Martha Tuttle: Wild irises grow in the mountains
By Louis Block
Martha Tuttle’s paintings can be defined by belonging, in that they are seriously invested in a material process that takes the craft of the medium as part of its subject. The spinning, weaving, and dyeing necessary to structure these objects forms their image, so the compositions are fixed inside the substrate, rather than constituting separate layers. Belonging extends to a sense of place as well, and Tuttle’s work seems to increasingly evoke the high desert of her native New Mexico. It is a landscape where dry riverbeds suddenly flood with rainwater from miles away, carrying bright and alien pigment in their mud. Past works have invited references to early Greek philosophers, and in recent writing, Tuttle has invoked Thales of Miletus’s watery principle, that the world originated from some wet substance to which it will inevitably return; so, fossils, mountains, artwork are all temporary hardenings of a world in flux.
Why call these paintings? Because they are liquid color applied to fabric, and the fact that no painting department teaches any of these methods is more a failure of education than of the language. It is tempting to talk about a deconstructive impulse in Tuttle’s work, in its separation of the fundamental elements of a picture into obvious handwork, but the feeling is more one of care for the process than of skepticism of the whole. On the wall, these sewn and stretched passages of dyed silk and handspun wool form pictures that flutter in passing.
In pieces like After Cadillac Ranch (2021), polygons of thick wool seem to move through fields of silk, the soft ripples along sewn edges suggesting marks of speed or tension. It is a bit like a shadow that advances steadily across objects in a room but is motionless when stared at. Since the wool and silk have different thicknesses, they hug the edge of the stretchers unevenly, drawing attention to the skin-like quality of the image, which wraps, lumpy, around its armature. Others, like Lunchtime at frozen lake (2021), feature a steely fragmentation of forms, and the raw edges of pieced together silk give depth to the translucent compositions, as in the title’s suggestion of ice, or cracked stone.
The show takes its title from Drought (2019–21), a video that assembles footage from the deserts of western Texas and Abiquiu, New Mexico. In the video the artist and her mother, the poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, reflect on the shocking visibility of climate change in the relatively short span in which they’ve both experienced the region. Since Drought constitutes a generational oral history, it suggests an acceleration of the vast time of the pictured desert. The piece functions as a frank dialogue about the grief inherent in change, attempting to process the passivity and powerlessness felt in our unfolding ecological nightmare. To what extent does it color the other work? When Berssenbrugge remembers the grasses that used to grow on the mesa “like a pelt,” I imagine the contrast between Tuttle’s dense passages of wool and fragile expanses of silk as a difference of climate, the paintings’ planes taking on a geological character.
There is a moment where Tuttle’s camera focuses on the paddle of a cactus, its spines reddish disturbances against the snowy green of the plant. A water droplet shimmers, reflecting back a bending version of reality as if a mirror in a van Eyck or Velazquez painting. That globule contains the world, but it’s held between two spines and subject to the distortions of their diagonals. Similarly, the central form in Grey stallion stomping his feet (2021) is made up of dark bands of wool stitched between crooked pieces of pink and gray silk dyed with marks that indicate cracking, expansion, scratching, and all other sorts of frenzied activity. Resting in that vibratory field, the wool suggests a strong post-and-lintel construction, and the allusion to horses as wild masses of muscle feels appropriate. It is the show’s most enigmatic picture. The fibers, spun from insect and animal matter, the stretchers cut from trees, their aluminum reinforcement deceptively industrial, and the colors, from rocks, from dead matter, glide easily into our perception. Though their image is fixed, they carry a weightlessness that is difficult to describe. Are they bracing against time? Or building a stable in the moment? It recalls the affecting words in Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s 1989 collection, Empathy: “There is a craft at work/to reconcile emotion in a purely speculative ambience,/tracking the last aria, like a duration of water/which is a piece of white silk.”