New York

Michelle Stuart

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

For all of those who shuddered every time Ramar stepped out of the clearing around his house and into the jungle, Michelle Stuart’s Correspondences is reassuring armchair exploration—of the Yucatan rather than Africa, however. Palms and bamboos are contained in burlap bags and silver-painted baskets; the potentially hackle-raising chatter of monkeys, insects, and parrots is defused by the soothing voice of a narrator and the lull of flutey, Mayan music. The lights are low, and, while sitting on the chairs provided, you face a wall of what appear to be terra-cotta tiles inset with two images: on your left, a photograph of two dark crosses flanking a barred window in a weathered wooden siding; on your right, a relief carving of an animalistic figure. This installation has all of the advantages of a cloister (retreat, safety, and religious atmosphere) and none of the claustrophobia. If you think that art should have a cutting edge this may not suit, but it’s hard to turn down the ingratiating hospitality of a setup like this. Stuart is on record as a member of the party of hope; her ambition has always been to convert negative spaces and experiences into positive, communal ones.

After its restorative powers, the most pleasing aspect of the environment is its trompe l’oeil effects. Those are not real terra-cotta tiles, for instance; they’re not even a pasteboard reproduction (a second guess). They’re squares of Stuart’s trademark, muslin-mounted paper rubbed with earth (no doubt from the Yucatan; although we’re told only that the dirt is from a “site,” it would be pointless and totally opposed to her ethic for Stuart to fudge it). Nor is the relief carving more than an enlarged photograph. Both function as documents, but first as illusions, and this may be the first time illusionism has played so important a part in Stuart’s presentation. What’s becoming apparent over the years is her medium’s ability to take on protective coloring. First hailed as minimalist drawings, then as perfect process pieces, later adapted to sites at Artpark, her soil-sample papers now turn to theater.

The other shift that seems new for Stuart is the move from documentarian to historian, and a rather revisionist historian at that. The narrative that cuts in and out of the jungle sounds and music is a retelling of Fernandez de Cordoba’s 16th-century exploration of the Yucatan peninsula. The Spanish side of the story is told in diary form. The Mayan point of view is expressed in a mystical fusion of symbol and metaphor; whether or not from an actual contemporary source, as the Spanish rendering seems to be, it sounds often obtuse but authentic—at least in relation to the third strand of the script, which is Stuart’s own commentary. This too attempts mythopoesis, but some of it comes out bad poetry: “The traveler, then . . . is the sailor . . . he embodies the dreamer beneath the white eye of night . . . the sea’s horizon is the awesome edge of the unproven beyond,” and so on. Even D.H. Lawrence had trouble pulling off his expert mumbo jumbo in The Plumed Serpent, and he had a lot more space to develop the ambiguities and subtleties of his attitude toward the “primitive” than Stuart does.

But she doesn’t oversimplify, either. Far from the current attitude of condemnation of colonialism, Stuart’s position is that “when the explorer goes toward the indigene . . . the intruder is the lover searching for the beloved,” and “it is the loveless falsifiers of history . . . the record-keepers envious of the voyage . . . dreading death on the other side of the glass, who condemn the contradictions of the caravan.” Some of those contradictions are noted, but briefly—human sacrifice on the one hand, “gold and the cross” on the other. Xenophobia on both sides seems justified, but “correspondence” wins out. This is an intensely romantic view of culture which can also be read as an apologia for the appropriations of art, at which point it verges—rather interestingly, given the habitually modest demeanor of Stuart’s work—on hubris.

—Michelle Stuart