Essay commissioned for catalogue accompanying But what of Frances Stark, standing by itself, a naked name, bare as a ghost to whom one would like to lend a sheet?, solo exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary.
And also, what of the sheet? – on Frances Stark
But what of Frances Stark, standing by itself, a naked name, bare as a ghost to whom one would like to lend a sheet? does a lot of things as an exhibition title. It is a title and a proposal for a title, a discussion of the idea that ’Frances Stark’ on its own might need some help. It is not as coy as one might think; had the show just been called ‘Frances Stark’ – the title would go uncommented-upon, so it provokes a discussion of the very translucency a sheet might cover up.
The semi-invisible ghost depends on the surface layer – a sheet – in order to take form. Frances Stark’s work is largely two-dimensional, and much of its beauty comes from allusion to, and formal experimentation with, two-dimensional things: butterfly wings, gallery invitation cards, the spread fantail of a peacock, the printed page. Only rarely is any sort of depth of field attempted. Translatlantic *3 (2003) conveys depth in two ways – the wash of blue that could possibly represent the sea (if the title is to be believed) in exactly the same charming way that a blue stripe at the top of a child’s drawing represents the sky. Secondly, there’s a heroic demonstration of a cuboid storage box. But in both cases the use of such readily identifiable, unsophisticated, and mutually conflicting techniques seems to mark them out as being more about the attempt than the figuration. Yet we still get the rather bleak idea of a box – to store what?- stranded and waterlogged in the middle of the ocean.
The quality of flatness will always conjure those value-laden formal descriptors shallow and decorative. All surface, no feeling. In fact, Transatlantic *3 can be said to have deeply emotional content (1), but as the viewer cannot always know these things, we can’t rely on depth of content in what are frequently very sparse images to convey all the affect the work has to offer. So this text discusses the sheet, and not the ghost: not making detailed ‘readings’ based on privileged knowledge of the works; nor is it, having highlighted the works’ frequent two-dimensionality, my task then to take some defensive line on Stark’s work as being nevertheless very very ‘deep’ – which, of course it certainly can be, when as a viewer you are equipped with all the curiosity and means necessary to find out what informs the work’s creation. Instead, it aims to speak of more immediate encounters between the viewer, the work, and the associations that are possible; to speak of what that very flatness and emphasis on surface might convey, deflect, deny, atone for, conceal, and excite, looking at what the work throws outwards, and not what is ‘behind’ it. If Stark’s work is flat, our gaze and our thoughts can dance on its surfaces like droplets of water on a hotplate.
Some of the works included in this exhibition were once presented as part of longer sequenceswhose scheme is no longer apparent in this new combination. Modestly Becoming (2007) was exhibited at the Vienna Secession, an exhibition in which Stark, over several large works on paper, reappropriated the circuits of creative agony described in Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke. In this scenario, Modestly Becoming depicts one of several timid people who, punctuating the linearity of the show, acted as embodiments of the anxieties in the text. They peeked out from behind large butterflies adorned with pieces of invitation cards, as if all this revelation might be a little indecent.
Now that some works are recontextualised from these settings, in a sense newly vulnerable outside of their native logic, the idea of covering one’s modesty is brought up afresh. ‘Standing ‘alone’, they undergo a typical condition of a Frances Stark work, which is to be subject always to an interrogation of its own robustness as a ‘good’ or ‘proper’ art work.(2) The ways Stark re-presents or recasts her own work, such as this exhibition, serve more to undermine efforts at interpretation than to fix signification. Parts of the running commentary she makes in her book Agonising Yet Blissful Little Orgies of Soul Probing (2007) have an air of justification, as though she has been discovered found to be involved in an absorbing but mildly embarrassing task and has, perhaps rather unfairly, been called upon to account for herself. This isn’t the impetus for the book at all (as is explained very clearly in the text), however the result is that rather than an authoritative guide to interpretation, there is a fragmentary thread of associations that makes the book feel more like an extension of the kind of self-reflexive questioning that goes on within her work.
