CATHERINE M. STEWART: Invoking Venus
May 3 to May 24, 2014
Elissa Cristall Gallery, Vancouver
by Maureen Latta
for Galleries West Magazine (spring 2014)
The slither of silk, the flash of vermilion, the glitter of glass beads – we experience the sensual potential of fashion and its importance in mating rituals every time we step into a nightclub or flip through Vogue. Catherine M. Stewart’s show, Invoking Venus, reminds us that the displays of beauty inherent in pair bonding in the natural world, most notably among birds, are not so different from the loveliness created with needle and thread. She juxtaposes the natural – Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” – with the manufactured, exploring the seductive qualities of the physical world in photo-based diptychs and triptychs.
By teaming extreme close-ups of bird plumage with similar images of vintage garments, Invoking Venus engages viewers with scientific and historical inclinations as well as those who simply revel in colour, texture and pattern. Stewart borrowed study skins of birds from the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, which houses the University of British Columbia’s biological collections. The clothing came from the private collections of Vancouver fashion historians Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke. In Snowy Owl and Off-white Beaded Gown, for instance, the enlarged lines of vanes and barbs reveal the complex structure of the owl’s feathers – graphic and textural qualities echoed in a French satin evening dress from the 1920s embroidered with opalescent beads.
Stewart lays specimens and clothing on a flatbed scanner to produce close-up digital images with the sharp detail and intense colour that makes viewing this work so enjoyable. The fact the images are printed on metallic paper also helps. The iridescent wing of an Indian pitta dazzles the eye, especially when juxtaposed with a teal taffeta gown from Austria. Stewart occasionally adjusts garment colour digitally, but never touches up the birds. “I wanted to try and stay true to nature,” she says. “Whereas a dress is human-made, so I felt a little more comfortable tweaking it to match the birds.” Some works emphasize pattern affinities. One pairing features a 1950s Balenciaga bubble skirt with warp-printed polka-dots that echo the black-and-white patches on a loon.
Stewart, who has a bachelor’s degree in science and a master’s degree in fine arts, has combined her dual interests over the last decade to explore the visual language of science. She has exhibited at such eminent facilities as the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Britain as well as the Beaty Biodiversity Museum.
Invoking Venus: Feathers and Fashion illustrates the nature of sexual attraction
by Robin Laurence on March 19th, 2013
for The Georgia Straight
First of all, let’s get our bearings. Invoking Venus: Feathers and Fashion is on view at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, on the UBC campus. Phew. The show starts many metres beneath the tail of the massive, arching skeleton of a blue whale, which hangs in the atrium. For us, it’s all new: the art, the whale, the museum, and its contents.
Following the directions of a friendly admissions clerk, we made our way down a long ramp, then skirted a crowd of energetic schoolchildren, past displays of skulls and horns and shells and stuffed heads. Elephant seal and penguin and widgeon and eland. Kudu and wapiti and platypus and turtle. The jawbone of a prehistoric horse, the hide of a crocodile, the feathers of… the feathers of… Well, Catherine Stewart would know. With a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MFA from UBC, this Vancouver-based photographer and printmaker makes compelling art out of what she describes in her statement as “the practices, aesthetics and history of science”.
Stewart’s project in Invoking Venus, she writes, is to celebrate “the life-affirming force that underlies all of nature—sexual attraction”. She accomplishes this by juxtaposing the colours, patterns, and textures of bird plumage with those of vintage clothing and accessories, underlining likenesses in courtship, adornment, and display between ourselves and the avian creatures with which we share the planet.
Stewart has closely photographed, in vivid colour and startling detail, feathers of bird specimens from the museum and fabric from the clothing collections of two different Vancouverites, Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke. The midsize, square-format photos, mounted on aluminum, are exhibited mostly as diptychs (although occasionally as triptychs), so that the magnified details of each—feathers and fabric—either echo or complement each other. The effect is compelling.
One example is a close-up shot of the red, orange, and green feathers of a red crossbill posed next to an equally searching close-up of a silk crepe afternoon dress, made in France in 1926. The fabric’s lemony-green ground is stitched, with black and ivory thread, in circular patterns, and the magnification of the feathers reveals their distinctly articulated fine strands, layered and running in alternating directions, like the cross-hatching in a drawing or etching.
