Lizbeth Stewart’s larger-than-life-size, hand-built ceramic sculptures of dogs, cars, lizards, and monkeys are imbued with an extraordinary, yet disconcerting preternaturalism. Viewers respond immediately and instinctively to the physical and psychological presence of these creatures. Technically, they are dazzling trompe l’oeil productions, and as a result of their astonishing realism, disbelief is willingly—if only momentarily—suspended.
“I want my animals to feel alive,” the artist states. And indeed, heads, torsos, limbs, and feet are fabricated with such accuracy the ceramic forms appear animate. Hard, smooth skin seems to be stretched over soft flesh, and every bulge, or told appears directly linked to musculo-skeletal action. Poses and gestures are also so naturalistic, that one imagines the stationary creatures actually are poised for action. Since there is always more than one animal or object in a ceramic composition, a narrative is suggested. What, we ask, will happen next?
On closer examination, faces and surface decoration confound first impressions. Initial projections of sentimental feelings onto pets and zoo creatures vanish. What at first appeared to be familiar and domesticated, turns out to be alien and psychologically stressful. Painted, anxious eyes stare fixedly into the distance, seemingly alerted by sounds or movement beyond human apprehension that signal territorial intrusions. In fact, the artist says she is attracted to pets and wild animals precisely because of their “intuitive understanding of the world we pay so little attention to.”
In sculptures dating from the late 1980s ceramic bodies are often decorated in an anti-naturalistic fashion. Instead of simulating hide and skin, Stewart paints patterns of stripes, curves, and swirls on her animals. In some cases, there is a simulacrum of truth: wavy lines suggest hair; ring patterns around eyes seem real enough; and facial markings—especially of monkeys—appear, at least to the uninitiated, to be within the realm of possibility. Yet, in other examples, the surface painting is purely arbitrary: bodies function as canvases for bold decoration.
Colors, too, are expressionistic, rather than naturalistic. Stewart enlivens her gun-metal-gray monkeys with vivid china paints—patterns of yellows, blues, white, and orange. As a result, there is a disruptive tension between the genuine appearance of the bodily form and its often irrational decoration. But it is this very disruption of the normative flow of perception and comprehension, and the raising of unanswerable questions, that lifts Lizbeth Stewart’s animal sculptures into the surreal realm of art.
Monkey and Lizard (1989) [1993.54.16] is an outstanding example of Lizbeth Stewart’s figurative ceramic sculpture. In this large work, as in her other compositions, the simian is juxtaposed provocatively with another object—in this case, a lizard. The content and meaning of the suggested narrative is enigmatic, and open to a broad range of subjective interpretation. In this respect, her ceramic scenarios are akin to the fantastic beasts in the naïve jungle paintings of Henri Rousseau. Since they are so close to humans on the evolutionary scale, monkeys are often disturbing creatures, sometimes provoking deep-seated anxieties. In this instance, the tension of the distorted pose, the troubled look, and the sensitive, humanlike hands and prehensile feet are emotionally unsettling.
But by conjoining two unlikely companions, locating them in an unnatural context, and decorating them expressionistically, the artist invites viewers to experience her subjects in an unconventional fashion. As a result, we are compelled to confront our sentimental ideas, feelings, and expectations about them, and recognize the distinctions between human and animal intelligence and instinct. “Animals were among some of the first images created by man,” the artist writes; “to me they continue to express the magic of invitation. Rather than nature observed, my pets are both reasoning and instinctual creatures guarding their domain.”
Jeremy Adamson KPMG Peat Marwick Collection of American Craft: A Gift to the Renwick Gallery (Washington, D.C.: Renwick Gallery, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1994)