New York

Michelle Stuart

Max Hutchinson Galery

A traditional task of landscape painting is the codification of some characteristic of a topography on a two-dimensional surface. It has had a special significance in American art history, where painting a tract of brute nature was sometimes a first step in civilizing it; and where the transcendental belief that unspoiled nature was a record of God’s intention for earth lent early American landscapes an almost religious aura.

Michelle Stuart makes landscape images that seem to share with 19th-century American landscapists an almost mystical reverence for their subject, codified according to the conventions of Minimalist painting. The landscape characteristic that Stuart manages to record on paper is the color and chemical composition of the soil of a particular site. The Sayreville Quartet is made of four roughly 12-by-5-foot sheets of muslin-mounted rag paper attached to the wall along their top edges and curving out from the wall slightly at the bottom. The four shades of brownish pink and the pocked surface of the pictures were achieved by pounding soil samples from different strata of the earth visible at Sayreville, New Jersey, into the paper and then polishing it.

Each work’s title is the name of the location where the earth was obtained. These works have been acclaimed as thoughtful and sensitive Minimalist drawings, but it is their status as landscape works, as unique records of specific locations, that makes them especially interesting, and saves them from being merely familiar-looking works made in an unfamiliar way.

The artist’s intention to make works that are incidentally abstract but also literal records of specific sites is borne out by a second part of her show containing works called Rock Books. These are made of sheets of handmade paper rubbed with the earth from the site for which they are named and sometimes bound with a piece of string or embellished with a feather found on the site. They eliminate any reference to modern painting conventions, concentrating on their function as personal records of particular topographies. They were displayed in glass cases, which in turn brought to mind artifacts of primitive cultures seen in museums, and accompanied by snapshots of some of the places that were the subjects of the work.

In all Stuart’s recent work there seems to be the intention of capturing something essential of the landscape as a shaman might capture an individual in a ritual doll made from his clothing or personal effects. The “scrolls” success as works of art tends to obscure their function as true effigies of the landscape. The Rock Books, however, which are much more private and full of signs and associations of significance only to the artist, have the presence of artifacts of a dead culture whose meaning is uncommunicable to the average viewer.

Ross Skoggard