Another diptych sets the plumage of the mountain bluebird against the dusky blue of a silk-satin evening dress. In yet another pairing, a silver pheasant’s bright white feathers, neatly striped in black, are seen beside a beaded, black, silk-chiffon gown from 1920s Germany. The gown’s clear glass beads refract and reflect light, and you can imagine the effect it would have when slinkily draped on a living human being. Stewart’s gorgeous photographs perfectly capture the seductive beauty of her subjects—and of her theme.
Invoking Venus also demonstrates, in three dimensions, how human beings have pressed the plumage of a variety of birds into the service of their own sexual display. Exhibition cases show actual vintage hats, shoes, purses, and fans covered with the feathers of ostriches, pheasants, guinea fowl, and kingfishers. The rather melancholy inclusion of stuffed specimens here moves us to consider the environmental consequences of vanity, as does a quote from Sayers. “Feathers,” he says, “look best on the bird that grew them.”
Most of the clothing and accessories on view were designed for women. A didactic panel midway through the show tells us what we have already been formulating in our minds. Among birds, brightly coloured and patterned plumage is usually worn by the male, who employs visual display as part of his courtship ritual in an attempt to attract a female. Among heterosexual humans, however—at least at this time and place—it is the female who wears the showy clothing and accessories in order to attract a mate.
Close-up shots of men’s wear would have seen us stranded in fields of black, brown, grey, and beige. Not very appealing to the goddess of love.
Science as Muse
by Ruth Beer
Excerpt from a review of the exhibition The Animal That Therefore I Am
at Malaspina Printmakers Gallery
Published in CHOP, vol. 33, issue 1, spring 2008
Catherine Stewart’s exquisitely produced artworks are diptychs juxtaposing the human figure or parts of human anatomy with images of zoological specimens. These evocative black and white photo etchings on warmly toned translucent paper explore a sensitive and surprising alchemy by bringing together scientific, expressive, and aesthetic signs and symbols that underscore and celebrate the curious correspondences of human and other animal forms. Her carefully selected images are meant to heighten awareness of our shared traits and heritage. Her combinations side-step predictability and destabilize our understanding.
Her intention is not to limit the reading of the work but to open possibilities for interpretation by the viewer. Her pairings highlight the beauty that underscores the sublime intricacy of mechanical design of human and animal bodies and the way they operate. For example, in Northern Flicker and Shoulder X-ray, she joins together the image of the skeletal human ribcage and shoulder with a companion image of a bird with its wing spread wide. This juxtaposition relates the movement of the wing to the mechanics of human appendages and, by extension, to our shared capacity for free movement. In Wedding Couple and Golden Pheasants, the pairing of an archival photographic negative of a wedding photograph with one depicting a male and a female bird specimen lying side be side reminds us that mating, the main mechanism of evolution, is necessary for the propagation of all species. Wood Thrush and Chest X-ray presents a poignant image of a bird in a cardboard box raising associations with a humble bed or coffin and, paired with the medical x-ray, brings to mind our mutual susceptibilities. In Snowshoe Hare Maxilla and Child Laughing, analysis of the strictly composed image of a detailed specimen showing the jaw and teeth of the hare are counterposed with the image of a child’s joyous smile exposing her teeth in unselfconscious abandon. Stewart’s coupled images proposing visual, anatomical or other co-relations complement each other. Her elegantly simple compositions, engaging iconography and refined technique are seamlessly integrated to encourage discourse about representation and the construction of knowledge.
Scientific research methods and museumology also play key roles in the development of her concepts and are germane to the meaning of the work. When visiting the Spencer Entomological Museum and the Cowan Vertebrate Museum at the University of British Columbia, Stewart became intrigued by the contents of storage drawers full of carefully arranged specimens and the highly rigorous nature of zoological curatorial practice. She photographically documented specimens from these collections including identification labels that reference naturalists’ organizational systems and represent the plethora of precise information contained in these collections.
