Saturday, September 09, 2006

Sayreville Strata

Edward S. Casey, an American philosophy professor, has written a book about recent American landscape art called Earth-Mapping: Artists Reshaping Landscape. It covers the work of Robert Smithson, Margot McLean, Sandy Gellis, Michelle Stuart, Eve Ingalls, Jasper Johns, Richard Diebenkorn, Willem De Kooning and Dan Rice. However, as will be clear from this list, ‘mapping’ is used in a fairly loose sense, and indeed the author spends a lot of time explaining why some of the work discussed cannot under any definition be described as a ‘map’.

I found it a hard book to enjoy - sentences like this soon becomes wearisome: ‘perhaps the quintessential Stuart of this period, however, is an instance of what Heidegger might call “the two-fold” (die Zweifach), in this case, the combination of distinct image and indeterminate rubbing.’ It often reads like a strange mix of the pretentious and the naïve: little ‘jokes’ signalled with exclamation marks, snippets of context (‘thus was born pop art’) and gushing praise.: ‘the central nervure of Michelle Stuart’s immense evolving oeuvre… is to be found in her decided gift for plumbing paradoxical extremes of medium, presentation, and subject matter, thereby confounding her critics and delighting her devotees.’
Michelle Stuart actually worked briefly as a cartographer for the US army while at art school and her early works used the same basic material: muslin-mounted rag paper. For example, in Sayreville Strata (Quartet) (1976) she rubbed earth from a New Jersey quarry onto four parallel sheets of rag paper. Casey notes how the work shows that ‘the earth itself is far from dull in its colorations!’ He sees the effect ‘as numinously dazzling as certain late paintings of Rothko’. They remind him of Cézanne’s studies at Bibemus quarry ‘but the French master’s colors are approximations of the natural hues of quarried rock, while Stuart’s colors are those of the earth itself.’ Well, yes.

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