New layers of meaning and new recombinations are always possible, but they do not get any closer to the ghost underneath the sheet. As Martin Prinzhorn put it, ‘individual works also initially exhibit a kind of indecision as to whether they want to be seen as works in their own right or as a document or illustration of something.’ (3) This constant sense of deflection away from its own content is one of the principal and most exciting ways that Stark’s work operates.
The hand-held fan was once the shield-armour of feminised polite society. It conceals, protect, and adorns – this adornment coming as much through the mystique it conveys, as through its decorative surface. Fan-like functions are often evident in Stark’s works – the butterfly wings of Modestly Becoming; the tail feathers, open or closed, in the various peacock works; the pansies plastered directly over the face of a contemplative man in a sublime Caspar David Friedrich’s painting used to illustrate the cover of a Nietzsche book Stark has collaged.
Supposedly, according to people who like this sort of thing, there was once a ‘language of fans’. Through the careful handling of her fan, a woman at an 18th Century ball might signal a vast array of romantic encouragements and emotional states. The following are some examples of what can be said in the language of fans:
Desirous of acquaintance;
I wish to get rid of you;
You are too willing I love another;
Do you love me?
At what hour?
Do not be so imprudent;
Why do you misunderstand me?
Forgive me I pray you;
Do not betray our secret;
GET ON THE FUCKING BLOCK AND FUCK.
The last one I added in, but actually they are all made up: the ‘language of fans’ is a marketing wheeze dreamt up by a 19th Century fan manufacturer; he circulated, and distributed (most of) the above list and these instructions for free, providing a kind of added value for his whimsical product. In accepting this nostalgic language, there is a simultaneous and bathetic combination of intention, desire, and ornament – all on the same plane – that in reality can only exist as a proposal (because if practiced in actuality the result might be very strange indeed), a proposal which is already anyway doing too much. The ‘language of fans’ piles an unfeasible desire for elaborate communication on top of an already-fanciful object, to say nothing of the person behind the fan. As with the pansy – romance on top of the Romantic – it is the proposal of this surface as a viable medium that introduces a simultaneous note of the absurd and the poignant. ***
In an essay that deplored the primary emphasis of interpretation of content in critical art writing, Susan Sontag famously said: ‘instead of a hermeneutics of art we need an erotics of art’ (4). If interpretation is the ’reading’, (the deeper it goes, the better), then by erotics I take to mean the transfer of affect – the development of a relation of association and intimacy thrown sparked off in the encounter between the viewer and the work. If this is so, the most excessive relationship of this type is of fandom. A fan is someone whose strongest attachments to cultural phenomena render extra visible the excessively associative relationship of people to culture. A fan cannot give a rational explanation for the force of her attachment to something, and instead lives a frequent state of association with the thing in question. That might be through fan art and other meta-cultural production, or more often through the very pleasant state of mind where a disproportionate quantity of life’s phenomena suddenly finds some connection to the thing you’re a fan of. There is a substantial irrationality to this development of enduring personal mythologies, and it has strong aesthetic possibilities. The fan does not seek the wholesale glorification of things – in fact the associations produced are often very private, due to the fact that they are rather insignificant when set against the wider cultural hierarchy. But, like lint in the clothes drier, it builds up substantially nonetheless. Stark is not defined by being a fan (in the sense of craven fanatic, adulator, imitator), nor is she making work about fandom, but the hyper-associativeness of things that stick seems to resonate in her work. How we become fans is a strangely indiscriminate process, and Stark has spoken of her enjoyment of Henry Miller despite her suspicion that he was not an appropriate ‘artist’s writer’. If you are forearmed with the knowledge that much of the language in Stark’s collages and paintings derives from literary sources, you might still construe the possibility of a primarily ’readable’ work. As a consequence, when looking at and also another one at the same time, not (2003) there is something to be gained from knowing that the work’s title is part of an axiom from Miller’s Sexus (‘For nobody knows himself if he is only himself, and not also another one at the same time’). And yet the work’s more vital potentiality, and the multiplicity of viewers’ responses to it, are not dependent on awareness of this reference. The drawing conveys the idea of a mental note already dispersing, but clearly significant. This dispersal happens pictorially, through the flock that arises from the tree-shapes, both birds and trees being formed of letters. But it also happens through the sense that we are given uncomprehending access to a fragment of someone else’s thoughts. What is evoked is something deeply uncertain yet giving the impression of being also tangibly familiar.