From seemingly antiquated handwritten tags and family photographs, to digital X-rays and appropriations from the internet, Stewart built up a diverse archive of information which she has freely adapted for use in her representations of the human or animal body. By drawing from the particular, she makes visual statements that are universal in character – this northern flicker stands in for all northern flickers, this wedding couple for all wedding couples, etc. She is not interested in a strict documentary approach but rather in representing her subject by expressive means through digitally manipulating photographs or layering transparencies to create hybrid forms to correspond with a partner image. Extrapolation from the specific to the generic is further enhanced by the conversion of her original colour photographs to black and white photo-etchings. They are no longer exact recordings but, rather, representations of an idea.
Every aspect of this work is carefully considered and, like a haiku poem, nothing is extraneous – every detail contributes to an effortless appreciation of the work and a complex reading found in the layered sophistication of the meticulously produced and synthesized conceptual foundation of this impressive body of work. These works that address ways of knowing through detailed examination, observation, and the imaginative manipulation of recorded data, underscore questions about how we understand human and animal commonalities and differences. Stewart provides us with new provocative and imaginative ways to consider that relationship.
The reviewer, Ruth Beer, is a Vancouver- based artist and writer. She has exhibited sculpture, photography and video in national and international exhibitions. Her collaborative writing projects have been published in numerous journals. She is the recipient of several Canada Council Visual Art Grants and public art commissions. She is an Associate Professor and former Head of Visual Art at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. She is on the Board of Directors of Presentation House Gallery and for the past six years served as an artist representative on City of Vancouver Public Art Committee.
Elements of Grace and Copernican Notes
reviewed by Julia Hawkins
Plus Online Magazine, published by the Millennium Mathematics
Project, Cambridge, U.K.
An exhibition of work by Canadian artist Catherine M. Stewart 5 September – 31 October 2002
The Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences is currently showing a small exhibition of two suites of photo-etchings with mathematical components by the Canadian artist Catherine M Stewart, who studied both maths and physics in the course of her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. Elements of Grace is a collection of 12 photo-etchings which combine diagrams from Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1729) with photo details of the human body. Copernican Notes is a suite of multiple plate etchings in which text and diagrams from Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres (1543) are overlaid upon photographic images of moving figures.
Neither of these suites of works directly teaches us more about mathematics, nor do they try to do so – Stewart isn’t attempting to do as Escher did and illustrate actual mathematical concepts – drawing a multi-dimensional world for example. Rather they follow the lead of many contemporary artists and writers in drawing parallels between mathematics or science and aspects of human experience, pointing out different ways of “reading” the mathematics involved, or loosely reinterpreting a mathematical idea as a cultural reference point. It’s been a popular pursuit over the past decade or so – take Antony Gormley’s Quantum Cloud sculpture on the banks of the Thames, made up of thousands of small shifting pieces of metal, grown outwards like fractals, which resolve, sometimes, to let you see a human figure within the mass; or Tom Stoppard’s brilliant 1993 Arcadia (which does, in fact, explain quite a lot about mathematical concepts, and is one of the few plays in English to have a character stating Fermat’s last theorem in full on stage). While Stewart may not be quite in Gormley’s league in terms of either fame or the size of her works, this exhibition is both a fascinating and very visually appealing exploration of fragments of the dialogue between science and the arts.
The works within the Elements of Grace suite juxtapose black and white photographs of particular areas of the human body – an ear, a foot, an eye, hands – with etchings reproducing the engraved diagrams from the first English translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, published in 1729. Catherine Stewart writes in her statement accompanying the exhibition that I have always marvelled at the inherent beauty of mathematics… although the two types of images were so different in subject matter and graphic character, when brought together they seemed to relate to each other on another, more symbolic level. The eternal (Platonic) forms of the human body can be seen to be visually linked to the eternal forces of nature. A dialectic of sorts occurs with each combination.
