art / artist / culture

What Are We Really Looking At?: The Work of Denise Stewart-Sanabria

Domination Extinction charcoal and pastel on plywood 48”W x 72”H x 24”D  Denise Stewart-Sanabria

Domination Extinction charcoal and pastel on plywood 48”W x 72”H x 24”D Denise Stewart-Sanabria

Denise Stewart-Sanabria is a hyperrealist artist out of Knoxville, Tennessee who specializes in re-creating the world around her through painting and woodwork. Her intricate life-size plywood drawings are so realistic they force one to look twice before realizing they are part of an installation. Through her paintings she has been able to create decadent and enticing scenes of misbehavior using food as substitutes for humans. With the skillful use of light and color Stewart-Sanabria creates scenes both charming and irresistible for the viewer.

Her plywood installations began when Stewart-Sanabria was struggling with the fragility of the paper she was drawing on. She explored alternative solutions and discovered that the plywood underlayment that she was using would make a much better fit for her drawings. “This is so stupid, why don’t I just use the plywood?” she asked herself. She began to experiment with the new material by cutting it, attaching multiple objects to the plywood, and making drawings with multiple layers for added depth. “The plywood is a really good surface to draw on and it lends itself sculpturally.” These full-size plywood drawings have become a part of Stewart-Sanabria’s way of presenting the theory of multiverse.

Quantum Confusion and Quantum Deconstruction are both installations that play with the idea that there are many universes that exist parallel to one another. The multiple universes are linked between portals, transporting an individual from one plane to another. In Stewart-Sanabria’s installation, the portals are represented by two hanging 4’x8’ sheets of plexiglass. Her plywood drawings have become wandering drifters travelling in and out of different worlds, disappearing and reappearing into the next plane of existence. Rather than hiring models for her plywood drawings, Stewart-Sanabria ‘stalks’ people at gallery and museum receptions until she spots a confident-looking candidate to photograph. “I like to pick people whom I can tell like the way that they look.” According to Stewart-Sanabria, she has a huge resource of photos that she can mix and match to “put in different types of conceptual configurations and installations.” The photo-references not only help keep her work cohesive but also solve the problem of time constraints that initially come with hiring a model.

For Stewart-Sanabria, photo references are a must because of the time she spends to add details that allow her work to come alive. Stewart-Sanabria also uses photo references when working on her Epicurean paintings, which involve food. Her Epicurean series are enriched with saturated colors and light that have the potential to tempt the viewer to eat the image right off the wall. Stewart-Sanabria creates the paintings in order to make a statement of how society “glamorizes and beautifies” food in its presentation, causing people to take the time to photograph it before eating. In addition to beautifying food, she also makes food enact narratives or historical events. An excerpt from her Epicurean statement reads, “What if, however, I used food as a stand in for humans? Not only would it be amusing, it could even be delicious! Over the years, I have had pears enact Inquisition scenes, impaled maraschino cherries on nails, and had donuts enact the seven deadly sins and various fertility rites.” Stewart-Sanabria says she gets a laugh almost every time a person reacts to one of her food paintings with, “Oh my gosh, that looks so yummy!”

Stewart-Sanabria’s hyperrealism artwork has been showcased in various locations around the Southeastern states. She currently has a commission for a Tennessee bank, the owner of which, has one of the largest contemporary art collections of the state. She has been given access to over 100 years of Tennessee bank records, old typewriters and bank vaults. For Stewart-Sanabria this is an exciting opportunity to help recreate Tennessee’s history and experiment with new materials. In order to recreate the 100 year-old documents, she scans and then reprints them with pigmented ink on rag paper. Stewart-Sanabria is also exploring new ways of making the documents more archival by actually making her own paper for the project. She is working on a new method using vegetables, but is very hesitant to use it because she knows the paper will quickly deteriorate. She says, “I have worked with making paper out of root vegetables. It turns into pure fiber after pressing all the fluids out of it… it’s brittle and gorgeous, but I know it’s going to fade.”

From charcoal drawings to self-indulgent paintings, Stewart-Sanabria has become a jack-of-all-trades in the arts. Her ability to express her observations of the environment around her is successfully executed through subversive scenes that make the viewer think twice. She uses great three dimensionality to create works of art that make passersby do a double, or even triple-take. Her awareness of the world and underlying social statements make her stand out as an artist that is not afraid to show people what she sees in a unique way.

For more information on Denise Stewart-Sanabria visit her website.

Words: Alejandro Montaño

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