The work of J.W.Stewart combines photographic and documentary material (photos, reproductions, maps, typeset texts, technical bookstrations, graphs and charts, etc.) in a painterly context with effects of transparency and translucency and often feature attached assemblages and dimensional or sculptural supports.
This work is visually analogous to 'sampling' techniques now used in recording music where existing parts and pieces of music recordings or other recordings are taken, altered and combined with original material to form a new whole. In many ways, Stewart's work functions as a kind of visual sampling. Features of Stewart's work recall aspects of a number of issues currently of critical interest. The use of text has been a prominent and constant feature of this work. Issues of appropriation are raised in the use of photographic and documentary resources.
The images used are often treated and manipulated using computers, color-photocopiers and other photo-mechanical techniques. They are edited, altered, distorted and have their colors shifted before being combined with drawn elements, paint and other media in the finished pieces.
Textual material is used in a variety of ways in Stewart's work. Some texts are composed and set in type by the artist. Others are combined from disparate existing sources and then set into type. Most often the appropriated texts are edited or rearranged; their meaning shifted to suit their new setting both in terms of meaning and of their formal qualities. Texts are sometimes taken directly from printed sources (reproduced in the source's typesetting) as are the charts, graphs, technical and scientific diagrams and drawings that also appear in these works. Entire pages are sometimes lifted wholesale and used unaltered.
Some texts can be scanned normally and read through from beginning to end. Others function as free verse, automatic poetry or fragmented speech. The inclusion mediates between the standard reading of a painting and one where the overall painterly context is in tension with material of a different nature. The use of text as a formal element rather than for the meaning of the words juxtaposed with texts that are pointedly intended to be read and to carry meaning along with the photographic, diagramatic and schematic referents requires another way of 'reading' visual information.
The technical diagrams and schematic bookstrations when taken apart from their sources, 'edited' and stripped of their original meaning can be seen as pure drawing or may seem to take on obscure, mysterious, or gnostic qualities. There is an awareness at work of the mutability of signs. The ambiguity of the references' symbolic value is exploited by their rearrangement within the work. In these works, rather than being decried or protested, the ambivalence and distortion of signs and symbols are accepted as given, noted in passing, and used to further the work's proposition or theme.
Whereas Stewart's first loyalty is with the internal economies of the pieces as independent parts of an ongoing body of work. Stewart is more particularly concerned with the 'mapping' of meanings. While the instrumentality of the displacement of image and meaning is evident, it is taken to be symptomatic rather than causal in a social context. Images or fragments may reappear in several paintings, but with different treatments, scale and atmosphere, they serve a variety of ends. So that a given piece may employ elements with differing natures or mechanisms of effect to create a new mapping of meaning or signification. It is this variety, and especially these ends which are examined.