PRINT October 1986


MICHELLE STUART’S WORK OVER the past fifteen years, in ensemble, is a strong constructivist statement, in Nelson Goodman’s spirit of the term. Through her interest in archaeology, anthropology geology, literature, and history, and her capacity for expansive and incisive observation, Stuart has unique skills to find what is out there in the world, to decipher the elements of one culture within another, and to construct systems to transmit this continuity For Stuart, the world is not simply a set of artifacts to be discovered; in human activity, as Goodman argues, it must inevitably be recreated, so that art, science, and life can thrive. The symbolic systems that Stuart employs are dense. She loves material and matter—the tactile, observable, manipulable stuff of this earth—but she is also fascinated by the productions of culture and the phenomenological circumstances of human life, by events that cannot be handled, seen, or empirically reasoned. Despite all appearances to the contrary, there is an affinity between the thoughts of scientists and artists, and Stuart’s work provides proof of their common points of investigation even when the end results may differ dramatically. In 1959 the British writer C. P. Snow, in his book Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, described what he saw as an irreconcilable division between the scientific and the artistic mind, between empiricism and intuition; thirty years later, it almost seems that his analysis has become an incitement for artists like Stuart, who insist on shared interests and symbolic formulas rather than mutual exclusivity between the two fields.

A generation of philosophers, educators, and artists have been influenced by Goodman’s ideas, which provide valuable insights into Stuart’s work. Perhaps more than any other contemporary philosopher, Goodman has studied and evaluated the symbolic systems that humanity constructs in its various fields of interest and inquiry and has sought some common premise of operation underlying the diversity of world views. He believes that there is a shared affinity, and that diversity is a question of application and emphasis. Through the Work of Goodman and others, the perceived breach that Snow described between left- and right-brain activity is being reconstituted, and a holistic yet complex region of thought is emerging in its place. As Goodman wrote in his book Languages of Art (1968), “The difference between art and science is not that between feeling and fact, intuition and inference, delight and deliberation, synthesis and analysis, sensation and cerebration, concreteness and abstraction, passion and action, mediacy and immediacy, or truth and beauty, but rather a difference in domination of certain specific characteristics of symbols.”1 This ”constructivist" point of view dismisses the idea of an a priori reality in favor of a view of the world as a multidimensional creation of the mind—actually, of many minds. Reality in this view is not monolithic; it is a woven, textured fabric of contrasting, always intersecting strands which sometimes conflict, sometimes exist harmoniously through their distribution in space and time. It follows that the world cannot be appropriately understood, mentally organized, through a slavish search for consistency, but only through the acceptance of a shifting figure/ground relationship. Truth is not necessarily relative, but it is modulated by circumstance and use; it is both generic and specific, not an element but a complicated compound, to be both discovered and created.

Stuart’s new work is visceral, the surfaces are variegated, the materials are both classic (paint, canvas, paper, encaustic) and circumstantial (sundry matter, shells, soil, petals, vegetation), and the colors are lively, penetrating, and sensual. The artist’s handling of matter could stand alone as an avenue of analysis and interpretation of the work, but another of its levels is of equal tenacity: this is its symbolic dimension, which refers to the indescribable and often unobservable phenomena of the world—the forces that not only generate matter but push toward its change, motion, and reconstitution. These paintings are collections of specimens and sensory data which become both the tactile, limited objects of the artist’s imagination and limitless diagrams that record and predict the potential of all matter. In all times and places, the diagram as a form has had a fascination based not only on what it describes but on what it is; the paradigm or model often possesses an inherent sense of order, a captivating formal integrity It is as if Stuart makes the wonder of the world and its cultures available to experience through the most emphatic substantiality at the same moment that she formulates a new way of describing change. The pure physical delight of her art is amended and accentuated by the model she creates to describe the phenomenological.

