This is the last weekend to catch a great show at the Bronx Museum: Michelle Stuart, Theatre of Memory, Photographic Works.
Michelle Stuart is widely known for her nature-based art, but this exhibit showcases her photography, assembling 12 large-scale works made since 2008 plus some from her earlier “Codex” series, all related to her interested in ethnography, archaeology and natural history. Each composition consists of photos arranged in a grid format, so the eye can move in several directions across the grid. She also uses this format to construct a theme – our personal involvement with nature, history, and the cosmos – around which the viewer can create their own story. In her work, Stuart also struggles with the question of why are we here, and what can the artist say about that. Since her work combines so many different types of images, it can be difficult to describe, so forgive me if sometimes my descriptions sound like a jumble… but there is a certain coherence amidst the chaos, and this is a format that provokes questioning, searching.
The artist’s engagement with nature is especially pronounced in the first two works, Sayreville Quarry, NJ, and Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico, dating from 1980-81, and clearly derived from the artist’s Land Art works; each canvas is a piece of muslin rubbed with the earth of the respective location, creating a large lovely brown square framed by small square color photos of that site, mostly in blues and browns, enhancing the earthly feel. This combination of photographs and rubbed-in earth contribute to each site’s unique and specific appearance. Right next to them is the Sacred Solstice Alignment (1981-2014) twenty-four black & white photographs of Machu Picchu and the adjacent mountain, whose dreamy, meditative quality, captures the feeling of that site. I especially enjoyed this series, since I didn’t have my camera with me when I visited Machu Picchu some years ago, having left it in my hotel in Lima.
Several of Stuart’s works revolve around history, particularly that of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific, combining photos she’s made with vintage and found images, which she often alters, causing us to question what we really know as “history,” and to wonder about the stories we’ve never heard. The Ring of Fire (2008-09/10) is composed of photos of the native peoples of Australia and New Zealand as well as butterflies, iguanas, mountains, flowers, old photographs of ocean liners, masted ships, black & white print diagrams of the constellations of Jupiter, Libra, and Aquarius. Earth Memory Seekers (2011) are 60 photos (some vintage) of fauna & flora from remote locations, specimens, hunters and indigenous people. In Time Recaptured (2013) she returns again to this area, but with photos of her ancestors, family members, as well as animals, landscapes and sea animals.
Stuart’s exploration of our relationship with the cosmos finds its expression in Hear the Mermaids Sing (2013) an assemblage of 70 black & white photos of the moon, the stars, clusters, clouds, space craft and boats punctuated by a recurring image of a man in a hat. Night Over Alice Springs (2013) has the artist again turning her gaze to the sky, capturing not only planets, stars and the moon, but also moths and mirrors.
The Ambiguities (2015) are all black & white photographs (but one) of landscapes, seascapes, objects and faces, many wind-swept, giving it the feeling of a very old photograph, as if you had stumbled on someone’s secret album in an attic.. it’s not only her story, or Herman Melville’s story (it’s his title), but what the viewer brings to it.
My Still Life (2015-16) is a large grid of 40 color “still lifes”: images of real objects that the artist owns, along with fictive images, vintage personal photos, photos of collages and 3-D dioramas she’s constructed, many containing vintage photos, and others with the night-time sky as a background. Each image is a vignette, pulling you in to decipher the mystery it seems to hold.
My two favorites are works that have more urban themes (I am a city girl): The Carousel, and now the china elephant comes round (2013) a series of black & white photos of carousels in motion, in the middle of which is a portrait of a young woman wearing a fez, and other photos which could be movie stills… capturing the magical feel of the carousel (the title comes from a Rainer Maria Rilke poem, The Carousel); and Rue Cart (2013-14) twenty-eight black & white photos of Parisian streets, buildings, specific objects (a watch, a pitcher, a stamp on an envelope) which has the overall feeling of old photos seen through the rain.
The last day to catch this exhibit is Sunday, June 26th – take yourself up to the Bronx to see it.