Essays

Michelle Stone presents intense, visceral explosions of intrapersonal visions and demons through paintings and sculptural objects that suggest human, animal and hybrid forms. She approaches this work with equal parts of urgency and mystery, unafraid to make guesses. Stone inhabits a nebulous territory of engagement, situated somewhere between materiality of process and content.

Figures, forms and faces extract themselves from shape-shifting, turbulent and murky atmospheres, while they drift in and out of focus like hidden innuendos. These bizarre and abstracted creatures emerge poker faced, screaming, or even laughing at the horror of their own existence. They ooze tactile, emotive idiosyncrasies.

Vacillating between figuration and abstraction, Stone blends influences from modernism, abstract expressionism, folk and contemporary practice, then hammers it all together with a do-it-yourself aesthetic, overwhelming sincerity and consistent lack of concern for presentation. Like imperfect protagonists, disorder and imperfection resonate with equally fallible viewers.

Stone doesn’t present clearly defined images within her staged twilight zones. What is not shown in the work, what exists in the viewer’s mind, becomes just as important as what is displayed. Interpretation and reaction are particular to each individual and what they bring to the conversation. The work appears to be very much about its physical properties; but its foundations are the psychological and whimsical reflections of a self and life fraught with unplanned vulnerabilities.

She makes tools out of indecision, anxiety and self-doubt to imagine possibilities that purposely lack commitment to form, while movement and drama are constants. This is art making as deep self-therapy, feeding off of the energy of fight or flight responses to darkness and ennui, with sometimes-humorous results.

Stone (b 1951) was trained as a painter in the early 1970’s at her home city’s School of the Art Institute of Chicago (with a one year side trip to New York Studio School), so it’s no surprise that most of her artistic inspirations are other painters, or that her vision has been heavily shaped by living in Chicago. Her parents were artists who bridged the beat/hippy era and they were large influences on her work. Stone’s father, Don Seiden (1927-2019) taught art education and art therapy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1963-2007 and was also a member of Chicago’s historically significant Contemporary Art Workshop. Her mother, Dusty Seno (b 1928), an illustrator and craftsperson, encouraged Michelle to make things and learn to draw.

To consider Stone within the context of other artists who have informed her work, one might begin with Eva Hesse (1936-1970), who was riding the crest of second-generation abstraction during Stone’s youth. Hesse energized American art in the anything goes 1960’s, and ushered in historical new definitions of what a painting could be, that it doesn’t necessarily even require paint. She opened up a window for Stone to reassess technical and material aspects of the painter’s practice, and demonstrated that possibilities existed for women to break into a profession that was at the time predominately male.

Within her own brief life and career, Hesse witnessed the ascendance and waning of abstract expressionism. She adopted methodological and stylistic characteristics from first generation ab-ex painters Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and Jackson Pollock (1912-1946), but kept on progressing long after the movement’s climax, smashing all of critic Clement Greenberg’s calls for aesthetic purity into history’s dustpan. From Hesse, Stone learned to regard painting as assembled objects that extend outwards from the picture plane, and adapted experimental uses for non-traditional materials such as latex, fiberglass, plastic, wire and string.

Other second-generation abstractionists have also influenced Stone’s works. There’s an echo of Joan Mitchell (1925-92), also from Chicago and trained at SAIC), with inventive, emotionally charged, gestural brushstrokes, drips and other markers of chance. Stone’s blurring of the boundary between painting and sculpture was previewed in Thornton Dial’s (b 1928-2016) rambunctious, wall-mounted assemblages of found materials. Though smaller and more often figurative, her work is also reminiscent of Lynda Bengalis’ (b 1941) wild, unpolished latex blobs that defy description.

Frank Auerbach’s (b 1931) portraits and figurative paintings might be compared to Stone’s portraits and heads, with extreme texture and abrupt, angular strokes being commonalities. The often-impractical compulsiveness and heaviness found in Jack Whitten’s (1939-2018) tiled paintings set precedence for Stone’s work. Stone shares the wonderment of Jay DeFeo’s (1929-1989) unexplainable reveries, but without the solemnity of beatitude.

Stone flourishes automatic, staccato signature scribbles and scratches, with ample artifacts of manual work. She’s less elegant and more on edge than Cy Twombly 1928-2011) or Larry Poons (b 1937), masters of automatic, melodic, abstract flailing of materials.

Stone has so far avoided monumental scale. The personal nature of her work does not require the same epic size demanded by abstract expressionists, with their heroic, sometimes-hubristic intentions to create an international and universal language.

