Kerry Stewart’s children are older – in the main, we’re back to the adolescents of Rineke Dijkstra’s Beach Portraits – and less strange than the young kids Loretta Lux and Nicky Hoberman represent, but that doesn’t mean that all’s right with their world. Stewart works with sculpture and installation to create works that can in a way be seen as portraits. They involve people after all. In Stewart’s case the people are made from, variously, plaster or fibreglass and paint. There is a level of realism but also a strangeness that once again seems best explained in terms of the uncanny.
This Girl Bends presents us with a girl in a gravity-defying pose. Her eyes are open but staring, her clothes are ambiguous in their plainness: the collar suggests day wear but her trance-like state says sleepwalker more than it says concentration to me. I confess though that I’m not sure whether I’ve seen this work in real life and it wasn’t one of the works that brought Stewart to mind today; nonetheless, I really like the oddness of it and would like to come across it in a gallery.
The two works of Stewart’s that have stayed with me with real clarity and which made me think of her again now – a thought brought on by someone mentioning Damien Hirst’s Charity (2003) – are the works Untitled (Pregnant Schoolgirl) and The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You which both recall the donation boxes used by SCOPE – then the Spastics Society – in my childhood (surprisingly the boxes, which were usually found outside chemists’ shops, weren’t phased out until towards the end of the 1980s). In the latter work, one of the boxes seems to have decided to come to visit and is waiting at the door, as though he wants us to come out to play. Though putting a coin in one of the these boxes was probably the first experience of charitable giving for many children of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s (I still can’t quite get my head round the idea that they were still out and about in the 1980s, even though the internet says it’s true), we’d have run a mile if one of them had wanted to make friends with us. Though on one level they drew attention to disability in a manner that was presumably aimed at saying we’re all just people rather than just at raising money, in fact they marked disabled children out as other in a way that must surely have been counterproductive.
Stewart’s pregnant schoolgirl carries all the hallmarks of the charity box children, apart from the leg brace or crutches that were usually the preferred signs of disability. She stands straight and shiny on the same lumpy base as if waiting for our donation. Given her lack of a collection box, had she been one of the Spastics Society’s boxes, we’d probably have put the coin in the top of her head; but of course this begs the question about whether we would have been willing to give. The upright posture and the base that prevents others from getting close gives the feeling that the girl is now cut off from her peers; the school uniform marks her out as a child in an adult world she can’t yet fully understand. Though she still wears the uniform, she is no longer hanging out with friends in the playground.