Chicago

Michelle Stone

Artemisia Gallery

I cant wait any longer to write about Michelle Stone. Last winter, in her first one-woman show, she filled a large portion of Artemisia’s huge front gallery with a zany yet infernal zoo of creatures sawed from thick foam board and painted in lurid and ashen colors. I was delighted, fascinated and frightened,watching her menagerie seem to soar and swoop, crawl and slither, stalk, bite and waddle. Innocently animal-like yet unequivocally beastly, these hellish minions, in their plenitude and primitively emotional energy, conveyed a frenzy that was integral to Stone’s sensibility but had reduced impact due to her being carried away by the frenzy’s intensity. Thus Stone allowed both hits and misses in the show. So I waited . . . because I prefer to write about even exhibitions.

When I visited her studio in July she had begun to create from the same materials; a human zoo of exotically deformed individuals conveying the frantic, seamy, and eccentric sides of contemporary life. It excjted me, but once again the unsifted abundance of Stone’s imagination left me wondering if she herself didn’t long to be more incisive.

Her latest exhibition, of pieces developed from the summer transition, still lacks the capacity to control the forcefulness of a clear cut vision. Out of 36 pieces, about five are tops. At this point, however, my reservations have disappeared, because when Stone is on target it is with such a vengeance that she rivets. Her forms are crude, almost crass at times, as if sawed and painted with intuitive abandon, unthinking anger, or glorious pain. Such passion, which forgets certain limbs and warps others into stumps, which has no sympathy for idealized or even average grace, which makes curves “feel” jagged, produces not so much the look of a body, but its emotion. The expressionist vigor and sensuousness of her painting boost the affective nature of her art, and her subjects, frequently female—vamps, punky sex queens, and garish deviants from both Vogue-ish elegance and everyday drabness—exhibit at their best a brute boldness reminiscent of de Kooning’s women.

In a mostly orange and salmon piece a woman with crimson fingernails, sky-blue glasses, a skinny neck, and a floppy hat with flaming or windswept ribbons holds one hand to her head and seems to shriek as a lipstick-smeared cigarette butt dangles from her gaping scarlet lips. Another knockout shows the rear view of a boldly short-skirted toughie who, bending forward, displays her barely covered buttocks and peers back at us, as if in challenge.

These characters, like all of Stone’s, are not just real or imaginary portraits, but rather the embodiments of stories. Instead of simple titles for each figure Stone offers narratives. The “weirdo” with the wild choice of millinery is a pathetic street type: “It makes her weary to beg. Now she masks it with eccentricity. But they think she’s really crazy.” Miss Derriére’s question, “Excuse me, did you want to use me for something?” suggests her profession and/or pleasure, and most of the other “titles” directly or evocatively involve desperation, superficial solutions to dire situations, secrets kept or bared, attempts at freedom and fulfillment.

These are city stories, even when not at the peak of Stone’s artistry, with the sincerity of the ’70s “Me” and the streetwise cynicism of a bright kid who senses that what passes for normal may be crazy and vice versa. With no detachment, Stone has exposed our monstrousness and understood the city as a symbol of the raw craziness of our society.

Joanna Frueh