At first glance, Stone’s work bears remarkable similarities to outsider and folk art: there’s an intriguing naiveté, personal directness and the same lack of concern for slickness and finish that one sees with outsider artists like Judith Scott (1943-2005), a self-taught artist with Down’s Syndrome, or the resourceful and compulsive Gregory Warmack (1948-2012), also known as Mr. Imagination. Unlike folk art, figurative elements in Stone’s work exist without discernable narrative; they remain open to interpretation, living in an uncertain limbo like the halfway houses of Purgatory and Elysium. The primitive side of Stone’s work never aims for pretty or nice.

It is curious that what one does not see in Stone’s work is the influence of Chicago’s best-known art groups, the Hairy Who and the Imagists. She replaces their hardedge, linear, cutesiness and comic book flippancy with messy applications of materials, dyspathy and soul searching; but their irreverent cynicism and willingness to not always make sense is embedded in the DNA of the city’s soul.

Stone’s vision and intentions share more common ground with Chicago’s Monster Roster artists Leon Golub (1922-2004), Dominick Di Maeo (b 1927) and Don Baum (1922-2008), all comfortable in toned-down gray mania and nervous slovenliness. Looking across the pond to European art, her work also suggests CoBrA artists Karel Appel (1921-2006) and Asger Jorn (1914-1973), who favored direct, emotive and child-like modes of visual expression.

Stone views a lot of exhibitions at galleries and major museums. She is very informed about much of what has happened from Modernism onwards, yet gives scant concern for trending memes of the pop culture that always catch up with us in the end anyway. Stone is a true original who, like most stalwart Chicagoans, accepted lifelong, self-imposed exile to cultural marginalization as necessary to develop her own individual voice and vocabulary.

Stone has kept good company during banishment. Two older Chicago-based painters stand out as inspirations and mentors: Margot Bergman (b 1934) and Linda Kramer (b 1937). All three women create loosely rendered, neo-expressionist works that verge on the grotesque and discard constraints of perspective. They are independent and eccentric rule benders, proud to be non-conformers.

Stone has plenty of present-day colleagues who look to similar artistic influences and trends. Ambiguity and uncertainty fit the current zeitgeist. Loosened criteria for what paintings or sculptures can be, the materials, format, process, craftsmanship and content, are now commonplace.

Stone, like Judy Pfaff (b 1946), sets armature wires free to escape post-apocalyptic sculptural mass as they become frenetic lines scribbled in air. With no determined frontal view, the appearance of teetering off balance and defying gravity that one sees in Stone’s crepuscular objects is also a defining characteristic of works by Arlene Shechet (b1951) and Rachel Harrison (b 1966). Stone’s gutsy ab-ex style also reminds one of works by Cecily Brown (b 1969), but viewed through a less formal, more caliginous lens.

What sets Stone apart from her colleagues is a consistent darkness. Even her attempts at humor are delivered on the blade of the Reaper’s scythe. Depictions of fragmented forms and bodies come to terms with pandemonium by accepting its terms of engagement. There is no architecture, no geometry, no order and no politics. She makes use of found scraps and fragments but rejects whole, complete found objects. Stone never resorts to hawking shiny, appealing objects; she’s more comfortable remaining within the shadows of doubt.

Stone attempts to peer into the chaos of a black star whose immense gravity pulls everything into itself, taming all of the random figures and things being sucked into the eye of its hurricane, in need of a center of gravity to coalesce around. Like Nicola Tesla and Benjamin Franklin experimenting with electricity, Stone grapples with forces beyond her understanding, searching for compositions and themes. Her paintings and objects become energy accumulators like Willhelm Reich’s Orgone Machine, or healing crystals in a Sedona rock shop.

Stone appropriates her own basic sculptural methods from primitive architecture and bird nests, using contemporary equivalents of sticks and mud that get embellished with found shards of glass and shiny objects, like the glittery things that catch a magpie’s glassy eyes. There is little pre-planning, no real design or blue print for any of her work.

She makes much use of paint skins, the blobs and layers of paint scraped off the palette as they go through different stages of drying to become attachments and limbs of larger forms. Specks of metallic and bright colors are sometimes sparsely scattered like twinkling stardust on swamp things from a dark universe.

Sculptural armatures sometimes poke through pounds of acrylic latex hides on phantasmagoric creatures: grounds and under-paintings peek out from underneath oceans of paint as if gasping for breath; yellow fangs of tube adhesive bare themselves next to pipe cleaners passing as caterpillars.

