Michelle Stuart, Flight of Time @Galerie Lelong

JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 photographic works and 9 other artworks, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the smaller side room, and the entry area.

The recent photographic works in the show include:

  • 1 set of 20 archival inkjet prints, 2017, sized roughly 36×57 inches overall
  • 1 set of 30 archival inkjet prints, 2015, sized roughly 45×69 inches overall
  • 2 sets of 40 archival inkjet photographs, 2008-2011, 2012, sized 48×94 inches (overall) each
  • 1 set of 88 archival inkjet prints, 2016, sized roughly 72×126 inches overall
  • 1 set of 88 archival inkjet prints, with table containing horned toad, seeds, wax top, and containers, 2009-2010, sized roughly 68×116 inches overall
  • 1 set of 130 archival inkjet prints, with table containing wood, beeswax, and bones of various animals, 2018, sized roughly 90×149 inches overall
  • 6 archival inkjet photographs, 2016, 2017, sized 13×19 inches each

Additional earlier works on view include:

  • 1 sunflower seeds from Amagansett on rice paper, 1993, sized 18×19 inches
  • 1 earth on muslin-mounted paper, handmade woven cord, owl feather from the Four Corners area, 1977, sized roughly 14x10x3 inches
  • 1 seeds from Rome and graphite on rice paper, 1995, sized roughly 32×32 inches
  • 1 graphite and earth on muslin-mounted rag paper, 1979, sized 95×61 inches
  • 1 seeds from Rome, ink, and watercolor on Chinese paper, 1995, sized roughly 15×16 inches
  • 1 graphite on paper, c1970, sized roughly 24×47 inches
  • 1 graphite on paper, 1969, sized roughly 15×19 inches
  • 1 graphite on Rives paper, 1969, sized 22×30 inches
  • 1 graphite from site in Guatemala on paper, 1978, sized 8×7 inches

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Across the history of the medium, the photographic grid has been employed in a myriad of ways. It has been used to arrange and organize serial or time-based imagery, creating a logical progression from one image to the next in an extended sequence. It has been leveraged to group like pictures, either from a single body of work or in what came to be known as a typology, a specific grid form that allowed for rigorous comparison between images in the set. And it has been utilized to gather pieces into a larger whole, where smaller fragments come together to form a single aggregate image, like a mosaic.

But the photographic grids that Michelle Stuart has been making for the better part of past decade don’t really adhere to any of these typical rules or forms. Most feel something like a stream of consciousness, where loose associations, memories, visual allusions, and refrains are brought together in ways that are neither linear nor formulaic. While they are made up of individual frames, Stuart’s photographic works are effectively experienced all at once, like a montage, our eyes constantly building connections between discrete items before frenetically jumping on to the next, the whole becoming like a swirling wave of interlocked visual stimuli.

That Stuart should evolve toward this unexpected artistic form is not altogether unexpected. A sampler of her earlier work, going all the way back to the late 1960s, shows that she has been grappling with systems of display and organization from the very beginning. Her early drawings find her breaking up images of the cratered surface of the moon into tiles and iterations, and her interest in the texture and resonance of materials goes back to dented graphite works that look like rubbed stone. Decades later, Stuart comes back to the grid, arranging oily (and sometimes sprouting) seeds from various locations into squares, rectangles, indexes, and calendars, mixing natural elements with conceptual overlays and structures.

The largest and most recent work in this show, entitled These Fragments Against Time, brings together 130 individual images, plus a low table full of skulls, bones, fossils, and other natural history specimens. Most of the photographs are broadly celestial, with stars, planets, moons, and eclipsed orbs hovering in the dark emptiness of space, but these images are intermittently interrupted by early flying machines, zeppelins, and views of the ocean, as well as jawbones, dry lake beds, and ancient carvings. Experienced as one melded image/object artwork, it feels both aspitational and mystical, the reaching to the stars grounded in the bones (and the histories) of the past – it’s a bit 2001: A Space Odyssey, but more envelopingly intimate and personal. Formally, it is built on echoes of cosmic circles that bounce around the work with vitality.

In other grids, Stuart explores thematic groupings, temporal events, and linked ideas. In Trajectory of Evolutionary Correspondences, warm-toned images of plants, fossils, and microscopic nature come together in a nest of intricate patterns, the unidentifiable organic specimens seemingly floating in a photographic primordial soup. Landscape of Evil is more provocative. It combines imagery of firing squads, executions, guns, bomb explosions, and soldiers from across history, creating a unsettling portrait of our own self-destruction. While We Went About Etherized picks up a related thread, brocading spooky carnival acts (including a fortune-telling chicken), screaming faces, graves, and gas masks into a menacing meditation on our foggy-eyed existence. And Flight of Time works back to softer subject matter, building an ephemeral fading whisper out of birds in flight and flowers in bloom.

Stuart’s single image photographs appear to be made-to-be-photographed constructions of imagery and objects, perhaps using projections or other image layering techniques. These works are more oblique, their allusions less direct and obvious. Mostly, they lean towards the mysteriously evocative, with phantoms and dark silhouettes inhabiting non-places where emotions and histories percolate and simmer.

By liberally mixing archival imagery with her own photographs, Stuart effectively creates works that wander through time, with memories and past realities tightly woven into the present. Her grids enable the building of complex moods and motifs that live within her structure, where flashbacks flutter through the mind and tangents get followed and reincorporated. While a sense of self-conscious preciousness creeps into a few of these works, they mostly feel surprisingly flexible and amorphous. She’s taken a risk in trying to visually bridge the collective and the personal, and when she gets it right, her grids swell up into round, three-dimensional experiences.

Collector’s POV: The photographic works in this show are priced as follows. The single images are $14000 each, while the sets of photographs range from $70000 to $200000, and likely beyond, as some of the largest works were on reserve (the prices therefore not available/disclosed). Stuart’s photographic works have little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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