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Pop primitivism

Where do we end, and where does the world begin? What divides the past, present, and future, and what are the means by which we may access one position from another? Do such lines truly exist, or are they perceived for the sake of making some sense of it all? And from where do we derive our power? Sculptor Bill Stewart's new body of work, currently on view at Axom Gallery, explores the poetry and madness of all of this experience through tall totems and mask-like wall pieces.

Twenty works are formed with largely oily-glazed terracotta, and spangled here and there with the odd bright details. Blocky forms are broken up visually by plenty of texture and patterning. "A hypersensitive surface forces the viewer to absorb much more information than under normal circumstances," says the artist in a provided statement. The story of each of the works "can be narrated or observed on a visceral level," he says. Body decoration and costuming are drawn from "a kaleidoscope or mosaic of images," narratives built "using assembled information obtained from innumerable sources over an extended period of time," with roots in personal experience and events both actual and fictional.

Some people want to tell a story; others want the story to be felt, a solid presence trailing experience like an un-pinnable shadow. Visually, Stewart's playful, inventive figures draw deeply from the pool of history, taking style cues from ancient artifacts and popular cultures alike, depicting figures who are one with animals as well as tools and toys and games; all that is experienced becomes incorporated into identity and then a literal extension of the self. In his statement, the artist says he assimilates the information "based on intuition and a spontaneous response to the magic of the imagination."

What is most fascinating about Stewart's work is the agelessness depicted in the beings. The combination of controlled gesture, bewildered or space-gazing expressions, and playfully irreverent adornments lend the figures a sense of existing freely, unmarred by the strict constraints that bind, compartmentalize, and define our existences at every age. Stewart is fascinated by the work of children and of folk and outsider artists, and his own work is influenced by what he calls honest and passionate communication unencumbered by strict training. Still, it is imbued with a sophistication in form and gesture derived only from focused study.

The giant shaman beings are propped like dolls on a base with a pole, legs dangling and giving the feeling that the figure might hop down and interact with the viewer. Hats serve as a powerful signifier of some unspoken role, and often serve to literally obscure the figures' already mysterious countenances. The figure in "The Elders New Socks" has rough, pumice-like hair, outstretched hands, striped knee socks, and bears a cluster of figures suspended from a wide brim attached to his forehead. This motif of mini figures is a recurring visual cue throughout the body of work. "Mountain Man" wears roller skates, his skirt covered in a pattern of six-legged critters. Upon his head, a rough dirt-hill helmet is crowned with what looks to be a house, surrounded by birds winging here and there.

The trickster is ever an intriguing cultural archetype, and more popular than ever due to Tom Hiddleston's arrestingly sympathetic Loki in the "Thor" and "Avengers" film franchises. Stewart's "Trickster" figure stands with arms outstretched together, his hat topped with a circular blade, eyes mismatched and inscrutable, his face extended in a tongue — or a trunk — and barbed with the starburst form familiar from a slippery game of jacks.

In the center of the gallery space, two black boats rest on pedestals, each bearing a couple of figures. In "Shaman and the Rabbit," a figure stands with gesturing arms outstretched behind a small, alert creature. A crudely formed, small figure hangs from the Shaman's pointed witch hat. Shoelaces also hang down like thin braids, partially obscuring the face. The other boat piece, "Wisdom Keepers," features two figures standing with their arms out, hats entirely obscuring their faces, black cord hair hanging down, with small black and red figures anchored to one of the hats by hooks.

"Shadow Caster" wears platform shoes, has a painted face hidden by shoelace locks, and a colorful game of ring toss going on his pointed hat. Figures swarm the skirt, and the character hails something unseen with one hand while offering what could be a pitted stone or peanut with the other.

If Stewart's works resemble the bizarre, it is perhaps because we are too far removed from assigning our own significance to our decisions, too unaccustomed to generating our own phenomena, too immersed in the empty customs of the here and now. Very old signifiers were pregnant with symbolism, and modern modes of dress and action are by and large bereft of personalized meaning.

A number of masks adorn the gallery walls, embodying everything from strange bird-men to the four cardinal directions. These heads are more often than not adorned with wondering mouths, singing tiny o's, and frequently feature whimsical elements such as polka-dots, appendage-laden headdresses, or long pendulum-like pieces suspended from their chins. "Untitled 4" has a long tunnel-shaped mouth, a cannon or a musical instrument — or both, depending on who's looking.

Ever the odd one, the shaper of dream realities, escaper of tangibility, "Sandman" is depicted here as a rough-built, gray-brown, unglazed terracotta form mounted on a wall. A vague face emerges from the mud, and smooth, smaller figures are attached by hooks, but also covered in rough mud. The whole ensemble looks uncertain if it will return to the earth, or linger a while longer.

An artist talk will be held at Axom Gallery on Tuesday, April 8, 7-9 p.m.

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