Stuart’s new paintings are as conceptually robust as her earlier work, but they are visually more provocative. They encourage a kinesthetic response, the viewer’s eyes and body movements operating like the camera lens as it is adjusted for distance and focus. The encrusted, stratified surfaces require the closest scrutiny; on one level, the viewer simply feels a basic desire to discover what things the artist has combined with paint and wax. Moving within inches of one of her paintings is like taking a sample of blood on a laboratory slide and placing it under the lens of a microscope. This enlarged picture ironically confounds the original sensation of solid matter: what is initially seen as one thing is magnificently transformed into a suspended composition of many things, of platelets, leukocytes, and other cellular components moving through a field of liquid plasma. Yet the various discrete units within the field cannot fully describe an extended idea of blood, an idea that includes not only physical but symbolic qualities. So the pictures must also be seen from many feet hack, allowing their cellular units to converge into something once again sweeping, whole, and alive. The work is both microscopic and macroscopic, tactile and abstract, singular and multiple.

It is the relentless yet liberating use of what became known in art as the “ ’70s grid" that seems to organize and activate these paintings’ multiple slippages of readings; for Stuart, the grid provides a set of coordinates for presenting the occurrences of both plan and infinitely variable chance. A fitting analogy might be the visualization of fractal geometry, which would have been impossible without a prior belief in the conforming operations of analytic geometry An imposed, invented, and unalterable order is the elementary condition for the comprehension of a more random and indeterminate set of principles. For Stuart, the grid is a device to introduce matter and symbol in a more mutable state. By constructing these large paintings from abutting 11-by-11-inch pieces of rag paper, she engenders a field of orientation in which the turbulence in each module can be assimilated into the totality and yet recognized in its autonomy It is the small incisions made by the squares of paper within the overall work that urge the viewer to both close examination and the general, scanning overview from afar, establishing the reciprocal relationship of the small piece and the big picture.

Stuart wants not only movement and space but also time to be an aspect of her work. She has always collected artifacts and natural evidences that represent the passage of time (seasonal, generational, geological), and her new paintings vigorously pursue this interest. The materials that she adds to paper, paint, and encaustic become fossilized into a timeless state, a kind of manipulated archaeological condition. In Silver Pine . . . Dream of the Moon, 1986, each of the 54 rag-paper modules includes a small pine branch, or an imprint of one, suspended in a white, silver, and gray textured surface. The individual square sets the pattern for the whole configuration; it has its own integrity but is closely aligned with the object of the overall work. In contrast, Paradisi: A Garden Mural, 1986, shown this spring at the Brooklyn Museum, and In the Beginning . . . Yang-Na, 1984, both comprise dissimilar units, which signify, through their idiosyncrasies, the mutable, diverse quality of the entire painting. Each separate module is a symbol rather than a semaphore. Where Silver Pine is an exercise in pattern and repetition, these two paintings rely on thematic variation, in which, as Goodman writes, "establishment and modification of motifs, abstraction and elaboration of patterns, differentiation and interrelation of modes of transformation, all are processes of constructive search; and the measures applicable are not those of passive enjoyment but those of cognitive efficacy: delicacy of discrimination, power of integration, and justice of proportion between recognition and discovery.”2 Where Silver Pine is an investigation of the prototype, Paradisi and In the Beginning are large, inclusive archetypes dissected into many small passages and narratives. Stuart is a writer as well as a painter, and these recent works possess a strong sense of language and syntax. Their material is a narrative rendered more baroque and embellished by each retelling, and their structure, as an insistent abstraction, makes that process much more than facile painterly manipulation or a descriptive exercise.

This recent work confirms Stuart’s agility in making objects, handling media and things, developing ideas, constructing models and diagrams, and dealing with both fact and theory. In her painting she has found the singular affinity that Goodman proposes between the symbolic systems that unify as well as distinguish different areas of investigation. Her data-gathering is magnanimous and her theoretical foundation is as adaptable as it is precise. She is at home with both science and art.

Patricia C Phillips contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art, New York: Bobbs Merrill Co., Inc, 1968. p. 264.

2. Ibid,. pp. 260–61.