Navigating the Stars: Michelle Stuart at Leslie Tonkonow
Michelle Stuart: Silent Movies at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects
November 1, 2014 to January 10, 2015 (extended)
535 West 22nd Street, Sixth Floor
between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212-255-8450
“Silent Movies” is an unusual exhibition for Michelle Stuart, an artist best known for her iconic land art, sculptural scrolls, artist books, and installations. This show adds consummate photographer to her achievements. Using a gridded format she integrates her own photographs with her wunderkammer collection of images, merging and manipulating them all to produce profoundly imperfect impressions. Smudged, erased, scarred, and layered, they unfold on their architectural frames as different filmic genres. Each is tied to Stuart’s personal journey as metaphor for a grander human odyssey.
Rue Cart presents an overlay of narrative and formal photographic manipulations as a grid of twenty-eight panels set cheek by jowl,. It reads like the story board of a Surrealist film. The first panel, depicting a hand against a constellation map, recalls Stuart’s early cartographic drawings of the moon. . Commonplace things—postage stamps, streetlights, antiquated buildings—reference Stuart’s memories of her years in post-war Paris. The cloud of war hovers over all as she transforms starry imagery into a hail of light spots; a ballistic pox assaulting everything, even, by illusion, the photographs themselves. But in the grander scheme of this apocalyptic vision it is memory, imagination’s alter-ego, that perseveres as an imprint, acquiring new significance as it is transformed in the mind’s eye of tomorrow’s viewer.
Stuart’s transcendental similes may include humorous interventions. In Navigating the Stars II she pays homage to Captain Cook’s eighteenth-century stop in Alaska, wrapping his voyage in her own excursion to the inlet that bears his name. In this fifteen-paneled grid, the surround of a star-spangled milky way frames vintage sailing vessels, the architecture of seafaring curiosity. To connect these worlds of sea, space and intellect, and to leave behind an imprint of her own presence, Stuart placed flashlights in the mud which she then photographed to suggest far-away stars impossibly reflected in water, as Cook could not have seen them while sailing through, centuries ago.
A Foreign Territory Within expresses transcendence through painterly abstraction.These photographs, their edges frayed and details erased—by time or by Stuart— present a severely bruised landscape, struggling to reclaim its lost identity. Stuart’s filmic instincts have set these nine panels apart giving breathing space to her shifting abstractions of place, its features stripped down to Rothko-like bands of textural darks and lights juxtaposed with gestural drawings of line anxious for form. Vaucluse, an asymmetrically disposed grid, unfolds similarly abstract compositions. These works recall Stuart’s exquisite frottaged paper scrolls of the 1970s, rubbed and pounded with earth and stone and subtly hinting at the specific sites that brought them into being. A Foreign Territory Within and Vaucluse likewise capture mere fragments of a site, leaving viewers to ponder its true scope.
The sublime peaks of Machu Picchu are, on the other hand, immediately recognizable in Sacred Solstice Alignments. Stuart captures them with the panning effects of a motion picture camera. Assembled as monochrome harmonies, their sights aimed skyward, these peaks align with starry signs from the heavens that with spot-on accuracy prompted the ancients to plant and to sow. This unfurling of the Andes as a celestial clock resonates with Stuart’s Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns, (1979) in which aligned stone boulders incised with lines designated the summer solstice.
If there are characters besides Stuart in this exhibition of gridded movie-stills, then Claudius Ptolemy (c. AD 90-c. AD 168) and Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) are her co-stars: cartography betrothed to perspective. Ptolemy’s nascent efforts to graph cosmological space ultimately led to flat maps enabling sailors to navigate the seas. Alberti’s codification of perspective permitted painters to pin onto rational space the otherwise messy stuff of human life. Like those sciences graphing the complexities of three dimensions on two dimensional surfaces, Stuart has with “Silent Movies” flattened out a fourth dimension — that elusive place where memory of what we believe we know finds larger truths in the spaces in between.