Slapdash, outrageous impasto characterizes the surfaces of Stone’s paintings and objects. She makes no effort to hide what’s under the hood and how these things work, but this is not process art; Stone’s point of departure is always personal psychodrama.

Her paintings begin with colored grounds that create atmosphere and insinuate forms. Her choice of paints is utilitarian and practical, finding use for artists’ acrylics, house paint, enamel and spray paint. Stone’s blend of intuition with loose planning embraces a willingness to discard, re-purpose or recycle failed efforts.

Stone’s sculptural, blob-like pieces function either as singular objects, or as components of larger, modular installations, as with Grew Some Hybrids. The assemblage and grouping of smaller pieces to create room-size behemoths does not attempt to become installation art; she doesn’t commandeer and redefine the exhibition space. One remains cognizant that there is an exhibition hall housing the art. You have not entered the dragon’s lair; the monsters are in your own room, invading your safe space.

Another ongoing sculptural theme of Stone’s is her Couples series. These small-scale maquettes celebrate lovers and serve as sculptural sketches. Embraces that attract or repel seem to create positive and negative magnetic force fields that become auguries of the psyche.

Stone’s paintings explore portraits and heads. The portraits represent real acquaintances of the artist’s and carry 1 to 3” thick impasto on ply panels, slowly worked over time from photographic references. The intention here is to incorporate and transcend physical likeness to include the subject’s emotions and inner self.

Stone’s heads are indistinct, abstract and mysterious, possibly human, painted on Yupo paper with a toned-down palette in a traditional, expressionist style. These are perhaps Stone’s most intriguing works, packed with frightening turmoil and convincing uneasiness. The cast of characters could describe an oracular dream sequence. Non-descript suggestions of noses, teeth, faces, pigs or evil bunnies swirl in the stormy whirlpools that inhabit every inch of the work.

Stone has achieved a recognizable signature style whose strength is inventiveness paired with a grim but wise levity. Born of grueling struggles in the studio and lack of pretense, even her abstract shapes and blobs seem animated. If there is any notion of spirituality here, it is due to Stone’s ascribing sentience to non-human forms; this is similar to animism, but without deification or ritual.

One senses endless questions without answers in her work, but there’s also a stoic, comfortable acceptance of fate, like surrendering into a worn-out old armchair. Disquietude, uncertainty and primordial energy are the content. Stone is satisfied to work and play with her demons, to manage them, and feels no obligation to control or manipulate them.

A number of years ago, Chicago artist Michelle Stone assembled a mass of her signature paint sculptures into a dense, creeping garden. In it, acrylic paint and modeling paste covers everything, the palette of vivid greens imbuing the installation with an aura of viscous, oozing life. Today, Stone is working on another garden, and unlike the lush version of the recent past, this new garden is bare and gray. Life and death, light and dark –the emphasis shifts on a linear spectrum of the dichotomies ever present in Stone’s practice, and is reflective of the changes the artist gleans from the world around us, as well as her brazenly personal expression. 

In Stone’s studio, years’ worth of different series are intermingled throughout the space. Paint sculptures of embracing couples dangle suspended amongst dark, murky abstractions on paper and bins of colorful, acrylic sculpted flowers. Democratized and mingled in this way, the contrasts are heightened, and so too do we see a bit of one contrastic character within the other: the liveliness of the florals is that much more beautiful when surrounded by monochromatic paintings; Stone’s gestural hand lends a brutal character to the delicateness of flowers; representational forms, figures and faces erupt from painterly abstraction.

2018 has also seen Stone creating something she hasn’t worked on in a long time: a large scale sculpture. And this large, new piece –a winding, grey mass of charred, slithering tendrils– is a dark one, indicative of a “shadowy side of things” the artist is compelled to contend with. For Stone, demons and trauma are real and potent, and being in the presence of pieces like this, literally hanging in front of us, begs the question: how are we able to function in an environment of darkness? What do we do with this inescapable woe without it consuming us? Is it possible to still see and appreciate and create things that are beautiful?

Stone’s long career is evidence of ebbs and flows, articulating a cycle of dark to light, death to life, and back again. In that grey garden, Stone has scattered a few amorphous clusters of colorful paint, like unformed buds and shoots emerging from the dirt. The artist’s garden metaphor is an effective one in so many ways, and Stone employs it in yet another dimension to illustrate that something that may seem dead and hopeless may in fact be merely dormant, waiting for a time to grow anew. There’s comfort here in Stone’s works, with knowing that after a complete loss, a bottoming out, the only place there is to go is up.