The effect on the viewer is not unlike the feeling one has when trying to retrieve the contents of a dream upon waking. The peacock in GET ON THE FUCKING BLOCK AND FUCK (2006) – another Henry Miller quotation – is a walking advertisement for itself, a tautology of surfaces: I am great, a sign of which is this excellent fantail, and it is this excellent fantail that makes me great. The work is not contingent on knowing Henry Miller, but as with and also another one at the same time, not it does swing on a sense of contingency on something, and it matters less that we access that thing, than that we sense its ghostlike presence as the absent reference material. I found this hyper-semantic contingency most apparent in Stark’s powerpoint essay STRUCTURES THAT FIT MY OPENING AND OTHER PARTS CONSIDERED IN RELATION TO THEIR WHOLE (2006). I had automatically reached for my pencil to underline the following: ’Or do I just want to have written something / that someone else has underlined?‘ The text is from a letter to the curators of the exhibition If I Can’t Dance I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution, in which Stark attempts to outline her position in relation to the project’s feminist concerns. Normally, when you underline something for quotation, you acknowledge that it holds self-sufficient depth of meaning. Yet this quote, taken alone, doesn’t really say much; it can only talk about itself, and it can even only do this in the event of me underlining and quoting it.
Yet it struck at something between me, the reader, and Stark, the writer, and its underlining creates a hall-of-mirrors performativity of the line’s inherent need for reference. Moments like this are similar to when you record an interview in which everything is going well, and between you you feel like you’ve hit on some really important understandings, only to play it back and find that there’s very little there in the words themselves, that when transcribed would actually communicate that brilliant thing you both hit on. This might well describe an encounter with Stark’s works, the evocation of striking possibilities and experiences that cannot subsequently be evidenced within the work or its direct interpretation. In a conversation, Stark told me that this failure of nevertheless ‘faithful’ media and methods to record intangible understandings or personal truths was expressed in a picture she found in an old high school yearbook. Next to one boy’s entry is scrawled: ‘***Total babe (bad picture)’. She reproduced this picture as part of a very early work, Total Babe (1991). The generosity of this scribbler towards the girl in the picture doesn’t make the picture any more beautiful, but the poignant dependency between the additional commentary and the recorded image is the absent aesthetics that Stark’s work explores and brings forth – often through equally mundane scenarios. (5) As words and pictures struggle to approximate a reality that is barely expressible anyway, Stark’s economy of style still constructs a framework of dependencies – her referencing of cultural sources that matter to her; her use of found images like the birds, perched punctuation-style in the images; the frequent gesture of shielding, providing a new surface on which to speculate, distract and decorate; and the sense of the viewer’s generosity and engagement – each supporting the fragile status of the other. A strange achievement for work that is mostly two-dimensional.
(1) Stark explains, in Agonising Yet Blissful Little Orgies of Soul-Probing, that the drawing is of a box that contained, amongst many very ordinary things, several drafts of a deceased friendís essay, that she had to locate at short notice.
(2) As summarised by the blurb on the back of Agonising Yet Blissful Little Orgies of Soul-Probing: where she speaks of “the unrelenting suspicion that my way of making is not art marking” [yet] I cannot deny the absolutely curious and surprising fact that I have created some nice works of art.” (2007)
(3) Prinzhorn, M., Indecision as Criticism in “A Torrent of Follies, Frances Stark” (exhibition catalogue), Secession, Vienna and Buchhandlung Walther Koenig, Cologne, 2008. p.87.
(4) Sontag, S. Against Interpretation in “Against Interpretation: And Other Essays”, Picador, New York, 2001. p98
(5) an important theme that cannot be address within the scope of this essay is Stark’s exploration of domestic life and the fulfilment of mundane professional duties; another possible framework for thinking about her work could easily be as small possibilities for, and about, escapism within the everyday.