It’s easy to admire John Stoney. His uniformly exquisite constructions span an impressive range of media in The Origins of Grey, his third exhibition with Pierogi. Through sculpture, photography, and drawing, Stoney marvels at the natural world and ponders Earth’s relationship to humankind. His tone is refreshingly playful and inquisitive — without an axe to grind.
The exhibition’s centerpiece, a suite of three sculptures entitled The Origins of Grey, recreates precious gem and mineral displays from the American Museum of Natural History. Stoney reconstructs the specimens in elemental metals like aluminum and lead, draining the sculptures of color. Bowed metal platforms are lined with a felt reminiscent of fiberglass, and smaller gems meld with their thick metal prongs, appearing like nails. In one light, Origins seems to imagine a dystopian version of Earth, where the sapphires have been exchanged for lumps of coal and only cold, industrial materials remain. The sculptures evoke a sense of foreboding much like Alberto Burri’s black-on-black paintings, or Anselm Kiefer’s monumental wastelands. Yet the unnerving quality is eased by formal harmonies. Tonal, proportional, and chromatic relationships soothe the viewer.
While taking stock of the sculptures’ formal properties, I grew cognizant of the myriad artistic decisions that the original displays’ creators must have made. Origins dissolves the separation between support structure and display item by rendering the entire construction in similar materials. Stoney re-contextualizes the natural history displays as unified aesthetic objects, paying homage to their artistry and helping us to see creativity’s prominent role in scientific presentations.
Stoney’s colored pencil drawings serve as less complex odes to the gem and mineral displays, engaging the eye more so than the mind. Here the stones’ color and luminosity, painstakingly rendered, are shown in their full glory. In “Display II” (2017), the most interesting of the three drawings on view, four larger stones at the bottom of the page contain a spectacular level of detail and exaggerated colors that push them closer to the picture plane. The drawing begins to read as a landscape, and the stones’ scale distorts: they become fantastic boulders and mountains foregrounding a more distant sunburst of polished gems. Meanwhile, the work’s title reasserts flatness. Through the playful tension that ensues, the drawing transcends simple mimesis.
My favorite work in the show is Perspectives on Landscape Photography, a series of blown-up, full color reproductions of found black-and-white photographs. Stoney’s prints treat the original photos as artifacts, prioritizing their object-hood — to which every stain and mark is essential — over the pictures’ integrity. The series speaks to truth’s malleability. By glorifying the marked photos, Stoney insists upon their continued veracity, implying that truth simply morphs as it incorporates the stains of time. Even in pristine condition, the original photos were versions of truth, as authoritative then as now. I appreciate the relative simplicity of Perspectives. The series brings an element of chance to the show, balancing otherwise tightly controlled work.
In the center of the gallery stands “It’s All Good” (2017), a gilded bronze globe raised roughly to eye level on a stylish metal arm. Its surface is crossed by jagged, quarter-inch rifts that represent the margins between Earth’s tectonic plates. Land masses, on the other hand, are barely distinguishable from seas and oceans, which are differentiated by their smoother texture. Stoney shifts the narrative of our planet by organizing its surface in this new way. Here, undivided by political demarcations, Earth’s inhabitants lie equally at the planet’s mercy. The globe’s plates move according to actual seismic activity recorded by the United States Geological Survey. Every 15 minutes or so, seismic events cause a ratchety sound that arrests our attention. Seeing the fault lines obliviously rip through cities and hearing the frequent alarms, the title “It’s All Good” comes across as a ridiculous sentiment.
Standing back, Stoney’s prints, sculptures, and drawings all embody our human drive to capture and order the natural world. “It’s All Good” suggests how the planet lies ultimately beyond our proprietary grip. The piece reveals humanity’s insignificance.
“It’s All Good” is undeniably ambitious, but I miss the artist’s hand. The polished contraption operates in a gray zone between scientific education and art. Stoney seems to revel in this confusion. Throughout the show, he merrily weds facts to artifice. His work spotlights the act of representation, reminding us that any attempts at such are bound to be creative.