New York

Michelle Stuart

Fawbush Gallery

The recent proliferation of didactic art about the environment provides a fascinating context for a reassessment of Michelle Stuart’s active meditations on landscape. Entitled “The Elements: 1973–79,” Stuart’s recent show enabled us to reconsider this artist’s early work and its agile negotiation between the timeless and the temporal. Stu-art’s work reflects her focused, prolonged visits to particular environments, and upon reconsideration it reveals a depth often lacking in much ecologically oriented contemporary art.

Her preoccupation with landscape stems not only from a sensitivity to the complex dynamics of place but from a short stint as a professional cartographer. The cartographer views the landscape from a bird’s-eye perspective which renders the world as a map, transforming it into images that disavow the tactility and mutability of real sites in order to present a fixed picture. Providing an understated but dramatic alternative to the conventions of landscape painting, Stuart’s scrolls, books, and installations paradoxically place engaged experience at the center of abstract representation.

Sayerville Strata Quartet, 1976, is comprised of four large paper scrolls hung side by side. Earth found at the New Jersey quarry was rubbed on the paper to create an active and subtly textured surface. There is a gradual deepening of color from panel to panel that mimics the chromatic changes of geological strata: gradations of tone and density represent a sectional reading of a site formed over thousands of years.

Characteristically incomplete, Stuart’s representations of landscape raise questions only to leave them unanswered. Tompkins Cove Quarry, 1977, consists of multiple pieces of paper rubbed with soil from the cove. Bundled like a carefully collated testament to both land development and esthetic production, the pages were stacked on the floor—only the top piece and the shaggy edges of the sheets beneath were visible. The viewer had to supplement what the eye could not see.

In a more literal presentation of the perceptual data of ecological observation, Passages: Mesa Verde, 1977–79, recalls the artist’s visit to this “naturally” constructed site. A central scroll, speckled and embossed with earth and rock fragments, was flanked by two sepia-colored photographs of the historic cliff dwellings. The architectural forms made of mud bricks from the region depicted a remarkable cooperation between humankind and nature. On the floor paper tablets—stacks of rubbings done in situ—were piled casually like books pulled from a shelf. The evocative scrolls, the volumes of collected drawings, and the ineffable photographs represented different versions of a particular site and reflected a synthesis of analysis and documentation.

When first produced, Stuart’s work was quietly maverick. Although spare, the caressed, obsessive surfaces were far too agitated to be called Minimalist. Yet the rubbed drawings and small books investigated the landscape without resorting to the grand gestures of many Earthworks and much environmentally oriented art of the time. This group of works remains a document of Stuart’s prolonged, passionate investigation of landscape, but two decades later there is also a new and timely message. Precisely because it avoids didacticism, Stuart’s stunning work offers significant lessons for those who attempt to unravel the relationship between esthetic production and contemporary ecological issues.

Patricia C. Phillips