Michelle Stuart

New York

Michelle Stuart: While We Went About Etherized (2012): Unique archival inkjet prints,
 48 x 94 inches overall. Images courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.Michelle Stuart: While We Went About Etherized (2012): Unique archival inkjet prints,
 48 x 94 inches overall. Images courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

By Bill Clarke

Michelle Stuart
Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects
To October 27, 2012

In the late-60s and early-70s, New York-based Michelle Stuart began her career working in Land Art, and this interest in the natural world, as well as social justice, has continued to inform her work for the past 40 years. Although photography has always played a part in Stuart's practice (most often combined with drawing), this exhibition, titled Palimpsests, is the first to present photo-based work exclusively.

The term 'palimpsest' refers to a piece of writing, or an object, place or image, over which something else has been imposed, but parts of the original can still be discerned. (The gallery defines the word as "something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form".) Such a term seems an apt description of Stuart's past work, in which she incorporatedinto her sculptures, but didn't alter beyond recognition, flowers, seeds, soils and stones sourced from all over the world. In this exhibition, Stuart uses photos in a similar way, elevating them from individual images to commentaries on human frailty and cruelty, the natural world and history.

Fuerte Quemada: A Short Story (detail, 2011): Unique archival inkjet prints, 36-½ x 67-½ inches overall.Fuerte Quemada: A Short Story (detail, 2011): Unique archival inkjet prints, 36-½ x 67-½ inches overall.Eight works composed of uniformly sized images arranged in grids are on view. The works include anywhere between 15 and sixty individual appropriated or original photographs; it is difficult to tell which images have been sourced and which the artist produced herself. A few of the images are comical, but most are disturbing and have an air of the surreal. (Indeed, many could be stills from films by Luis Bunuel or Jean Cocteau.) The haunting 24-panel Fuerte Quemada: A Short Story (all works 2011-12 unless noted) features images of people in animal masks and a man carrying a decapitated head, hinting at humanity's animal nature. Landscape of War brings together 30 silver-toned images of barren topographies, while the largest work, at 60 images, Earth Memory Seekers, is like a capsule visit to an otherworldly natural history museum. People's oppression of, and violence towards, others and the natural world are assayed in Landscape of Evil (2008-11), which includes a number of images of  people brandishing rifles, and Peaceable Kingdom, a grid mainly of animals in zoo enclosures. The most powerful work in the exhibition is While We Went About Etherized, its title inspired by T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock ("Like a patient etherized upon a table..."). Here, it seems we are implicated most directly in the exhibition's parsing of our history and future in two images of children – one a screaming boy with his eyes clamped shut, and the repeated image of an eyeless (or blind) girl set against different backdrops. Like us, these children may be aware of their dire situation, but are ill-equipped or unwilling to see and acknowledge it.