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Review: Santa Barbara Museum of Art makes room for Stuart and Aycock

Art review: Retrospectives of New York-based artists Michelle Stuart and Alice Aycock meet auspiciously at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

March 06, 2014|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Michelle Stuart's seed calendar series of drawings treats time as an organic construct.
Michelle Stuart's seed calendar series of drawings treats time as… (Santa Barbara Museum of…)

SANTA BARBARA — Michelle Stuart and Alice Aycock are very different artists. Stuart is a kind of cartographer, mapping not just the land but our intimate experience of it. Aycock is more literary, transforming familiar themes like the intrusion of technology into nature and society's spiritual discontents into sculptures that are sometimes participatory.

However, the juxtaposition of two sizable, retrospective exhibitions of their drawings at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is fortuitous. Both New York-based artists emerged in the 1970s, both were (and still are) focused on human intervention in the actual landscape, and both have exploited drawing's fundamental capacity as a luxuriant medium for imaginative thought.

"Drawn from Nature," a traveling show organized at the University of Nottingham, England, assembles 59 works by Stuart — drawings, photographs, objects and a video — made since 1969. That was the year humankind landed on the moon, an epic event characterized for most observers down on the ground as a leap of imagination tied to a radically altered relationship to Earth.

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That the event was on Stuart's mind is obvious from "Moon," a graphite drawing of the lunar surface made from landing photographs. At 29 1/2 inches per side, the drawing is square. That betrays privilege to neither the landscape nor human orientation, which a horizontal or vertical format would imply.

Instead, the square format emphasizes the materiality of the sheet of paper. The sheet is its own "field," where marks of the hand are registered.

Stuart's exquisitely pale, pockmarked image is as much like a picture of a sponge as it is like the moon's cratered surface. The exploratory human limits of the sky above and the ocean below collapse into the tactility of a pencil drawing.

Nearby, a slightly later drawing titled "Sand" inserts time into Stuart's developing equation. Drawing has long been compared to writing, partly because of the common materials and partly because both are solitary activities. In this work Stuart used her pencil to write the title word in neat rows of cursive script, perhaps 30 times across and repeated on more than 80 lines down.

The page is also liberally sprinkled with pencil dots, seemingly at random, like a handful of punctuation marks strewn across the surface. Many words are smudged from upper right to lower left, an angle that matches the handwriting. Like sands through the hourglass or a tide line perpetually erased at the shore, it underscores drawing as a continuous process of making and unmaking.

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In the wake of the rise of Conceptual art, drawings gained traction as a prominent medium for artists in the 1970s. A drawing intimately links art to mind, and Stuart's work is slow, gentle and contemplative.

Her most widely known works are a group of free-hanging paper scrolls mounted on muslin, often pinned to the wall at the top and unfurled on the floor at your feet. That configuration literally grounds perception.

Two large scrolls in the exhibition, both made in different landscapes in upstate New York, are densely covered in graphite. Stuart made them with a heavy-duty version of frottage, the old Surrealist technique of rubbing graphite over thin paper laid down on a textured surface. Her paper is not thin; it was laid directly on the rock-strewn ground, and she sometimes smashed dirt itself into the paper.

Forget releasing the subconscious, which Surrealist artists wanted from frottage. Stuart's scrolls instead remind me of industrial-strength grave rubbings, recording Earth's mortality. A 1975 video shows a monumental related example: The paper scroll ran several hundred feet down a gorge, where an ancient tributary of Niagara Falls once ran.

Perhaps the most consistently beautiful drawings are a series of modest "seed calendars" from 1992-95. A sheet of rice paper, as delicate and translucent as fragile skin, is subdivided into various grid formations. One or more seeds — ash, maple, columbine, etc. — are deposited within each square.

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The artist has organized the grid, modern symbol of rational thought. But it's the moist seeds that do the internal drawing, oozing and staining the sheet. Her calendars mark organic time, as if having grown from that early rendering of "Sand."

Alice Aycock's drawings likewise ground themselves, but more the way an architect builds within a given landscape. The show, organized by the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, N.Y., includes nearly 100 drawings, photographs and models, plus one sculpture. "Some Stories are Worth Repeating" is divided into two sections.

One part, including large drawings made since 1984, is at the museum. Aycock's early work, surveying 1971 through 1983, is at the Art, Design and Architecture Museum at UC Santa Barbara.

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