Stefana McClure, Protest stones, 2021. Poetry-wrapped stones, twine, cord, rope, and cut nail, 108 x 125 x 4 in. Photo: Courtesy Bienvenu Steinberg & Partner

Stefana McClure

New York

Bienvenu Steinberg & Partner

Every object in Stefana McClure’s recent exhibition, “I See You Seeing Me (Meeting the Female Gaze),” projected thoughts staring back at the viewer, turning printed texts that we all should know (but mostly don’t) into knitted and otherwise reconstructed sculptures. McClure uses familiar sculptural and cultural forms, including circles, rectangles, hurling weapons, axe handles, stones, and coal to reinterpret texts related to women. 

The Year of Magical Thinking: a novel by Joan Didion (2021) consists of 10 vintage steel axe heads covered by incomplete, yet pointed passages extracted from Didion’s 2005 memoir, which succinctly narrates the year following her husband’s death; her daughter died soon after, before the book’s publication. The papered-over axe heads are strung into a sort of necklace with Italian ruby spring twine, one of many kinds of twine that McClure collects from around the world. In a December 24, 2021, New Yorker essay, Zadie Smith suggests that the title, The Year of Magical Thinking, is ironic. Signaling “a disorder of thought, it sees causality where there is none, confuses private emotion with general reality, imposes—as Didion has it, perfectly, in The White Album—‘a narrative line upon disparate images.’” Smith argues that what was meant to suggest dysfunctional thinking is now interpreted as normal thought. Is McClure’s sculpture intended to be literal or figurative or both? Her symbolism fits Didion’s style; possibly, the axes represent words, and the twine represents sentences. 

Each of McClure’s subject works was created by a woman, features a woman, or was translated by a woman; and each of her constructions offers a shape related to the text or film. McClure contends that the female gaze and point of view are transformative in the sculptures, but they require a deep dive to understand. In The Five Elephants: five novels by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (2018–20), The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and Dostoyevsky’s other novels have been sliced into one-line text strips and rolled, like yarn, into five balls of different sizes. According to the press release, Svetlana Geier, “perhaps the world’s greatest translator of Russian literature, spent her life retranslating these texts into German, offering a new reading of the masterpieces.” We don’t know, however, if the English versions used by McClure employed Geier’s translation—McClure creates confusion by presenting balls of English words that symbolize Geier’s German translations. 

Wonder Woman: The Siege of the Flying Mermaids (2015) consists of a knitted paper rectangle, with one corner flying away and leaving a wing-like shadow on the wall. Its sections of text/images have been cut into tiny colored strips and rejoined to resemble the narrative frames of a comic book. Words are difficult to decipher, but the mixed color fields leave a strong impression. The companion Wonder Woman: Flaming Fury (2015), made of knitted paper arranged in seven rectangular sections, offers a different aura and a different tale. Another knitted paper series from the New York Times, in white, black, and blue, offers eight knitted pages composed from the story of a Syrian family’s journey to and life in America between February 4 and March 4, 2017. How is the Times text by Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan about a female gaze? The knitted series and the ball series seemed outside the show’s frame/title.

“Protest stones,” a series of nine sets of stones wrapped in poems by June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, and other women, hung from braided twines on cut nails. This piece joined the axes as the sharpest iteration of the exhibition theme. Hurling word-stones on a string is a strong metaphor for what protest poems can do. Some further research and reading was necessary to learn the messages of McClure’s selections. For instance, “Calling on All Silent Minorities” by June Jordan, says: “HEY / C’MON / COME OUT / WHEREVER YOU ARE / WE NEED TO HAVE THIS MEETING / AT THIS TREE / AIN’ EVEN BEEN / PLANTED / YET.” There is an argument for presenting the poems with the sculptures rather than just referencing their authors and titles.

McClure’s craft, themes, and processes are strong. We’re all familiar with books and stories translated into movies, TV series, and performance pieces, but few have been turned into sculpture. “I See You Seeing Me” excited me in new ways, yet I wish it had been even more visually memorable and possibly more direct in its thematic exploration of the female gaze.