On entering Signe Stuart’s recent painting exhibition, “Continuum,” you were immediately struck by the impression, quasi-visceral/quasi-visual, of being immersed in shimmering phenomena pulled, by arcane scientific means, from the farthest reaches of the galaxy. You couldn’t be faulted for assuming you were seeing solar flares, comets’ tails and the like.
Stuart’s resolutely nonobjective, mesmerizing paintings on stitched canvases have long been admired in Santa Fe. Her work and, before that, the work of O’Keeffe, Agnes Martin and Florence Pierce—to name New Mexico’s most stellar doyennes—have raised the bar of serious art in this city awash in souvenirs. The show presented a commingling of nine recent and earlier pieces, installed with restraint and finesse.
Two outstanding multi-panel paintings represented the acme of Stuart’s career. Quinacra Crossing (1982) and Chance (1977) each consist of five panels, though they appear seamless. The former, which is 54 by 90 inches overall, offers a color fade that shifts from lavender in the upper right to fuchsia in the lower left. In both works, gently curving diagonal lines recall the dance of waves, as though we are snorkelers observing the play of light overhead. In their proportions and general effect, moreover, they bring to mind the unfurling designs of the most memorable Japanese screen paintings.
Created using Stuart’s signature technique—whereby she fabricates the prominent lines on her surfaces through pinching and gathering the canvases into a ridges, which then are sewn and painted in contrast to the grounds—these two works subtly convey the effects of light, shadow and movement. As she has remarked, Stuart feels her works are grappling with “the vibrational underpinnings” of nature; certainly this may be intuited in viewing the show.
In their tremulousness and in their dreamlike palette—mauve, violet, coral, taupe—these two paintings demonstrate, for this viewer, reticence giving way to radiance. Both handsomely capture Stuart’s enterprise, refined over some 50 years in the studio; they should secure her place alongside artists such as Lucio Fontana and Conrad Marca-Relli, in the recherche realm of canvases slashed, stitched or otherwise manipulated.
Stuart’s newest works in this exhibition, from 2014, are from a series titled “Lux.” They reveal the artist gazing at light head-on. Looking at these works, the viewer is reminded, that it is advisable to behold an eclipse from behind smoked glass, since several depict a searing arc of flame in a pitch-dark void. On close inspection, we find that those incandescent arcs are, in fact, pinched ridges that have been meticulously stitched and painted.
Inasmuch as sewing may be seen as a means of drawing, it is evident that Stuart is intent on making her drawn lines distinctly tactile. As Braille appears to the sighted, Stuart’s “inscriptions” seem to intimate messages legible to only a few.