The spare, skeletal lines of the etched diagrams contrast with the shadowed flesh depicted in the photos, although the image as an entirety is bound together by the monochrome palette, and of course the physical juxtaposition. Some work better than others. “Point of contact” – the titles are all phrases drawn from the text in the Principia associated with each particular diagram – shows an eye: mathematical contact reinterpreted as human contact, eye contact, between the subject of the photo or even the picture itself and the viewer; an allusion also to the lines of focus that the human eye employs to allow us mechanically to see, with those diagrams of lines emanating from a side-on staring eye that we all drew laboriously, with the aid of rulers, in our school biology lessons. “Of the circular motion of fluids” shows a human ear, the curled whorls of the outer ear structure mirroring the curves within the diagram, and the mathematical concept illustrated reminding the viewer of the physical motion of the fluid within the inner ear, the organ of balance (like the balance between photo and diagram, the circular motion of references and cross-comparison between the two images, the circular relationship of mathematics and physical reality….). These etchings work particularly well in illustrating a real relationship between a mathematical abstraction and the workings of the human body, while others are less closely allusive, less layered – an apparently superficial similarity between a curve and a mouth, for example: the Platonic mathematical form echoed with human imperfection.
The plate etchings within Copernican Notes copy facsimile pages from the manuscript of De Revolutionibus Caelestibus (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) by Nicholaus Copernicus, and superimpose them on blurred, shadowy photos of human bodies in motion, then in addition superimposing on both etched circles and orbits. These works are not only very appealing, with their palette of ochre, terracotta, sepia, cream, and the interweaving lines of manuscript and circles, but also immediately very conceptually successful, no doubt partly because humanity has always wilfully persisted in seeing close parallels between the movements of the planets and our own actions and impetus, from medieval astrology to the horoscope columns in today’s tabloids. Stewart herself refers not to this but to the History of Science mantra of the paradigm shift, writing in her notes on this suite of etchings that The transition from childhood to adulthood can be likened to a Copernican paradigm shift. During this phase of intellectual development, a child’s view of reality changes from one centred on self, family and immediate surroundings to one which encompasses much, much more. Furthermore, as an adolescent’s view of the universe expands, an awareness of his or her place in it changes as well. This gradual change in perspective can be seen to parallel the shift in Western consciousness that occurred when Copernicus established that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of planetary motion.
This reading of the images makes even more sense when one learns that the female figure in most of the etchings is Stewart’s adolescent daughter. The images work well as illustrations of the tension between the egotistical and the universal, between our own small ideal microverses and the broader social and scientific contexts which we inhabit. My particular favourite is “Investigating the Motions of Venus”, where the shadowy female figure beneath the etched orbit and Copernicus’ text becomes a visual symbol of the confusions, repetitions and certainties of love as well as the cosmos, and where the title becomes an inextricably important part of the work as a whole, adding new possibilities of fresh and different readings to the viewer, appropriately enough since the etchings deliberately take the format of an open book.
It is, perhaps, the literary-ness of several of these images, the references to books and texts, that especially endears them to me; the exhibition notes themselves reveal the importance of the form of the book to the artist: When I opened a facsimile of the manuscript… I was immediately attracted to the penned Latin script, the hand drawn diagrams and the tables of celestial observations…. My urge was to bring these ancient and exquisitely detailed pages to life in a new and different context… The dual format of these prints is that of an open book. To further this association, I used the technique of chine-collé whereby a second type of paper was introduced in the printing process. I selected a more delicate and warmly toned paper to replicate the texture and feel of the paper that might have been used on the original manuscript.
“Reading” these works then throws up a palimpsest of memories of other texts, other books, discoursing on the interaction between the planets and man. For me, looking at “Investigating the Motion of Venus” prompts a ghostly echo of Chaucer’s Troilus (appropriate again as Chaucer was a keen amateur scientist, writing a very readable Treatise on the Astrolabe for his ten year old son Lewis, who would I think in another age have been an avid reader of NRICH and Plus – “Lyte Lowys my sone”, wrote Chaucer fondly, “I apercyve wel by certeyne evydences thyn abilite to lerne sciences touching nombres and proporciouns…”), created only a century and a half before Copernicus wrote his manuscript, sitting disillusioned in heaven watching “the erratik sterres” and denouncing their control over human loves and lusts.
Interest in the prints has been expressed by other galleries in Edinburgh and Glasgow, so with luck there will be a chance for Plus readers to see some of these works in other locations; Catherine Stewart is also planning a website. Meanwhile, for anyone interested in the continual dialogue – frequently illuminating, sometimes a little confused on both sides, always fascinating – between science and the arts, these beautiful prints are well worth viewing, and add another small, clear voice to the cacophony.
The reviewer, Julia Hawkins, is Deputy Director of the Millennium Mathematics Project.
