Critique: Michelle Stone at Gallery 175

Michelle Stone’s Current Show:

Michelle Stone | Gallery 175 | 175 W. Jackson, Loop | 312.781.2500 |
Now Thru April 4 | Hours: Mon-Fri 9-2:30 | Free

Decay never looked so good.

I wish there was a name for that compulsive, overwhelming urge of wanting to take a closer look. Curiosity, suspicion, fear—all these arise from this nameless state. Perhaps its power over us originates in that most ancient place of our reptilian minds where instead of fighting or flight…ing, we just stare for as long as we dare. This is the draw of Gallery 175’s newest installation by artist Michelle Stone and curated by Sarah Krepp.

Opening night for this exhibit drew a lot of people. The relativity of time pinched and forced into being a most unique first encounter with this art, reminding me how important it is to experience things from not just up close but far away. Like a hungry child peeping through a restaurant window, I watched the people on the other side of the glass. But without the wait, my experience would have never been so coveted, so studied from afar. Life on the other side of the glass and bustling people meant that when I finally crossed the threshold, I was primed for looking like I haven’t been for years.

Strange eruptions birthing and oozing out of the walls, the pieces didn’t quite hang but more like lived, as if this was a set for a Tim Burton film…or even Ed Wood—the lighting and resulting shadows were that eerie and severe. And the more you looked at the pieces, the more they seemed to move ever so, a team of Jim Henson puppet masters standing on the other side of the walls, hands inside, flexing and trembling the non-living curds of painted rot.

The first piece I looked at was “11.” It looked completely different from the rest of the collection: a slight, rectangular piece of metal fixed on the wall. Very clever, I thought. What does it all mean? I took about five or so photos, careful to capture all the angles. It made a huge impact on me. I was eager for the experience to swell with meaning as I made my way from piece to piece. It wasn’t until I had taken my last photo of the piece next to it – “10” – that I noticed the small, dark and crusty wad hiding about seven or so feet above my head. Clever indeed! I immediately started sweating, grateful for all the chaos opening night brings, for this meant that if I was lucky, no one saw me taking photos of what looked like part of a door stop. Why, oh, why can’t I keep this all a secret?! If only I had shame…

By this time, I overheard a man say that “11” reminded him of his father. This caught my attention, for 11 looked like ten pounds of crayons, melted and formed into a spiked mass with an occasional appendage or extended horned spike. He then reached out and ran his finger along a curl of yellow and marble-like hems of white and purple and green.

He did what I wanted to do: Touch. After all, there were no “Do Not Touch” signs. Then again, was that necessary? I think it would be necessary if this were a society in which we needed signs reminding others to not eat off of the plates of strangers when dining out. Do not touch? Sure. Fine.

The wall behind me held four more sculptures. “2” prickled with tufts of what looked like lava-hewn texture, like something spit up from the sun and on a trajectory meant for annihilation of whatever was in its path. “3” looked like it was decomposing, black and gooey. Over and over, these pieces affected just a little too much drama. And just as curious, I wasn’t sure why. The fifth installation took up an entire wall and was made up of over 30 pieces. Decay and beauty, face-like, animal-like, fairytale-like, nebula-like – they all conveyed and connived their way into ready-made forms for interpretation my mind was all too happy to offer up.

It’s not that some of them have yellow and white, but that they look like pus. It’s not that they’re shiny but that they look wet and ready to drip on the floor. It’s not that they are spiky and horned and crook’d with appendages and projections; it’s that some of them look malicious, threatening, dangerous. And it’s not that that they all look interesting; it’s that they all compel in the same way great beauty or deformity or something dangerous compel.

Stone is not only an artist but a recently retired art teacher and perhaps most interesting, an art therapist. So when she says that she’s curious about process and wonders “about growth—transformation and decay—as it relates to humanity,” I realize it’s no coincidence that such nimble ascension my mind makes to darker thoughts and emotions is by design. In short, Stone has managed an impossible. She has taken something that Americans are so reticent to talk about—death—and makes it something you not only want to talk about but to stare at and to think about in creative ways. Your father? Your mother? Your first pet? Stone’s exhibit might look like a bunch of spiny clumps hanging on a wall, but get too close, and they’ll look back at you, all the way into your soul.

Stone’s next exhibit will be at Ceres, a gallery in New York City, from April 24-May 19.

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