Melissa Stern: Stronger than Dirt: A twenty year Retrospective

Art Spiel Photo Story


Stronger than Dirt: Melissa Stern at the Lockwood Gallery, installation shot

Walking into The Lockwood Gallery in Kingston NY one is instantly transported into another Universe. One populated by people and things who clearly are living in a world parallel to ours, but profoundly different. Smiling figures stand tall, grinning at the world, while all the time missing a limb or two. Or having their feet nailed to the ground. Images from vintage magazines merge seamlessly with Melissa Stern’s drawings. Her world is populated with folks who exhibit a stubborn resilience in the face of cosmic obstacles. Hence the exhibition’s title – Stronger Than Dirt.


Mean Girls #2- oil paint, oil stick, graphite, collage on wood. 10x 13. 2018-20; Two Face- clay, oil stick, oil paint, encaustic. 13.5×10.5×4 2008

Working in a wide variety of mixed materials Stern shows us the profound ambivalence that we experience as humans. Joy and fear mingle freely. Her work walks a fine line, much as many of us do between the emotions that we navigate every day Mixed materials for mixed emotions. Her mediums- clay, wood, found objects and a wide variety of surface materials are all put to expert use to express the narratives of her work. Make no mistake, many of these pieces look simple, but the emotions they convey are complex and sophisticated. A casual viewer might type the work as “childlike”. But look again and you will be drawn into the psychologically nuanced narratives she presents.


Bird Wagon- clay, paint, objects, and nails.15.5 x 24 x 6. 2012

Bird Wagon, pictured above is a gem. A diminutive person (gender is almost always fluid in Stern’s work) is determinedly pulling a wagon with one arm. The other has gone missing, but this does not seem to be a cause for concern in the narrative. Cheerful vintage ceramic birds sit placidly in the wagon. It is only on second glance that we notice that the birds are sitting (trapped?) In a bed of nails and the figure’s mouth is held in a permanent grimace. The sculpture is both charming and alarming. The narrative is within reach, but provides only hints as to how we are to feel about this story.

Fiction ETTY.jpg

Fiction-graphite, paint, graphite, collage. 23.5 x 16.5. 2003

The exhibition is a 20 year retrospective of Stern’s work and it is indeed fascinating to see the evolution of the artist’s work over a 20 year span. Fiction, a drawing from 2003 portrays the act of creation. A towering yellow figure draws/writes the story of a vintage era. What this family is doing and saying is entirely up to the viewer to interpret. The creator exists in a controlled whirlwind of words, color and texture. The background of the drawing is a pentimento of ghost images. Perhaps false starts for the artist, perhaps she is showing the maelstrom of ideas and images that whirl around in the brain of the artist.

Pink Etty.jpg

PINK LEG -clay, wood, oil paint, encaustic. 24.5 x 11 x 5. 2018

There is an ongoing sense of dark humor that resides in the works in this show. Never slapstick, never a cheap shot; rather the works embody a deeply felt sense of the absurdity in the world all around us. There’s often a touch of surrealism as in this piece entitled simply Pink Leg. A pink leg emerges out of a log as if it was always that way. Slanted at a jaunty angle we are asked to decide if the leg is dancing, walking or merely “showing a little leg” Covered in pink tinted encaustic the waxy surface makes a fine contrast with that of the roughhewn wood. Everything about this piece seems so “wrong” and yet it is all so “right.”

Melissa Stern: Stronger than Dirt A 20 year Retrospective, at The Lockwood Gallery through July 11th.