Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered, opening reception 5 p.m. Friday, July 4, Matthews Gallery, 669 Canyon Road, 505-992-2882; exhibit through July 18

“The material world and the flesh are only temporary … spirit is everything!”

— author Leslie Marmon Silko

Hannah Holliday Stewart was born into the upper classes of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1924, but she wasn’t cut out for the life of a Southern belle. From a young age, she was fascinated by the natural world and all its subtle wonders. In a journal entry from her later years, she wrote, “When I was 8 years old I asked my mother what the wind looked like. I remember spending hours ... days ... sitting with my hands open wide or running with my lightning-bug jar, hoping to catch the wind.” In adulthood, Stewart went to art school, where it wasn’t enough to simply try to understand unseen things; she wanted to make them visible.

There’s a dearth of information about this important American sculptor, whose oeuvre ranges from representational to ecstatically, bizarrely abstract. Stewart lived for many years in Houston and moved to Albuquerque abruptly in her early 60s, where she quietly continued to make art until her death in 2010. A trove of more than 100 artworks was discovered then, many of them the bronze sculptures on view at Matthews Gallery. Stewart’s work abounds with Sapphic inspiration. Egyptian queens and goddesses of all stripes were high on her list of influences. If much of her work makes use of thrilling, unexpected slopes and angles, it seems not entirely accurate to describe her practice as hard-edged. A handful of them are representational, like the nearly-2-foot-tall Untitled (Figure and Child). A long-torsoed androgyne hoists a tiny figure up in the air, both their necks arched backward as if looking up to the sky. Many other bronzes are fantastically abstract and rich with mysterious symbolism. Wu Li is covered in a dazzling gold patina, whose light-catching shimmer emphasizes the stocky lines of its stridently geometrical, thickly assembled forms. If I started a riot-grrrl band, I know what I’d name it: Kosmic Nomad, after Stewart’s series of maquette-sized statues rendered in varying degrees of resemblance to anything figurative. When they are humanoid, it’s plainly obvious that they’re female; what else could explain their shapely bellies, pervasive calmness, and the Lady of Guadalupe-esque halos that circle their heads? What about Penrose, consummately abstract yet convincingly, endearingly mammalian — its odd form supported by two split legs, its black patina exaggerating a sure-footed, angular body?

Stewart’s female figures are never coquettish or flirty but rather unselfconsciously strong and steady, with a square-shouldered awareness that borders on omnipotence. The Agnostic looks like it was unearthed from some antediluvian cave. Its triplicate head-topping might be feathers or flames, or even jagged teeth, and its blunt features and blocky limbs are delicately incised with hieroglyphic-like symbols. In Queen Golden Sheen, a woman’s tall, slender figure perches on a throne, her feet planted on the ground, her long-fingered hands spread out on her lap. The back of her seat curves wildly upward into a pinched half-moon shape, its surface carved with symbols.

An artist on the front lines of feminism, Stewart reconfigured the feminine, crafting new structures and introducing new symbolism. This exhibition affords a rare opportunity to study a modern yet consummately contemporary artist, whose work can be experienced visually as well as intellectually.

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