Chicago

Kirsten Stoltmann

1R Gallery

A certain fantasy of the American Southwest as barren, inhospitable, timeless, stony, and impassive—Mars with sagebrush—has long held a grip on the American imagination. Kirsten Stoltmann, who lived in the Midwest before her recent relocation to California, assesses and reinforces this mythography with the fascination of an outsider. For her video projection Renegade (all works 2003), Stoltmann literally embedded herself in the denuded landscape, using a hidden armature that suspended her horizontally between, say, two outcroppings or two boulders. In a series of extended, meditative not-quite-vignettes, she appears amid the desolate scrub as simply another feature of the landscape. Both of and not of her surroundings, Stoltmann appears to hover or levitate and occasionally, as the camera leisurely pans in or out, slowly raises an arm as if in a trance. This near rigor mortis functions as a ritualistic homage to the eerie strangeness of the West and to our spiritual or meditative associations with it. Female figures within that history are rare; perhaps this is one reason Stoltmann arrays herself as a kind of androgynous Western every-person, in a white shirt, black jacket and pants, and red bandanna. To say that in the end this video contains suggestions of the kind of holistic magic and mystery one encounters in the sleuthing novels of Tony Hillerman, for example, is no criticism of Stoltmann. There is a suggestive and spooky quality to the spaces of the West, an extraordinary sense of aloofness, and her video takes on and furthers this enigmatic allure while reflecting on it as a cultural obsession.

The show also included four carefully adorned tumbleweeds. These plants are sculpted by nature—uprooted, they roll and roll around the landscape, simultaneously dead and mobile, wind and rock abrading them into rough, round shapes. Stoltmann festooned her prickly spheres with bits of stuff—chips of turquoise, feathers, silver ornament, fragments of colored cloth—of the kind Native Americans might have employed to (superficially) similar ends. It is as if the tumbleweed picked up bits of its human cohabitors as it bounced along. There is a touching earnestness to this—a gesture of honor and acknowledgment combined with a surprising and successful gravitas.

Seemingly unrelated to these other works is I Have Something To Tell You, a larger-than-life-size photograph of a vagina; a purplish amethyst that itself has a longish groove within it has been inserted into the vulva. The stone acts as a cap or plug and also as a kind of adornment, marking the aperture with a colored crystalline crown. Here, as in her other work, Stoltmann takes a cultural sign and through a poetic intervention both confirms and extends its position as a matter of import, as an icon awarding revisitation and reconsideration. These issues matter to Stoltmann, and in a mature and considered way she invites them to matter to us.

James Yood