ESSAY: Stewart McFarlane's enigmatic images
A gift to the Collection from Alex and Kitty Mackay, Australian artist Stewart MacFarlane’s Outcast 1996 is emblematic of his series of quietly menacing paintings set in and around Brisbane. Here, curator Samantha Littley delves into the artist’s works and practice.
Through a practice spanning more than four decades, Stewart MacFarlane has gravitated towards the edges of polite society, with works revealing a fascination for aspects of life that take place behind closed doors or are otherwise obscured. Provocative and often erotically charged, his paintings seem intended to both confront the viewer and draw them in. Yet, for all his brashness and bravura, MacFarlane is well versed in art history; his diverse influences include the post-impressionist paintings of European artists working in the late nineteenth century and the streetscapes of North American realist Edward Hopper (1882–1967). These disparate impulses are at play in the recent acquisition Outcast 1996 — a vibrant Brisbane night scene that poses more questions than it solves.
Describing himself as ‘a frustrated film-maker’, many of MacFarlane’s paintings recall stills from B-grade thrillers.1 While the scenes depicted point to events occurring before and after, there is nevertheless an air of mystery to them that the artist himself does not always understand, but which he invites the viewer to contemplate.2 This is true of Outcast, which has both dreamlike and nightmarish qualities depending on the how the inscrutable image is interpreted. In this sense, there are parallels between the work and the film noir-inspired paintings of Brisbane-born artist Anne Wallace, such as Damage 1996, also in the Collection. Dominated by the lower body of a woman down whose legs run rivulets of blood, the artwork presents a curious visual conundrum detached from a clear narrative.
MacFarlane made Outcast after he had relocated to Queensland, having spent the years from 1983 to 1995 living variously between Melbourne, Roswell, New Mexico, and Sydney. He moved to Brisbane in 1996 where he was drawn to the raffish, after-dark world of the city and the nightlife in and around New Farm, where he was living at the time.3 The experience inspired a group of paintings that foreground Brisbane landmarks, including the Story Bridge in Outcast and Brisbane’s historic Customs House in another Collection work, The function 1996.4 While the latter is the less disquieting of the two, MacFarlane has introduced potentially sinister overtones with a cloud-laden, moonlit sky, the strange anthropomorphic forms that the windows of the building evoke and, more significantly, the lone figure of the woman who is making her way down a poorly lit path. These elements are characteristic of, in MacFarlane’s words, 'that extra little worrying edge' that he aims to capture in his work.5
In Outcast, the menacing tone is more pronounced, though still ambiguous. The title implies that the female protagonist has been ostracised in some way, and now occupies the position of an outsider. Plunging haplessly towards the Brisbane River, one shoe already lost to the swirling waters below her, it is possible to suppose that the young woman’s eyes are fixed on an unseen assailant. Alternatively, the scene could represent the woman’s own potentially drug-induced reverie — an imagined reprieve from the realities of her life in which she is levitating, not falling. Neither account, nor any others that the viewer might envisage, could be considered definitive.6
The skyline and the subject matter of Outcast clearly locates the artwork in the Brisbane of its day — a post-Fitzgerald-Inquiry world in which memories of government corruption scandals still linger.7 As the late curator Timothy Morrell noted, such paintings ‘illustrate a sleazy sub-tropical underworld where morality has been melted by the heat’.8 MacFarlane, however, seems to have had larger art historical aspirations for his painting as a contemporary interpretation of the ‘cityscape’: his choice of palette, and the way that the lights of the bridge punctuate the cobalt sky and are reflected across the inky river, reveal his debt to works by Vincent van Gogh from 1888, including Terrace of a café at night (Place du Forum) and Starry night over the Rhône. These references, and his own recollections, indicate that MacFarlane was absorbed by the Dutch artist’s work, aware of his observations that ‘the night is much more alive and richly coloured than the day’ and that ‘yellow and orange, intensifies blue’.9
Stewart MacFarlane clearly regarded Outcast as a key work from his 1996 series, using the title for the solo exhibition that he subsequently held at Charles Nodrum Gallery and reproducing the painting on the cover of the catalogue. The year was an auspicious one for the artist, marked also by the publication of Veronique Helmridge-Marsillian’s monograph, Stewart MacFarlane: Riddles of Life.
Samantha Littley is Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA.
- Stewart MacFarlane, quoted in Brook Turner, ‘In pursuit of innocence: A new book celebrates an artist who likes to see the world at one step removed’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 April 1996, p.17.
- MacFarlane, quoted in Turner, p.17.
- MacFarlane moved from Maryborough to New Farm in 1996, having met future patrons and donors of Outcast Alex and Kitty Mackay through gallerist Peter Bellas, and gave Alex Mackay a painting in exchange for a year’s rent. See Nicholas Jose and Tim Morrell, Stewart MacFarlane: Paintings, Wei-Ling Gallery, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, 2012, p.378.
- Another painting from the series, The Doorway (Studley Royal) 1996, depicts the entrance of the distinctive Art Deco apartment block in New Farm.
- MacFarlane, quoted in Turner, p.17.
- A similar ambiguity is exemplified in a Brisbane scene that MacFarlane painted in 1998. Ironically titled Rise, the artwork features a suited male figure, reputedly a well-known arts bureaucrat, who appears to have lost his grip on the rope to his right and to be plummeting towards Queen Street. In this case, the orientation of the subject’s tie and coat jacket implies that he is falling rather than floating.
- In 1987, Tony Fitzgerald QC was appointed to lead the Queensland government’s ‘Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct’, initially established to address claims of police involvement in gambling and prostitution. The Fitzgerald Inquiry, as it became known, soon extended its terms of reference and confirmed widespread corruption across the state both within the police force and at various levels of government. The report was handed down in 1989 and led to the imprisonment of former Police Commissioner Sir Terence Lewis along with other members of the force, four government ministers, and the perjury trial of former Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, whose hearing was aborted because the jury failed to reach a verdict. See ‘The Fitzgerald inquiry’, Crime and Corruption Commission, Queensland, accessed 12 March 2021.
- Tim Morrell, ‘Compulsion: Stewart MacFarlane’, Artlink, December 2001, accessed 24 April 2020.
- Vincent van Gogh, ‘Letter to Theo van Gogh, Arles, Saturday, 8 September 1888’, Vincent van Gogh: The Letters, and Vincent van Gogh, ‘Letter to Theo van Gogh, Arles, Wednesday, 10 or Thursday, 11 October 1888’, Vincent van Gogh: The Letters, viewed 1 March 2021. Helmridge-Marsillian notes that the books that MacFarlane’s mother owned on Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec were the only artistic influences that he encountered within the family home. See Veronique Helmridge-Marsillian, Stewart MacFarlane: Riddles of Life, Craftsman House, Roseville East, New South Wales, 1996, p.13.