Lizbeth Stewart's Fantastical Realism

by Matthew Drutt, CEO of Drutt Creative Arts Management

During a career spanning nearly four decades, Lizbeth Stewart earned a reputation for creating a body of work that has few parallels within contemporary American ceramics. Her sculptural tableaus are episodic, enigmatic, and elusive, and they are executed with meticulous precision endowed with haunting elegance. Initially inclined towards painting, Stewart turned to ceramics as an undergraduate student in the 1960s at Moore College of Art, Philadelphia, with the intention of making useful objects. When that proved unsuccessful, she secured a travel grant and explored the richly diverse cultural territories of Mexico. It was an epiphany: from Aztec and Mayan ruins steeped in rituals of death to ornate churches festooned with sacrificial offerings of birds and animals, Stewart was exposed to a realm where mundane objects were conferred with otherworldly significance. As she later recalled, “when you travel, you can see things differently because you are out of your norm, removed from your everyday context.” This sentiment became the dictum for her approach to sculpture.

Her sculptural tableaus are episodic, enigmatic, and elusive, and they are executed with meticulous precision endowed with haunting elegance. 

Her earliest works from the mid-1970s are hand-built porcelain insects and reptiles rendered larger than life and glazed in iridescent lusters. Part vermin and part exotic creature, they are made to look beautiful and grotesque at the same time. Their wings, antennae, and legs are impossibly thin and delicate in appearance, highlighting the vulnerability of these intensely complex and resilient creatures. From there Stewart began making larger-scale dolls—stuffed textile bodies with porcelain heads, arms and legs—that were hybrids of human and animal: dog heads, cat heads, and fish heads, whose humanoid bodies are appliquéd with playing cards, cigarettes, and other everyday objects culled from the realms of leisure, entertainment, and mysticism. By the beginning of the 1980s, the shiny perfection and magical realism that had been her success became a stumbling block, and Stewart deftly switched her practice to working in the less brittle medium of painted earthenware, which offered a greater diversity of patinas and textures with which to tease her audience’s perception of her sculptures’ objecthood. Having earlier presented works that combined different elements into a single object, Stewart now began to fragment her sculptures, both physically and narratively, with disparate human, animal, flora, and quotidian objects arranged in tableaus like clues to a puzzle or elements extracted from a memory or dream.

It is from this phase of Stewart’s career that the objects offered here are selected. Standing Cat (1983-84) and Dog with Bones (1986) are exemplary of her protracted exploration of these domesticated animals set in different familiar yet decontextualized poses or situations. Their patinas are intentionally rendered to look like linoleum, emphasizing a domesticated realism set apart from her earlier practice of fantastic realism. Standing Cat is among the rare examples that have no additional elements, such as a reptile or bird, to drive the work’s narrative. Instead, the animal is shown with its gaze fixated on something we can’t see, leaving the viewer to imagine the rest of the composition. Dog with Bones shows the creature not with a cliché chew toy or meat shank; rather, the bones are splintered and belong to an animal larger than the dog, suggesting an act of predatory violence.