Opinion: Reticence and Mystery

February 10, 2011
Michelle Stuart’s “Sayreville Quarry History,” from 1976

   It can be difficult to reconcile how Michelle Stuart, an artist with an idiosyncratic vision of the world, captures apparent universal truths in her work. But her success is evidenced in a double exhibit now at Salomon Contemporary and at Leslie Tonko­now Artworks + Projects in Chelsea, her first solo shows in New York City since 1999.    
   The shows are concurrent with the publication of “Mi­chelle Stuart: Sculptural Objects — Journeys In and Out of the Studio,” which includes journal entries by the artist, who lives in Amagansett, and an essay by Lucy Lippard, who has written about the artist throughout her career. Ms. Stuart’s work was also part of an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, “On Line: Drawing Through the 20th Century,” which closed on Monday.    
   There is no real dividing line between the two gallery shows, although Tonkonow is showing earlier works, beginning in the late 1960s, that have more geological themes, while Salomon has works dating from the 1990s that are more biological. Both are evocative exhibits that capture key moments in the artist’s career. Her efforts to record earth, light, starry skies, seeds, and elemental objects can seem obsessive, or merely detached and scientifically meticulous. Her large photo-grid montages hint at a similar sensibility. She appears to be searching for some essential meaning.       
    As was the case in the Earth Art and Minimalist movements, which informed her earliest work, there are ironic or pseudo-scientific elements in her pieces. This is apparent in her imaginary morphologies, typically using butterflies. A small series of these works is on view at Salomon. When artists plumb the sciences for inspiration, it is often alchemy that results. Her works that incorporate tables displaying specimens are an example.    
    At Tonkonow, the earliest works, “Earth Diptych,” a kind of requiem for soil from Georgia, and “Moon,” a pale but detailed drawing of the moon’s surface contours, hint at the artist’s longstanding fascinations. In “Moon,” the title announces the subject. Without it, the drawing might seem to be only an abstract construction. “Moon” reflects the general fascination at the time it was created for all things lunar, and it also expresses defiance of those who might have questioned representational exercises.    
    The show has a number of striking pieces, including a mural, #28 Moray Hill, that spills from the wall to the floor in a puddle. It is gigantic and static at the same time and instills both awe and comfort. Its muslin-mounted paper has been treated with applied earth, graph­ite, and pulverized stone. As a mono­lith, it carries assertive dignity.

   Against a backdrop of these sober and mono-toned works, the artist’s red earth pieces at Tonkonow become dramatic. “Earth Diptych,” from 1968, is an almost accusatory red, made striking by quieter surroundings. “Rio Grande Strata,” from 1974, is a fascinating and layered work that suggests the sedimentary accumulation of rivers but is evocative of much more. “Sayreville Quarry History,” from 1976, is more subtle, made with earth she has pressed onto muslin paper. The red is true, but washed out, allowing more depth and tone and giving it emotional character.  

    Tonkonow also has a number of photographic works on display, dating from the late 1970s to the present. Some incorporate human figures or imply narratives, whereas others serve more as registers of things. “Ring of Fire” has so many images, as well as specimens on a table, it is hard to know how to view it. One could look at it panel by panel, but in this jump-cut, image-saturated world, it seems to make more sense to be scattershot, allowing the different subjects to coalesce randomly.    
    Over at Salomon, a similar work, “Silent Movie,” from 2010, implies a more orderly progression. Although the human figure is almost completely absent from the piece, the work takes on a very personal quality. The viewer vies for primacy among the trees, which seem to be the true heroes of the piece.
   With a focus on botany, Ms. Stuart’s works in this gallery have an even more compelling quality, particularly in “Extinct,” a piece from 1992 that gathers up severely endangered plant life. Both as apparent warning and fait accompli, the work has a doomsday quality that makes it seem profound. The tiny subjects, gathered and mounted on hand-printed rice paper stamped “Extinct,” have a noble beauty about them, like botanical prints come to life. They will be missed.
   Each work here is about parts and wholes and whether the wholes create overall forms and messages. Every one has multiple subjects, whether they are seeds and pods for “calendars” (individual photographs), or seeds and wax containers in “Collection Table (for Rumpf),” a piece from 1997. The artist uses wax in targeted ways: a thick slab for a plinth at the base of a table, mortar-shape specimen containers, or from which pigment, dirt, or other substances are suspended.    
    Although the works in the Salomon show are muted, her use of wax in them gives them a luminescence that attracts the eye like moths to a flame. One of the most beautiful works, in both shows, is “Baltic Light” at Tonkonow, a blue-gray composition of earth, plant indentations, pigmented beeswax with aluminum powder on 35 muslin-mounted paper panels on canvas. The effect seems so dense, and although the surface is built up in layers, their depth is only a tiny fraction of an inch. The work’s reticence and mystery is mesmerizing.

   The shows are on view through Feb. 26. Also showing at Salomon’s project space is “112 Greene Street: A Nexus of Ideas in the early 1970s,” featuring East End artists such as Alice Aycock, Mary Heilmann, Dennis Oppenheim, and Ned Smyth, among others.