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What goes down must come up:

The bizzare world of Dram Stewart

Anti-gravity painter, Newton’s nuisance, upward appler, gravity painter: these are all labels that have been applied to Dram Stewart, the artist known for his obsession with defeating the earth’s gravitational field. His immature early paintings of various flying objects — aeroplanes, space rockets, birds, balloons, dirigibles — and humans looking wistfully up into open skies, revealed his preoccupation with aspiration and unfulfilled potential. Since then, however, his thoughts and working methods have diverged somewhat from perceived rationality, and while some call him mad, others wonder at his innocent refusal to accept that the laws of nature are one way and one way only.

According to anyone that knew Stewart in his art school days, the theme of gravity and weightlessness in his work was originally meant as a metaphor, and quite a simple one at that. However, it is unclear whether this obsession has now been redirected at the metaphor itself, and away from its referent; perhaps this is a boundary blurred in Stewart’s mind too. What we do know is that unhappiness and even depression cast a shadow over the painter’s teenage years and, though often told his artistic talent had great potential, he was terrified of never achieving what he thought he was capable of. He looked up to his metaphorical sky and saw that there were indeed lucky things traversing it, but the tendency for matter to stay on the ground haunted him relentlessly. And so a troubled analogy was born.

It was about six years ago that Stewart first painted a horizontal line across the canvas and despairingly watched it drip downwards — the first instalment of his ongoing series One day the paint will surely rise. He rarely talks about his work, but in an interview conducted for the monograph accompanying his 2005 show Daedicarus he said that the paintings express how ‘sometimes the constraints of gravity are all too apparent.’ He went on:

“That series is about the open expanse of the area above the line [equal in size to the area below it], full of such hope and expectation, never yet fulfilled. But perhaps one day, perhaps. It’s about the seeming impossibility of things, the daunting weight of the world below (sic).”

Soon after the conception of this series Stewart became specifically interested in weightlessness, seeing standard atmospheric flight as ‘not even symptomatic relief’ from those constraints of gravity. (This is the point where it becomes hard to tell whether he is speaking literally or metaphorically.) Notable works from this period include Zero-gravity/infinite joy (images evoking hope, joy and despair arranged along the diagram of a ‘vomit comet’ flight-path) and Fireball (a huge photorealistic painting of a spherical candle flame in zero-gravity).

Still, the fact that he couldn’t see or paint gravity itself, only its effect, has kept Stewart believing it is merely a myth from which the human mind cannot escape. But that hasn’t stopped stopped him from trying. One friend tells of calling on him once when they had arranged to go for dinner, only to find him caked in oil paint:

“Dram explained that he had been listening to a Radio 4 programme about action painting, and was alarmed that it never seemed to bother Pollock that the paint had to go down onto the canvas. So he strapped one [a canvas] to the ceiling of his studio and lay on his back on the floor, holding brushful after brushful of paint up at arm’s length until he could raise the limb no more. Needless to say the canvas remained blank.”

However, the story gets yet more bizarre. While in America last year Stewart visited the Kennedy Space Centre, and, NASA aware only that he was a famous artist interested in space flight, he was given a special tour and introduced to Neil Armstrong, who happened to be delivering a lecture that evening. Having made increasingly strange remarks throughout the day, Stewart finally told Armstrong that “the moon landings were easy, weren’t they.” More taken aback than offended, Armstrong asked what he meant. Stewart explained his conviction that everyone at NASA knows ‘the secret,’ and that all their ‘complex calculations’ and ‘predicted trajectories’ following the known laws of physics are in fact a front to protect their discovery. Armstrong, incredulous, didn’t know what to say.

Before this it seemed probable that the painter’s ‘beliefs’ were an act — all part of his art; but now both fans and critics alike see his crazed theories as authentic. What began as a philosophical mistrust of determinism turned into a certainty that one day he would see beyond the very nature of things, and all would be possible (like The Matrix, perhaps, or an endless acid trip).

Often cited as an influence on Stewart’s work is Peter Crake’s metaphysical poem Heliocaust; in particular the following lines:

Lest the earth turn upside down,
      we must now learn to walk on heads:
Heel-toe by forehead-crown
      replaced as hydrogen by lead.

Well, according to Stewart, the earth did turn upside down. For a few minutes at least:

“I was in the studio doing one of my drips. I had just painted the line, quite dry, across the centre of the canvas when the phone rang. I went into the next room to answer it. It was my dentist calling back. I must have been on the phone for about five minutes, then I put the kettle on and went back into the studio to find a mug. I froze just inside the door. I couldn’t believe it had finally happened — the drips had gone up, all the way to the top of the canvas. I’d have cried for joy, but I was afraid the sensation of tears streaming up my face would be too much to take.”

Reminiscent of weeping Virgin Mary statues, normally one would not hesitate to pass over such a far-fetched story without further consideration, but I find it troubling for the following reason: because he so genuinely believes in his theories, either Stewart is mad enough to think he can convince the rest of us that his story is true, or it is.

Whatever you believe, whatever he believes, that very canvas was hung in Sense Gallery last week, looking just the same as every other painting in the show, only the other way round.

You couldn’t make it up.

©Andrew Pagan 2008. Reproduced with kind permission

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©M Ward 2009