Sophia Hewson: Love-struck, speechless, swooning... - Art Collector

Issue 54, October - December 2010

There is nothing talkative about Sophia Hewson’s work. Not only do her characters stand transfixed and mute but Hewson delights in burying them under a thick syrup of resin. Like a dirty pane of glass, it’s just another distancing tactic writes Edward Colless.

Sophia Hewson doesn’t talk about her paintings, although not because she’s cautious or ungenerous. “They’re something to do with … I would say … belief … but then, actually, about what happens when you don’t have belief … when the world doesn’t have any … ground.” When trying to explain their subject matter she seems genuinely stuck for words; a condition very much the plight of her cast of characters who are often transfixed in states that are as histrionic as they are mute, like actors who find themselves on stage without any lines.

Looming out of a black void into a stark theatrical spotlight, a man holds a young woman’s glamorously limp body in his arms. Is it someone posing as mad King Lear mourning his dead daughter, Cordelia? Or is he playing the detective Scotty in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, love-struck and carrying the apparently unconscious, suicidal Madeleine from the water of San Francisco Bay? Could it be a still from a Bill Viola video, before a wall of water cascades over them in slow motion? This man could be her murderer, her lover, her dupe or her rescuer. This woman could be in a swoon, but she might also be his sacrificial victim. But the pose is so stagy it resembles a publicity shot. It’s so conspicuously iconic and – set deep in its ornate, old master frame – so close to dramatic affectation it could almost be camp. Yet there’s no irony, no smart-aleck mannerism. For all its ambiguous gesturing and narrative allusion this life-size, almost monumental, painting is stoically inexpressive. Poker-faced. We try to look into it, to fathom its suggestibility; but we end up looking at it. The way we stare – with an objectifying erotic envy – at models on a catwalk who remain remote, speechless but who demand attention.

This is the phantasmic object of Hewson’s painting. Performance without a foundation or grounding of belief in natural expression induces a fetishism of the props to that expression. And Hewson’s paintings are audaciously fetishistic. A young woman, for instance, sits athletically astride a blow-up dolphin lying on its back on the floor, as if rehearsing in the studio what could end up a cheesy mediterranean mythological scene of a nymph riding a playmate in the waves. However, as with Caravaggio’s infamous painting of cupid posed by a sexually brash street urchin (realistically naked and with evidently fake wings), we can’t help but see the unaffected reality of the studio prop enhancing an erotic situation: this comically smiling blow-up dolphin assumes the role of the coup de théâtre, the prestige or gimmick of some type of specialist sex show, spot-lit on a nightclub stage. In a key that seems a polar opposite to this sort of darkly exploitative theatre, an albino man wearing nothing but the stereotypical Christ-like loin cloth leans back against a bleached out featureless pallid studio wall, wearily holding his arms out to mime a crucifixion. Yet this is hardly a pious or sentimentally religious image. The blood from his stigmata is a runny, milky goop dribbling down his body and streaking the wall.

What happens when the artistic depiction of tragic action, erotic excitation or religious belief exposes the artificial props used for their staging? Usually the outcome is bathos, farce or kitsch. Hewson’s painstaking, patient superrealist idiom, however, finesses the artifice of the prop into a fabulous fetish. And each painting itself is the ultimate prop, thus the ultimate fetish; demonstrated by the syrupy, thick layer of resin Hewson pours over every completed painting. A perversely exaggerated varnish-effect, this overstated finish – so noticeable as a concluding flourish it’s now a signature device of hers, signing off the painting – effectively masks the surface as if a pool of molten glue might have flooded across the entire image and congealed in an impenetrable barrier. A materialisation of aura that buries the delicately painted surface irrecoverably under a symptomatic excess of sheen, of lustre, indicating the seal of authorship, this glaze is so dense it appears to be as much a pollutant as it is a polish. It fetishises the painting by rendering it immaculate, untouchable and untouched; but at the same time, sullied and stained. An object of transparent love; and yet at the same time a thing that enacts unspeakable desires by posing and performing for its lover. •

Sophia Hewson’s next solo exhibition will be staged at Lindberg Galleries in Melbourne from 8 October to 4 November 2010.

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