laurel Nakadate on a collaborative short titled The Miraculous, concerning the life of the conceptual/performance artist and filmmaker Bas Jan Ader. The artist had a particularly personal and romantic take on conceptual art which emphasized emotionality, transformative experience, melancholy and humor. In 1975, Jan Ader enacted his last performance: a trans-Atlantic crossing in a thirteen-foot boat. The performance was titled In Search of the Miraculous. Three weeks into the performance, radio contact with Jan Ader was cut, and ten months after the beginning of the performance, his boat was found wrecked off the coast of Ireland. Jan Ader’s body was never found. Like his attraction to Korine, it’s relatively easy to see Stewart’s attraction to Jan Ader and his work. He’s not alone. Many artists Stewart’s age and younger are coming to Jan Ader’s work with fresh eyes, trying to find a way beyond the dogma, hierarchies, cynicism, and polemics of much contemporary art from the years since Jan Ader’s disappearance. It’s a route that subtly reconnects and reconfigures one’s head to one’s heart and hands.

 


 

The Dirty Ones, a short film by Brent Stewart. 

  

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