An exploration of Michelle Stuart’s practice; her divergence from orthodox methods and materials at the forefront of the Land Art movement and how the historical movements of Surrealism and Impressionism paved the way for her contemporary landscape artworks.
An attempt to pinpoint Michelle Stuart’s practice on the spectrum that is the mediascape of contemporary art would most likely place her between the genres of drawing and cartography. Stuart does not label herself under the traditional divisions of painting or sculpture; instead she works as a creative investigator, an unorthodox cartographer, with an ongoing theme of mapping “not just the land but also our intimate experience of it” (Knight, 2014). Stuart has been fascinated with the ‘map as metaphor’ since working as a cartographer for the Army Corps of Engineers during art school (Casey, 2005, p57) and hence cartographic allusions recur throughout her oeuvre (Stoops, 1993/94, p19). She embraces a hybrid practice that ranges over various divisions of Fine Art; her multifaceted use of materials making the classification of her practice near impossible. She has said that she has found her ideas make demands and that in order to execute them, she is constantly searching for materials that will deliver (Weiss, 2016). Thus, Stuart has changed the ‘matter’ of her work every decade or so, but her theme of mapping has remained the same (Rexer, 2016). In this essay I will be discussing the earliest period of Stuart’s practice, artworks best described as ‘earth-mappings’. They resonate with many of the painting-sculpture hybrids popular in the art world today, but were revolutionary when made in the 1970s at the conception of the Land Art movement, one interested in the re-shaping of natural landscapes to create art (Little, 2004, p154). I will be making particular reference to ‘#9 Zena Scroll’, ’Woodstock’ and ‘Serpent Mound, Ohio’ in terms of Stuart’s divergence from established ways of working in the field of landscape- related art and also how the contemporary movement of Land Art and the historical precedents of Surrealism and Impressionism inspired, informed and made way for such a divergence.
In the 1960s Stuart was making frottage works such as ‘Woodstock’(Fig 1) where graphite and the earth beneath the paper worked together as a mark-making device to create rich, textured impressions on the sheet’s surface. Already, Stuart was working in a way unlike drawing practitioners or landscape artists before; “Rather than the artist’s intellect or hand, the earth itself determined the composition” (Filippone, 2011, p6). Stuart’s work can be read as a topographical marker of the earth she ‘maps’ - not just an imprint where she walks. As her practice progressed, she became dissatisfied with merely depicting landscape and thus in the 1970s, upon discovery of the Land Art movement, her concerns moved towards the evocation of a personal landscape experience (Weiss, 2016). Stuart has legitimate reasoning for her unpredictable use of materials and preference to leave her practice undefined; “If I use up a certain medium with my questions, I start asking them in another medium. Each piece is a challenge...Is this really who I am and what I want to say?” (Gaebe, 2013). Stuart was a pivotal artist in the divergence away from traditional usage of materials to make drawings during the ‘70s; exploring unbounded methods of procedure that “broke away from the focused limits of rational, traditional techniques” (Harrison and Wood, 1992, p877). It was a natural step for Stuart to abandon the artificial medium of graphite and thus, she began to rub physical earth into paper, sourcing her materials from the natural world.
In 1973, seen in ‘#9 Zena Scroll’ (Fig 2), a series of large ‘drawings’ were made “through smashing, pulverising, rubbing and imprinting into the surfaces of scroll-like sheets of paper various samples of loose soil and rock” (Parafin, 2016). Stuart began to embrace her subject of ‘earth’ in a more conceptual way and as a result her work set about redefining the traditional notions of drawing from landscape (Stoops 1993/94, p 19); she moved away from just making marks to creating a surface with conceptual suggestions reaching far beyond the paper’s surface (Rice, 2012). Stuart spent time out of her studio, adopting the traditionally male-reserved role of explorer (Filippone 2011, p6), visiting archaeological sites and creating work that allowed her to evoke past times and places (Marter & Barlow, 2011) through use of “warm colours and raw textures imbued with geologic history” (Stoops 1993/94, p17). ‘#9 Zena Scroll’ particularly demonstrates Stuart’s divergence from traditional drawing methods; the work evokes a feeling of the landscape despite not appearing topographical or representational of the ‘seen’ world. Through the process of her making, paying attention to the earth that resides at the point of making but also the geology that has existed for decades, Stuart creates a certain depth in the work that addresses both the here-and- now and the extended history of the place she ‘maps’.
The avant-guard Land Art movement was undoubtably the biggest concurrent stimulus that guided Stuart’s making of her revolutionary ‘earth-works’. She was one of only a few women at the forefront of the movement (Rexer, 2016) and a great pioneer of the inclusion of organic and non-traditional materials from nature into artwork (Gaebe, 2013). The decisions Stuart made on her use of media is a significant aspect of how meaning was made - particularly in early works like ‘Serpent Mount, Ohio’ (Fig 3) and ‘#9 Zena Scroll’ (Fig 2) in which she spearheaded the adhering of alternative mediums such as “earth, wax, seeds and plants” (Casey 1939, p 3) to paper. This unique style of work introduced Stuart to the already existing group of artists in Robert Smithson’s Land Art movement. Alongside these contemporaries such as Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and notably Smithson who coined the term ‘earth-works’, Stuart was moving beyond the bounds of any existing artistic vocabulary, diverging from established ways of working with and commenting on the landscape. Although the format of work made by artists in the Land Art movement varied, the common denominator as defined by Smithson was that the terrain dictated the condition of the art (Casey 1939, p 3). Stuart’s early work certainly did that; escaping “the bounds of tradition” (Widewalls, 2016) through engagement of unusual materials, exploring and unlocking a whole new world of resources for future artists.
