We now know that photons travel between objects and our eyes, that their number and behavior determines sight, and that we can record their energy to create images. Long before we developed instruments capable of measuring such phenomena, Lucretius, in his catalogue of Epicurean thought, On the Nature of the Universe (ca. 1st century BCE), described images as “a sort of outer skin perpetually peeled off the surface of objects and flying about this way and that through the air.” In other words, the act of seeing is an exchange between the object and the viewer, involving a peeling away of particles from the object.
It is interesting to conceive of sight in this way, as similar to smell — a sense that requires direct contact with particles from which scents are derived. Without waves to translate color and light, seeing becomes a more violent act, one that removes substance from that which is seen. The concept that images represent a “shedding” pervades Michelle Stuart’s current exhibition at Galerie Lelong & Co., Flight of Time, in which the artworks pit images against traces, representations against remains.
A concise survey of the artist’s work on paper opens to a larger space devoted to more recent installations of gridded photographs. In early works such as “Zacaba” (1979), Stuart burnished materials from the drawing site into paper, signifying the ground she was working with and imprinting it directly onto the paper. Looking closely at “Zacaba,” the viewer can identify not only the pocked imprints of rough stones on the paper, but also the reddish tinge of soil intermingled with graphite. In neighboring pieces, grids of seeds applied to paper measure time in relation to seasons and lifecycles. The use of natural materials in these pieces constitutes a double indexical trace: they both coat the surface and infiltrate the substrate, altering the form of the piece. In this context, the paper can be read as just another natural material in the work — an accumulation of fiber and pulp, vulnerable to the effects of time and its environment.
In the main space, hundreds of images line the walls in gridded arrays. The largest collection, These Fragments Against Time (2018), is composed of 130 photographs hanging above an altar-like table of bones, wax, and rocks. The images depict a dizzying constellation of celestial bodies, ancient ruins, biological specimens, and humankind’s attempts at flight — from early aircrafts to satellites orbiting Earth. Unlikely comparisons can be drawn between the different forms in the grid: for example, how the construction of an airship resembles the ridges on a clam shell, or how dusty moth wings unfold like giant nebulae in the sky. This presentation simultaneously resurrects ruins and bones and fossilizes our own technological path. In this grand scheme, with all patterns laid bare, human achievement seems both inconsequential and inevitable — more a byproduct of the universe’s immutable power than a reflection of our ingenuity.
On an adjoining wall, the installation Trajectory of Evolutionary Correspondences (2009–10) explores certain patterns that exist at different scales in natural lifecycles on Earth. Here, the labyrinthine ridges of a cantaloupe’s skin mirror the radial spindles of cellular division observed through a microscope, and cross-sections of vertebrae resemble coiled genetic material. A side table holds piles of seeds and the skin of a toad. The physical substances gathered on tables beneath these photographs contains both the remains and the beginnings of life. Just as Stuart’s work on paper both removes and records the materials from a given site, these altars supplement the later photographic work with tangible traces of the sites and subjects surveyed.
Stuart’s photographs do not seem taken, but rather received. In their gridded, non-hierarchical arrangements, the images do not draw attention to Stuart’s own agency as a photographer, to the lengths she went to source historical images, to photograph eclipses and faraway sites. The material itself, the course of waves and particles, speaks louder than the artist’s hand — the subjects’ energy undiminished by their representation. Stuart seeks out these various phenomena to record and experience them, but never to capture.
Michelle Stuart: Flight of Time continues at Galerie Lelong & Co. (528 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 9.