"Seed Calendar, River Tree (SBCA)," at roughly 15 inches square, is one of the smallest pieces in "Topographies," an inspiring survey of works on paper by Michelle Stuart. "#9 Zena" is the largest, a scroll drawing five feet wide and 12 feet long, ending in a curl on the floor. The small piece feels as expansive as the larger one feels intimate. This multiplicitous sense of scale is one of the most vital aspects of Stuart's work--a simultaneity of physical immediacy and epochal reach.
The show, at Marc Selwyn, spans nearly 50 years of drawings, rubbings, and photographic installations. For all of its temporal breadth, the selection is tight and consistently absorbing, vital and relevant. Born in L.A. and based in New York, Stuart has from the late '60s made art as a citizen of the world, traveling widely and connecting deeply with whatever earth is beneath her feet.
Often she has brought that earth (including ash and bone) directly into her work. Two pieces from her "Ledger Series" (both 1977) are embedded with soil from the sites that motivated them. Each, made on muslin-backed rag paper, looks like a large open book, and reads as a stark, essential record of place. For "#9 Zena" (1973), one of a well-known body of scroll rubbings, Stuart's motions over the length of the heavy rag paper translate the grit of the dirt beneath into an all-over field of dark marks and blurred interstices. The image is all ground, literally and pictorially, and has a pelt-like sensuousness. As a trace, the drawing is true to the scale of its source, while it also suggests a vaster, more distanced aerial perspective of the earth.
In the "Seed Calendar" (1993) one or more tiny dark seeds are pressed beneath squares of translucent paper aligned in a grid of six across and five down: 30 days marked by latency and promise. Time and its notation figure prominently in Stuart's works, those on paper here as well as her sculptural installations and large-scale earthworks. Cycles are charted. Sequences are mapped. Images become units of measure that accrete and layer into moving chronicles of personal exploration. In "The Beginning, Islas Encantadas" (1981/2015), photographs of the primordial landscape of the Galapagos repeat and vary with incantatory rhythm within a large grid, the subject's crusty terrain matched by the raw evidence of the pictures' chemical processing.
Stuart's performative acts of art-making--rubbing, repeating, recording--carry the weight of ritual. Their rhythms derive from a post-minimal grammar of seriality and reductive form, and equally, from a deep, pan-historic reckoning with being. Her work is grounded, in every sense of the term--and transcendent.