Although it is indubitable that Stuart is connected to the Land Art movement in terms of contemporary precedents, there are also notable historical precedents that can be seen to have allowed Stuart and her contemporaries to break away from previous conventions and “to overturn long held and slightly cliched beliefs about what drawing might be” (Lovatt, 2013). One of these historical precedents is Surrealism. Surrealist concerns with creating imagery of “uncharted synaptic spaces”, the unconscious and “automatic” art (Little, 2004, p118) gave rise to the technique of frottage, rubbing graphite over paper laid down on a textured surface. This technique is integral to the process of Stuart’s early work that I discuss in this essay. She managed to achieve the Surrealist’s aim of “releasing the subconscious through an automatic drawing” (Knight 2014) in her work and thus, through an adoption of the technique of frottage, she was one of the first in the Land Art movement to make use of automatic drawing and ‘generated mark-making’, finding form through experimental actions. Stuart has commented that Surrealist artists “left us with this opening of chance that has been taken up by artists and opened the door to things that we can still use in an interesting way” (Lovatt, 2013). That ‘opening of chance’ allowed artists in the late 60s, 40 years after the birth of Surrealism, to break away from conventional drawing. Historically, drawing had been thought of as an intimate and inferior medium (Lovatt, 2013) but Stuart, through her contemporary take, gave weight to an alternative genre of drawing that disengaged from subjective expression and pushed elements of abstraction alongside peers such as Bridget Riley, Richard Koppe, Eva Hesse and Philip Guston. These artists’ practices brought drawing, once considered secondary to painting and sculpture, to the forefront of the modern art world. This approach may not have been possible without the unconventional and innovative techniques coined by the Surrealists in the early 1920s.
Along with Surrealism, it is interesting to observe the link between Stuart’s practice and the Impressionist movement as a historical precedence. The first and most obvious link is that since the Impressionist period, landscape art has increasingly moved towards a less realistic interpretation of the world. Franceso Salvi commented that Impressionism is “at the root of all modern art, because it was the first movement that managed to free itself from preconceived ideas...it changed not only the way life was depicted but the way life was seen” (2008). The work made by artists such as Stuart in the Land Art movement comes in many forms but all can be read as renderings of the world as opposed to replications, akin to the aim of work made by artists such as Monet or Renoir from the Impressionist period.
Another interesting link to Impressionism is that due to the outdoor nature of the works, natural elements often found a way into the paintings, whether coincidental or not. For example ‘The Beach at Trouville’, painted by Monet on the Channel coast, has grains of sand and shell embedded in the oil paint, proving that the work was at least partly executed on the beach (National Gallery 2016). This inclusion of the tangible earth into works could be seen as an early marker, a springboard into the first attempts of what later came to be ‘Land Art’ at the hands of Michelle Stuart and her peers. Stuart’s process was a trailblazing one for the art world in the 1960s; instead of taking an easel and paint outdoors like the Impressionists had done, she’d go out into the field with paper and use whatever she found in the earth, using natural elements and pigments to put impressions down. The pieces, thereby, “become a very real story or document about the place, not just an artist painting the place” (General Mills 2012). Much how Stuart’s process was so avant-guard in the 1960s, so was that of the Impressionists when the movement began in the 1860s. The Impressionists’ “serious-minded but playful pursuit of momentary effect and sensation” drew them away from a traditional perspective of art-making and the innovation of ready-made paint in tubes led them outdoors to paint en plein air, “where they could more directly engage with nature” (Little 2004, p84). Stuart’s process makes reference to that of the avant-courier plein air painters from the Impressionist period, though Stuart grasps the concept of plein air working, taking it one step further. Whilst colours put down by Monet or Cezanne are approximations of the hues of the outdoors, Stuart’s colours are “those of the earth itself...the earth’s visible colours, the native stains of its soil and minerals” (Casey 2005, p61). Much like Stuart’s re-invention of the Surrealist technique of frottage, Stuart adopts and re-invents the Impressionist practice of working outdoors.
To conclude, it can be seen that Michelle Stuart is not only an artist, but an innovator, always exploring new ways to create unique perspectives on the world. As an artist, her practice has reversed “conventional and expected categorical distinctions” (Casey, 2005, p89), particularly through her range of materials that re-defined the role of landscape artists as creative re-mappers of our Earth. It could be spurned by some critics, unaccepted that rubbing earth onto a paper surface “to the point of perforating its surface with pock marks” (Casey, 2005, p78) can be deemed as ‘art’. It is this, however, that shows how Stuart challenges our conventional ideas of what art is, or can be. It can also be seen that Stuart’s early works may not have been possible had it not been for the influence of historical art movements that precedented and paved a way for her practice. Impressionism, on account of it’s introduction of art-making outside of the studio and Surrealism, for it’s experimental ideas of process generated mark-making, placing the artist in the role of a facilitator as opposed to a pure ‘maker’. Through their use of unorthodox methods and materials, Michelle Stuart and her contemporaries of the Land Art movement enabled the historical art of cartography to renew its comprehension through an alternative genre of landscape artworks, connecting both artist and viewer to the complex psychologies behind our geography.