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In written histories, Lee Bontecou and Michelle Stuart are frequently framed as bold feminists within the context of the 1960s and ’70s New York art world, though neither artist thought of their work as feminist. Still, looking at specific bodies of work by these two artists side by side—as recent concurrent exhibitions at Marc Selwyn Fine Art allowed—it is apparent that the works partake of different facets of the same consciousness: one that supports a mythic aspiration alongside a forward-looking engagement with ecology and the body.
Though close in age, the sensibility of each artist can be connected back to dominant styles at the time of their emergence into the art scene. Bontecou, now 90, began to gain recognition in the wake of abstract expressionism, inheriting the genre’s regard for the artist’s individual sensibility in struggle or crisis. The singular assemblages upon which she made her reputation, and the biomorphic sculptures she fashioned subsequently, convey both a dread of aggression and an anxiety about ecological stability. Although only a couple of years younger, Stuart’s work might more be informed by the discourse around minimalism which maintained an emphasis on process and a regard for the artist’s role as an investigator of universal situations (ecological, social, psychological, etc.). If Bontecou’s artistic mission has been dedicated to a personal vision, Stuart’s has been loyal to a project broadly embracing the earth itself. Though they take very different visual strategies, both are odes to the sensuality of natural formations.
The work from each artist in this fortunate coupling was made largely in the 1980s, after each had established—and modified—a recognizable personal style. The pairing highlighted their disparate practices while also revealing surprising connections. Bontecou’s A Constellation of Drawings, 1982–1987 presented nine graphite drawings on graph paper—a way of working the artist has employed since her days as a student. Unlike much of Bontecou’s earlier, more abstract works on paper, the quasi-animal forms populating these notebook-like sketches do not proffer themselves, at least directly, as studies for three-dimensional works. Rather, they work out more general formal ideas and rhapsodize on such ideations until the image is overtaken by its own variations, everything looming like a hallucination. There is a dangerous but irresistible beauty here—a fearsome sensuality that embodies the allure that nature has for humankind. Certain of these untitled studies depict birdlike forms with broad wingspans—soaring, menacing raptors as suggestive of dinosaurs as of their avian descendants. Other works seem to catch one-celled protozoans in the act of growing into spheroid plant life. The inflection throughout is of ominous metamorphosis, an almost atavistic fear of nature’s force; in a plague year, these decades-old notations seem oracular.
While Bontecou’s Constellation of Drawings was consigned to the side drawing gallery, Stuart’s exhibition, An Archaeology of Place, was given the bulk of the gallery space. The presentation serves to anchor her in the moment minimalism got its hands dirty. (Stuart is a pioneering land artist, but most of her projects have recorded, rather than intervened in the earth.) Without challenging the austerity of the grid, large, multi-square, encaustic-covered panels such as Moonlight (Manhattan) (1990) and Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (1989) possess a tactile immediacy, and, with plant materials collected on Stuart’s walks embedded in the translucent, relatively pliant wax, a connection to the earth. (A 1988–89 series called Brookings serves a more direct documentary purpose, preserving decayed leaves with handwritten notations in the amber-like encaustic.) Though organized in regimented grids, these are not lifeless designs, but records of encounters and of an ongoing holistic relationship.
Although stylistically different, both Bontecou’s and Stuart’s work are assertions of social and personal, and thus political, intention. They rely on natural phenomena—largely invented in Bontecou’s case, largely notated in Stuart’s—to propose a dynamic, even unstable, but ongoing relationship with nature. While at the time of these works’ making neither artist aligned her art with the term “ecofeminist,” within our current climate of global pandemic, political unrest, and economic uncertainty, this 30-something-year-old work reads as a cautionary rumination on the ties between humans and the natural world.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 26.