“…to imagine, to revive and make visible this human connection with the Universe”
Michelle Stuart, a pioneer woman artist using materials derived from nature since the late 1960s, works on a diversity of media, ranging from drawings, photography, sculptures, installations, to site-specific earthworks. Her work has been discussed in the contexts of postmodernist theory, of land art or earth art, of feminism. In relation to those last two though, when once asked about her role in earth art, she was ready to point out her different sensibility referencing a clear gender distinction:
“They weren’t big productions like the guys were doing, they didn’t need great big tractors and things like that. I found that somehow you can say things without becoming a developer!”
Growing up in California, her strong relation to nature and landscape becomes the lifeline for her artistic practice. Over six decades of personal and artistic explorations, she created artworks in the American West, in Copán (Honduras), in the Yucatán, the Galápagos, in Nazca (Peru), and in New Zealand, just to name a few places, seeking spiritually charged locations in order to explore her own human connection to the land and to nature.
Traveling, exploring, collecting materials from various geographic sites (stones, pebbles, soil, and other experimental materials) and incorporating them into her work were always the foundation of her artistic language, which in recent years expanded with the more extensive use of photography. Her current show at Galerie Lelong & Co in New York, entitled Flight of Time, features some of her most recent installations that include grids of photographs, found objects and sculptural forms, along some of her early pieces from the earth art era. In relation to Eclipse August 21, 2017, off South Carolina, a new work from 2017 that is on view in the exhibition, she offers a glimpse into her explorative method:
“We hired a sailboat, The Jupiter, and its crew, and we sailed it thirty miles out to sea offshore of the Carolinas in order to photograph the solar eclipse as it was passing out into the Atlantic.”
In the late 1960s, while living in Atlanta, Stuart decided to incorporate red earth from a Native American archaeological site into her work, marking the start of a long preoccupation with human markings on the landscape. Years later, when living in New York, she made excursions to Sayreville, NJ (a site that Charles Simonds and Robert Smithson also visited around the same time) where she found a deep red clay in a quarry, which in her own words ”was soft and rubbed beautifully.” This discovery led her to create a series of works, generally referred to as “scrolls”.
“In the beginning the scrolls were imprints. By rubbing the paper into the earth, you make the image come up, like magic. Later, I smashed rocks and earth into the surface and it took on the coloration of the earth itself.”
This exploration of connection and contact that is most literal in the scrolls and, if less literal but overarching, in her work is at the heart of Stuart’s artistic approach. The current show includes a scroll Mesa Verde from 1977, which she made with earth and rocks from a site with the same name in the American Southwest, the former home of Ancestral Pueblo people for over 700 years (from 600 to 1300 CE).
Another earth-related early piece on view is Stereo Print (ca. 1970) that roots in Stuart’s interest in stereo views and was created, similarly to her scrolls, through the frottage method rubbing dirt on paper.
Though not in this exhibition, but currently also on permanent view – and not to be missed – at Dia:Beacon is Stuart’s Sayreville Strata Quarter, another beautiful set of her scrolls from 1976.
Flight of Time
January 31 – March 9, 2019
Galerie Lelong & Co., New York