Degree Critical, Fall 2018

Friday 02/22/2019

Michelle Stuart, Flight of Time, 2016. © Michelle Stuart. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.

Pointed Toward the Universe with Obvious Yearning: Michelle Stuart at Galerie Lelong

by Amelia Rina (Class of 2015)

Photographs not being singular in meaning, they assume the identity that we give them and the context that we place them in

– Michelle Stuart

The most essential element of existence is interaction. Every molecule, mountain, and collapsing star is the result of how it interacts with the universe. The same standard applies to humans, despite our predilection for believing that we alone can exist as discrete entities. Many people love to insist that they were the first to discover a particular idea or place, or that their actions are not related to undesirable consequences. This kind of arrogant skirting of responsibility has led to our current environmental and social crises, and must be stopped. Instead, we must encourage the acknowledgement—or, better yet, the celebration—of the eons of inter-generational, -biological, -chemical, and -experiential collaboration that has resulted in our current cosmic environment. Multi-media artist Michelle Stuart has been exploring and illustrating these connections for over fifty years.

In Flight of Time, Stuart’s current exhibition at Galerie Lelong, the octogenarian artist presents seven large grids of photographs as well as smaller photographic collages and works on paper. Her materials—including inkjet prints, seeds, graphite, earth, fossilized shells, beeswax, various animal bones, and more—evoke the specificity of place as well as the incomprehensible vastness of geologic time. These Fragments Against Time (2018), the largest work in the show, includes 130 photographs presented in a horizontal grid and a low wooden table supporting several bones and rocks. The images depict eclipsed planets, galaxies, and other celestial bodies, as well as terrestrial subjects such as cracks in dry earth, a silhouetted human figure, and a propeller plane. The combination constantly fluctuates between extreme macro- and microscopic perspectives, and the lack of linear sequence acts as a kinetic force that keeps the viewer’s eye in motion. Connections between the images across the grid emerge like constellations telling the story of creation, destruction, and the passing of time: circular shapes reveal planets and the lens of a telescope, the wings of a moth mimic those of an airplane, the opportunities of expanding galaxies contrast the limitations of deteriorating bones.

Michelle Stuart, These Fragments Against Time, 2018. © Michelle Stuart. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.
Michelle Stuart, These Fragments Against Time (detail), 2018. © Michelle Stuart. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co., New Yor

Other works, like Landscape of Evil (2008–2011) and Flight of Time (2016), feel more definite upon first inspection. The forty images in Landscape of Evil are full of guns, targets, and white men of all ages. Despite the references to violence, the overall tone is one of calm ambivalence: blank faces stare out, neither hostile nor afraid, and conjure the banality of evil. Flora, fauna, and topography make up the eighty-eight images in Flight of Time: flowers bloom, winged creatures freeze in mid-flight, waves crash, and clouds churn. Despite their apparent fixed subject matter, the artworks function like an unlabeled cross section of history that, without context, becomes a part of each viewer’s memories. The associations we make between the images and objects are inevitably based on our individual lives, and so the works become about us.

Michelle Stuart, Landscape of Evil, 2008-2011. © Michelle Stuart. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.

Physics describes a phenomenon called quantum superposition, in which a physical system simultaneously exists in many, sometimes contradicting, configurations. The catch is that quantum superposition cannot be observed, because the nature of observation affects the state of the system. If observed, it will fix into a single state. The act of observation determines what it is. Stuart’s works behave in a similar way: when not directly observed, their meaning opens up to infinite possible associations. When an individual beholds them, however, her unique, embodied worldview defines the narrative.

This effect could be ascribed to all art, and the question of what an artwork is “about” often occupies the minds of many artists, curators, critics, and other cultural bystanders. Anyone can look at a Mark Rothko painting or Louise Nevelson sculpture and decide it is about war or peace or sex or whatever else, regardless of what the artist intended. Stuart’s practice is unique because she welcomes the fact that each person will see something different in her work. In her 2010 essay “Touchstones,” Lucy Lippard writes that “the simplicity of [Stuart’s] means combined with the richness of her materials has lent itself to a complexity of interpretation.”[1] Lippard also points to Stuart’s training as a cartographer and her passion for archeology, which she describes as “the ‘science’ of lost and partially retrieved memories.”[2] Stuart’s memories expand beyond her experience to incorporate all of earth’s history. For the 1985 installation Night Passage Signaling Two Suns (not featured in the exhibition), Lippard guesses a giant stone boat Stuart encountered in Sweden inspired the artist. Stuart said it was pointing “toward the sea with obvious yearning,” an exploratory impulse she seems to share.[3] Throughout the many decades of Stuart’s career, memory and imagination have tangled to produce speculative and poetic histories about the nature of the universe we occupy. Whether she uses photography, found artifacts, or the earth itself, Stuart’s actions are motivated by a deep desire to undercover the secrets of the cosmos.   

Michelle Stuart, The Stranger, 2016. © Michelle Stuart. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.

[1] Lucy R. Lippard, “Touchstones,” in Michelle Stuart: Sculptural Objects: Journeys In & Out of the Studio (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2010), 10.

[2] Ibid., 11.

[3] Ibid.