SEEKING ANSWERS from Lucy Skaer's current installation at Yale Union quickly becomes an exercise in gathering questions: What do giant stones mean? Monster slabs of wood? Raw natural materials cut up and put back together to look like raw natural materials?
On a sunny day, Yale Union's southern bay of windows casts a path of light down a tidy field of coin-shaped terra cotta multiples and continues across the gallery floor, edging mahogany crosscuts, lithographic limestone slabs, and a ledge of glass formed like crown molding and installed directly into the floor. On the other side of the temporary path are limestone boulders weighing up to 5,000 pounds; on a western wall, partially rendered prints of newspaper imagery are displayed in a row. Elsewhere, a massive limestone pendant hangs from the ceiling like a chandelier above a limestone table. Lots of limestone. Lots of wood. Enigmatic clay coins. Newspaper references. Seriously, lots of limestone. Hmmm...
The title of the show is basically a paragraph of dates—MONDAY 8.4.13, TUESDAY 9.4.13, WEDNESDAY 10.4.13, THURSDAY 11.4.13, FRIDAY 12.4.13, and so on—which catalogs the days Skaer spent in Lithograph City, Iowa, at a quarry mining the slabs of lithographic limestone that are on view at Yale Union.
As the title suggests, the show's most dominant focal points are slabs and boulders of limestone from Lithograph City. The significance of these stones is largely narrative: Lithograph City was dubbed as such in the early 20th century for its large stores of a type of limestone that was ideal for lithographic printing purposes.
Uninterrupted by common imperfections, huge slabs of choice stone found a thirsty domestic market during the WWI German trade embargo—an embargo that cut off the US from popular foreign sources of limestone. Lithograph City took off.
And then Lithograph City crashed. Hard. Metal print plates replaced stone, the Great Depression was in full swing, and lithographic limestone went the way of Windows 98. Time machine forward a little shy of a century, and that brings us to Skaer. As something of a material fetishist, Skaer's interest in the Lithograph City limestone isn't solely narrative in focus—these are massive pieces of earth. So big that many slabs had to be cut just to fit inside Yale Union's freight elevators. So heavy that they could only be positioned in the gallery over certain structural beams without risking serious building damage. While these cuts of limestone describe humanity's relationship with obsolete technologies, they also describe the sheer largeness of the earth and its natural resources.
Other materials in the show also share a love of large proportions and long-ago stories. The mahogany crosscuts that parallel the limestone on the Yale Union floor were recovered from Belize—sourced from a log that was preserved in river mud after breaking loose from a flotilla roughly 100 years ago—and are much larger than those commonly found on the open market.
Skaer was born in Cambridge and is currently on the last leg of a stint living in New York. While she was mining her limestone in Lithograph City, her hometown newspaper, the Guardian, was busy reporting the happenings of the western world. Skaer hit up the Guardian offices and because she's kind of a big-deal art person, they gave her original print plates from the days she spent in the quarry at Lithograph City. Later, she applied homemade terra cotta ink to select plates—the same terra cotta used to make the coin-shaped multiples—and produced abstract reductions of the original Guardian pages.
A little patch of flowers with ovals coming off it signifies Margaret Thatcher's funeral, smears and figures represent the Boston Marathon bombings, and so on, while typographic blips and disembodied punctuation float throughout.
The moves being made here—materials repeating across mediums, a focus on the world exterior to the artist's professional activities—begin to stoke questions about the value of art in the presence of world-shaking moments of violence, grief, and the more mundane demands of cultural and political maintenance. An artist mines stone and bombs go off halfway across the country. What can be said about these stones—their value, their relationship to the artist, the communicative role they'll play in a gallery—when specific, heavy shit is going down?
A lot of what ties together the disparate materials in Skaer's show is their relationship with past functionality. What's amazing, though, is that in a time when so much attention is paid to the depletion of natural resources and technology's impact on those increasingly scarce supplies, we see instances of obsolete technology—lithographic limestone replaced by metal plates, mahogany exchanged for cheaper industrial woods, terra cotta swapped out for plastics and poly-whatevers—which Dodo'd out long before humans were able to fully use up all available supplies. In this silent fact is a hopefulness that current dangerous technologies will one day become obsolete, that we'll see the day when an artist puts a big vat of oil in a gallery and it'll be viewed as antique.
On the other side of the hopeful coin is anxiety. Has the human race grown so large, dumb, and hungry that we'll just completely outstrip natural resources before we can develop the next technological breakthrough and ensure a future for the human race? Like I said: The exhibit is an exercise in gathering questions.