Ronald Millar -- Exhibition Catalogue -- Aspects of Isolation
In painting, one difference between artists and technicians is simple to state, if not always simple to judge. Technicians find a recipe and are content to repeat it, in the absence of having something worthwhile to say. Gloria Stern has no such recipe, and the technical means are never superficially suave. Instead, she takes on the tough but universal theme of isolation, and slowly works her way through different aspects of it. This places her firmly in the artists’ camp.
There’s been a change from her earlier treatment of the subject.
Where once a formal and emotional link connected people to their urban surroundings, they now occupy stranger, more atmospheric territory: a landscape of low clouds and lowered mood; leaden grey-green light and mysteriously abandoned shacks; souls apparently lost in contemplation; long perspectives and corridors of dark tree-trunks against a carpet of fallen leaves. Fallen leaves?
Here is the rich stuff of nostalgia. These emblems, the broken fence, the tossed scattering of massive rocks, the distant echoes of Caspar Freidrich as lone figures confront the sea, the lighthouse as surrogate…all point to Stern’s artistic affinities with the great European exponents of pictorial ruin, flower-under-the-boot romanticism.
Yet looking back to her earlier work, for example, the skate boarders strictly contained by the curved ironmongery of their track (over the top is out, and there’s a dark void beyond) or the tennis players locked into the rigid linear constraint of a court, Stern’s symbols for the various sorts of either benign or malign imprisonment have simply changed their context. Her temperamental attitude is as it was: an intuitive response to solitude, a concern for the way we share and are affected by the available natural or manufactured space, her symbols made to share the limited pictorial space of a canvas. This is to do with defining, in artistic terms, the extent of either a restricted or an illusory freedom.
When she produces a group of figures (in the triptych, for instance) they still seem to occupy their own isolations rather than to connect with each other or exchange identities. It might suggest that a truly complete contact between people is rare, or simply that Stern is deliberately making this innocent tableau, without ulterior motive, as a casual Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe in the Byron Bay gardens.
In other works, single figures, rather stiffly worked but with a believable presence, are implicitly threatened by big or oppressive contrasts, dwarfed by the elements, yes, but with their enduring humanity neither intimidated nor diminished.
Stern’s view of the lighthouse, a motif rich in literary, visual and psychological associations, is a compelling image with a dream-like and hallucinatory flavour.
Stern’s visible battle to reconcile all these elements is what helps to give the exhibition its integrity. Nothing is easy here: the shifts of vision and mood from a safely cultivated park to a wilder seashore; a suggestion that we live somewhere between liberation and entrapment; a subject (fraught with many illustrious art-historical associations) that could have easily collapsed into picturesque cliché.
Gloria Stern’s muted use of colour sets the emotional scene for these paintings, the main visual effects being carried by low-key tonal devices.
If one really believes that the universe is the same for all, but dissimilar for each, then no subject in painting is ever inexhaustible. This should give every painter the confidence, as it has this one, to add yet another personal vision to all those earlier examples.
Ronald Millar, painter and critic. 2007