Ever since the late 1960s, Michelle Stuart has been radically expanding the idea of drawing. “Michelle Stuart: Drawn from Nature,” a traveling survey of about 60 works organized by Anna Lovatt for the Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham, UK, uses works on paper to touch on the artist’s interests in ecological history, mapping, nautical exploration and what she calls the “archeology of nature.”
Unlike Land art peers such as Michael Heizer and Dennis Oppenheim, Stuart doesn’t alter the sites she works with. Typically temporary, her interactions with the landscape result in photographic documentation, rubbings and relic samples of earth, rock and minerals. She is perhaps best known for graphite scrolls on muslin-backed paper that incorporate bits of earth and the impressions of terrain, getting us close to the rich textures and colors of stones and dirt.
Serving as a kind of source library for the work shown here, a vitrine of “Specimens” (1968-ongoing) included sticks and remains of bones, as well as glass bottles of dirt identified on labels as “Nepal,” “Mesa Verde” and “New Zealand.” Among her early works are investigations of large-scale actions in nature. Represented in the exhibition by video documentation, “Niagara Gorge Path Relocated” (1975) involved running a 460-foot rubbing on paper down an escarpment at Artpark, near Lewiston, N.Y. Layered with applied earth, the scroll marked a point where Niagara Falls had flowed centuries earlier. Photos and drawings also stand in for Solstice Cairns (1978-79), a ritualistic circle of stones and cairns 100 feet in diameter on a site overlooking the Columbia River in rural Washington.
Stuart’s far-flung travels have taken her to Guatemala, Morocco, Finland, Bali and the Galapagos, resulting in works that respond to exotic surroundings with a kind of hands-on sensuousness. Small sculptures in the form of books, fully encrusted with earth and wax, stand as journal-like artifacts of her encounters with nature. With its gnarly cover of hydrocal, Book of the Stone (1984-85) is embossed with symbolic markings and coated with earth from Machu Picchu. It seems the record of a buried history conjured from a now—inscrutable ancient civilization.
For the “Seed Calendars” (1992-93), Stuart used stockpiled seeds she had gathered from sites, gridding them on rice paper and heating them to pop open and release their nutrients. These exploded life forces torque in a positive direction the idea of the daily calendrical grind.
Many of Stuart’s works are animated by her fantastical imagination. Spun off from the writings of Herman Melville and Captain James Cook, her “Sacred Precincts” (1984) include a map drawing of imaginary South Seas islands and a photo documenting an installation of artist-made relics strewn along the Nantucket shore. These tools and ship fragments were made to seem as if they were the wreckage of a fictional 19th-century whaler ship. Documented in a photograph, a 1985 installation on a tiny Finnish island related to the voyages of the Vikings, featuring a ceremonial, boat-shaped arrangement of boulders surrounded by candles and crowned by an elk skull figurehead. Using historical fact and fiction as she sees fit, Stuart responds intuitively to exotic locales in artworks that tap the poetic mystery of nature.
Michelle Stuart’s long-standing engagement with the natural world is governed by a grace, and formal discipline, that have not flagged in 40 years. A two-gallery sampling of work ranging from the late 1960s to the present—her first solo appearance in New York since 1999—demonstrated the vigor with which Stuart continues to negotiate relationships of scale between discrete art objects and immeasurable landscapes, and to urge attention to the frailty of the natural world.
The earliest work, the 1968 Earth Diptych (shown at Tonkonow), consists of a two-chambered pine box containing red Georgia dirt: a kind of rough homage to Joseph Cornell, it is a little memory palace for the ground beneath our feet. Among other early works at Tonkonow was the majestic #28 Moray Hill (1974), a gleaming sheet of graphite-heavy muslin-mounted paper that drapes onto the floor. Like Sayreville Quarry History (1976), a book-shaped compilation of flesh-colored pages into which rusty earth has been pressed, it suggests itself as a peeled section of the planet’s skin. In a recent interview, Stuart said, “I often have thought about how those early works are like etchings,” the dirt- and rock-scored paper holding the pigment as if the sheets had been pressed to an inked plate. A surprise among the early works is Moon (1969), a finely detailed pencil drawing of the pocked lunar surface. Made the year of the first moon walk, it has a preternatural clarity reminiscent of Vija Celmins’s drawings of oceans and outer space.
Of the newer works shown at Tonkonow, the most commanding included Trajectory of Evolutionary Correspondences (2009–10) and Ring of Fire (2010), which both combine grids of altered inkjet photographs of various natural formations with metal tables containing natural and handmade artifacts. In the first, the objects include a desiccated horned toad and seeds in beeswax bowls; there are baskets, cloth and stones from the South Pacific in the second.
Recent photo-based works were also shown at Salomon, as was a table—Collection Table (for Rumpf), 1997—bearing an array of seeds in small wax cups. The idea that these small vessels are reliquaries, containing preserved fragments of still spiritually vital organisms, is made explicit in works like Extinct (1995–97), at Salomon. A grid of 35 dried leaves, flowers and grains pressed against small pine boards with what looks like medical tape, it is an elegant memorial to biodiversity.
Few of Stuart’s works are this directly addressed to environmental threat, and some depart from the theme altogether. For instance, Identity (2010) involves a series of collages made on the backs of old paintings; many of the collages include fingerprints. The more personal nature of this series is mitigated—deliberately, it seems—by the collages’ mediated presentation as photographs. As in Stuart’s other photo-based works, the sacrifice of tactility pays off in images at once precise and fundamentally mysterious.
Photo: Michelle Stuart: Trajectory of Evolutionary Correspondences, 2009–10, inkjet photographs, metal table and mixed mediums; at Leslie Tonkonow.