Elements of Grace and Copernican Notes
reviewed by Gillian Armitage
Published in CHOP, Vol.15, No.4 – Nov.2002
For two months this fall, the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, England, hosted an exhibition of prints by Malaspina printmaker, Catherine Stewart. Founded in 1992, the Newton Institute attracts leading scientists from around the world to participate in mathematical research programs. This somewhat unusual venue underscores a basic tenet of this exhibit, that of ‘connections’. Stewart holds an undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics and a masters in fine art. This exhibit of two suites of photo etchings unites both disciplines.
Elements of Grace, which was exhibited in the Malaspina Gallery, March 27 – April 21, 2001, juxtaposes exquisitely elegant diagrams from Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1729) with photo details of Stewart’s teenaged daughter (ears, eyes, hands, nose, etc.) Each combination is carefully chosen to connect on conceptual, symbolic and visual levels. ‘The eternal (Platonic) forms of the human body can be seen to be visually linked to the eternal forces of nature. A dialectic of sorts occurs with each combination’. C. M. Stewart.
In the Copernican Notes suite, pages from the manuscript Opus Revolutionibus Caelestibus (1543) by Nicholaus Copernicus are combined with blurred, shadowy images of Stewart?s daughter moving, sometimes violently, other times barely perceptibly. This second suite is more complex than the first both in its presentation and execution. Each print comprises five or six plates. Pages of the handwritten Latin text with diagrams, and large, simply etched arcs overlay the photographic images. The prints are presented to us like an open book. The size of the plates and the use of delicate, chine collé papers of the palest ecru replicate the original manuscript.
Julia Hawkins makes the following observation in her review for ‘+ plus’, a University of Cambridge publication. “These works are not only very appealing, with their palette of ochre, terracotta, sepia, cream, and the interweaving lines of manuscript and circles, but also immediately very conceptually successful, no doubt partly because humanity has always willfully persisted in seeing close parallels between the movements of the planets and our own actions and impetus, from medieval astrology to the horoscope columns in today’s tabloids.”
There is something inherently wonderful and timeless about images pulled from the intaglio surface of an etching plate. No other medium can produce such rich, velvety blacks and deep authoritative lines and also the finest and most delicate of scratch marks. It is the perfect vehicle for this body of work replicating all the nuances of line of those ancient manuscripts. And it adds a lush, sensual quality to the photographs, reminiscent of portraits from an earlier time. The work of the 19th century photographer, Julia M. Cameron comes to mind, whose notoriously long exposure times, minutes rather than seconds, captured some sign of movement, intentionally or not.
At the opening reception, Sir John Kingman, Director of the Institute, officially opened the exhibition and introduced Catherine Stewart to the assembly. After the formalities, wine glasses in hand, the crowd which was made up mostly of visiting scientists and Institute staff dispersed to view the work. It was interesting to see and listen to their reactions. All displayed a pervasive curiosity at the sight of elements from their world employed in a very different context. Viewing the work gave them an opportunity to consider the role of mathematics outside the scientific boundaries. Furthermore, it allowed them to contemplate their own relationship, as mathematicians at the beginning of the 21st century, to these seminal works in the history of science.
The ‘connections’ associated with this exhibition are numerous. There are the obvious links to Isaac Newton and between past and present. There are the conceptual connections between the growing awareness of a young girl of herself and the world around her and the scientific awaking generated by the work of Copernicus and Newton in furthering humankind’s understanding of the universe. As well, whenever an artist chooses to exhibit in a place outside the artistic milieu there is a reaching out to another constituent of the community at large. And there are, in this location, the visual links between the artwork and the daily outpouring, scribbling and notations on the many chalkboards that are installed throughout the Newton Institute (including the ‘lift’ and the ‘loo’), forever at the ready for inspiration and discussion to take place.
Finally, in the words of Catherine Stewart spoken at the opening reception, “The practices of science and art have much in common. Both are driven by a creative impulse. Both involve synthesis (gathering in new information and building on past experience). Both can be seen as attempts to interpret our surroundings and to expand our collective understanding of reality.”
The reviewer, Gillian Armitage, is a Canadian West Coast artist and long-time member of the Malaspina Printmakers Society.