New Straits Times, 22 September 2006
See: The naked truth
by Shannon Teoh

It’s a rare sight in Malaysia but the bold, brazen and bare-breasted await at Wei-Ling Gallery in Brickfields. SHANNON TEOH speaks to Stewart McFarlane, Australia’s premier figurative painter.

To begin with, it’s important that you know that there will be nudity. Full frontal even. So, please exercise your own discretion.

Even the artist himself was kind of guarded about the exhibition, agreeing with me that the gallery director, after whom the gallery is named, was very bold to do a show like this in her gallery.

“Wei-Ling is very brave to allow me to show nudes here. It’s much easier to have a show like this in Australia. So, people should expect to be a bit surprised but there’s joy in the colour and after awhile, you can relate to the humanity of the models.

“I’m not trying to shock. I’m just a very traditional artist, following what artists have done for centuries. It’s nothing outrageous,” Stewart McFarlane explains.

Well, here’s where we disagree somewhat. It is outrageous in a way.

Outrageously powerful, that is.

Something about viewing dozens of his paintings in a single room is overpowering, overkill even. Somehow, it doesn’t do McFarlane justice.

Each painting vies for dominance, and I personally itched to take down all his paintings and put them up one at a time. In different rooms. Where each can take pride of place.

Private Life, which runs until the Oct 13, is his first ever show in Malaysia, and features mostly small works, which, given the currency exchange to the Aussie dollar, is quite savvy on the part of the gallery.

The pictures feel very alive, like photographs, except painted. Each model exudes a different sort of tension — longing, restlessness and even a very sensual menace.

There’s a flux that seems to permeate through in the various McFarlane signatures. The asymmetrical figures, the thick, striking outlines, the 60s film noir glaze — the exaggeration is in stark contrast to the “captured moment”/photographed compositions — this despite the fact that he never uses a photo as his reference point but always paints from life.

It’s a simple way to start painting really especially if your career takes you down the nomadic path. Every location, every scenario gives you a new picture, a new mood, and like a travel photographer, you just shoot.

Given that he does nothing but paint for a living (and perhaps earns a bit out of teaching as a visiting artist), he’s been going wherever opportunities open up.

Spending seven years in New York, some time near Milan, and the past four years in Hobart, Tasmania, he’s a rather well-travelled Aussie bloke.

“I’ve no idea where I’m going next. There’s no way of telling where and when I’ll move. Inevitably, my paintings take on the landscape and the energy of the place,” explained the 53-year-old native of Adelaide.

Over the last 30 years or so, he’s built up a portfolio that puts him up there amongst the most respected and — if I may be allowed to gush — awed figurative painters in Australia. If ever there was a reason to perhaps, put our morality aside and look at the naked female form, this is it.

Never do any of the figures in Private Life look like porn stars — even if McFarlane quips that he couldn’t afford any — but they exhibit a sort of imperfect beauty, an honesty even. It’s a narrative of what people do in private, how they behave when no one’s looking.

“Throughout my work, there’s the element of being human and never really comfortable or satisfied. We always want something else, a finality, a home, finding something. Most of my characters are on that search.”

This may all come across sounding like postmodern hogwash. But can one help that? Through the centuries, the progress of human civilisation may have been documented in history books, but only in art can we see their likeness, mannerisms and surroundings.

“I don’t know how many other artists try to do the same thing. A lot of us try to get high-tech, but for me, I just want to use a primitive medium, to paint what’s current — computers, iPods, hairdryers — even though they won’t be using these things in about 50 years from now.

So it’s not really McFarlane’s fault if that’s the general consensus of people nowadays, who are admittedly, striving for something not easily gained in an increasingly capitalistic world. You know what they say, money can’t buy you happiness.

It can however, buy you some of McFarlane’s works, starting from RM6,000 to RM48,00, for the epic work, Upstairs, a larger-than-life portrait that somehow manages to be both simple and sublime.