The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York City
3 February 2016 – 26 June 2016
by NATASHA KURCHANOVA
An exquisite exhibition of photographs by Michelle Stuart (b1933) has recently opened at the Bronx Museum. Situated in a large hall on the museum’s first floor, it features 13 works, 11 of which are expansive rectangular grids composed mostly of recent photographs and two of which are works from the early 80s, also containing photographs but in combination with large sheets of paper covered by a thin layer of rubbed-in earth. Stuart called these sheets of paper “scrolls”, but the art historian Anna Lovatt argued persuasively that they were a variation of drawing.1 The two such drawings in the exhibition form part of earthworks projects for which the artist became famous in the early and mid-70s. Stuart’s earthworks were both site-specific and not: she would exhibit large sheets of paper bearing traces of earth in galleries and museums and make installations in actual landscapes using similar materials and techniques, as in Niagara Gorge Path Relocated (1975).
The drawings in the exhibition are square-shaped and contain earth from the sites to which the works refer – Sayreville Quarry in New Jersey and the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal in Yucatán, Mexico. The photographs in these two works are placed around the perimeter of each drawing, providing us with general visual information about the surroundings of the sites from which the earth was taken. The combination of the photographs and the rubbed-in earth makes the sites appear unique because of their relationship with the artist and her experience there: the earth that adhered to the paper as well as the photographs carries the trace of the site and the artist’s presence in it. To emphasise the interrelation of the photographs and the drawing, Stuart matched their colours by tinting the photographs in sepia tones.
In recent photographic arrangements, composed of images made during the last decade, each grid is devoted to a particular subject: sacred solstice alignment around Machu Picchu; celestial constellations; overseas travel to faraway lands; still life; curious objects; ancestors; “earth memories”; “home movies”; Paris … Each photograph within the grids is unique but tied to its neighbour by an ephemeral osmotic quality. As our gaze moves from one image to the next, their meaning remains elusive. Even in its combination with the title of a work, it leaves much to our imagination. In a 24-unit grid, Sacred Solstice Alignment (1981-2014), for example, one subject – Machu Picchu in Peru and its sublime surroundings – is photographed from various focal points, but with a similar size, tonality and exposure, allowing for a certain uniformity of image to emerge despite the multiplicity of views. What we get is a sense of a unique and imposing presence of the mountain shrouded in spectral mist. The wall text informs us about the history of the artist’s acquaintance with the sacred site of the Incas and the details about the place itself – such as its consecration to the Inca sun god – but it is the work itself and its title that are charged with the mission to convey to us the special, uncanny power nested in the place.
The same coupling of poetic and storytelling devices enlivens the rest of the works on display, including The Ring of Fire (2008-10), a series of 60 photographs referring to the South Seas, the region from which Stuart’s ancestors come. Here, we see the images related to colonial lore – waterlilies, portraits of aboriginal women, masks, extinguished volcanoes, palm trees, ships and exotic harbours – but shown in such a way that they recall something long gone, which may remain in our memory only as a trace. A few objects put on a table in front of the photographs –some stones, a basket or a nest – remind us of a past reality of things we see in the images, which, like the real objects we see, once belonged to a world that was part of someone’s life. Many of the images in The Ring of Fire look as if they have been rephotographed from old prints, postcards, and other sources.
In My Still Life (2015-16), however, a large grid composed of 40 colour photographs, each photograph features a still life arranged by the artist. Each image, be it of a pair of Turkish slippers in front of an old photograph, truncated mannequins, or strange immobile landscapes, conveys an aura of mystery and melancholy. Something has been irrevocably lost, and all we have left is its ineffable trace. In an informative essay about the exhibition, its curator, Gregory Volk, calls these arrangements “sculptural vignettes from objects and images that are close to [the artist] that resonate with her, and have done so for a long time … These are her personal talismans …”2 It is this talismanic, magical quality, so rarely encountered in today’s art, that distinguishes Stuart’s work.
What is Stuart’s message, then? The exhibition invites us to find it not only in the shining beauty and magic of her vision, but also in an attempt to find a connection between her early and recent works. In an interview three years ago, Stuart admitted that her art was inspired by “literature and science”, and that, from the very beginning of her career, she was involved with photography, which “opened the door of history” to her.3 This avowal helps us to penetrate the mystery of Stuart’s art, because the explicit relation to history ties her thought to the French philosopher Roland Barthes’ writings about photography. Barthes described photography as structured around two interrelated and dynamic axes: “studium”– the factual, scientific historical information, which we could list, enumerate, and name – and “punctum” – a more difficult to pin down personal connection to the photographic image.4 The studium reflected a certain “objective” and the punctum a certain “subjective” truth. The subjective truth may not be necessarily factual, but it is material, because it leaves an unerasable trace of memory in our minds. Stuart’s works, old and new, are structured around the notion of the intrinsic power of this material trace. As Volk puts it, for Stuart “each image matters”. I would add that it matters in such a way that when we look at one or many of them, we sense a connection to some eternal, primeval truth.
1. Palimpsests: Inscription and Memory in the Work of Michelle Stuart by Anna Lovatt. In Michelle Stuart: Drawn from Nature, edited by Anna Lovatt, published by Hatje Cantz, 2013, pages 9-16.
2. Michelle Stuart. Theatre of Memory: Photographic Works by Gregory Volk in the catalogue of the exhibition published by the Bronx Museum, pages 4-7.
3. Interview with Michelle Stuart, January 2013 by Julie Joyce in Michelle Stuart: Drawn from Nature, edited by Anna Lovatt, published by Hatje Cantz, 2013, pages 117-130.
4. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes translated by Richard Howard. Hill and Wang, The Noonday Press, New York, 1981.