The Internet Age is widely understood as the apogee of image culture, but the medium in which we swim, buoyed by waves of chat, posts and tweets, seems increasingly to be the written word. Or so it appears in the company of Frances Stark.
Like more than a few artists of her generation, Stark (born 1967 in Newport Beach) often incorporates writing in her work, which was surveyed recently at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge. She has also published her texts independently in various magazines, catalogues and freestanding books, and has penned the odd exhibition review. A cross between fluidly interdisciplinary commentary and wry interior monologue, Stark’s prose showed up at the List Center not only as content in her drawings and collages but also in the works’ titles; in wall labels, which were generally restricted to the usual identifying information but sometimes digressed rather freely; and, most prominently, in the exhibition catalogue, which is not a conventional document (there are no illustrations) but an anthology of her essays, graced very occasionally with exceedingly terse marginal notations by the survey’s curator, João Ribas. Stark’s relish for marginalia is confirmed by the title of both book and exhibition, This could become a gimick [sic] or an honest articulation of the workings of the mind, which derives from a comment written in the margin of a used copy of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1955 novel The Voyeur. Stark transcribed the annotated page of this lucky find into a drawing in 1995.
As this titular work suggests, there was a bounty of odd references on offer in the exhibition and its accompanying book. But above all, we got to know Stark—and generally felt fortunate to be in her company. The show opened with several biographical notes, among them Untitled (Self-portrait/Autobiography), 1992, a red carbon copy of her college transcripts (good grades predominate; there is one less successful semester). There were also a couple of nearly blank pieces of paper in the first room, variously enhanced (hand-ruled lines, a one-line note from a friend), suggesting the outset of any routinely terrifying effort at writing, or art-making. Bookishness was instated as a theme with a handful of found and altered volumes. The transcribed page of Robbe-Grillet shared a wall with altered copies of Henry Miller’s Sexus (1992) and Tropic of Cancer (1993), and with illegible drawings of two pages from John Dewey’s Art as Experience (Having an Experience, 1995).
Among other signature motifs introduced early on are birds; Portrait of the Artist as a Full-On Bird (2004) includes a collaged photo of a cockatoo. Stark explained to me in an interview that she favors birds because, like marginalia, they perch lightly on the edges of things, serving as points of entry—or, more to the point, re-entry. (In The Old In and Out, 2002, a collage/drawing of two birds mating, this function serves a simple joke.) Peacocks, which variously flaunt and modestly fold their feathers in several works, need no explanation as metaphor.
Many artists depict birds, none of them evoked by Stark with any specificity. But often, interartist connections are freely acknowledged. One label explained that a red-painted wooden dining chair of vaguely Asian design traces its history to what is said to be the oldest Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, the city where Stark lives; in recent decades the restaurant became an art bar, and then Jorge Pardo’s studio. It was Pardo (whom Stark has known for 20 years) who provided her with the chair, which he dismembered; Evan Holloway helped her see that she’d need wooden splints to put it back together, duct tape not being up to the job. Its feet propped on plaster blocks, the chair (2001) is part of a series called “The Unspeakable Compromise of the Portable Work of Art,” a title borrowed from an essay by Daniel Buren published in October in 1971. (This last bit of information comes not from the label, but from Stark’s 1999 book of essays, The Architect & The Housewife.) Other friendships attested to include Olafur Elíasson’s, in the form of a note he sent Stark proclaiming that a blank piece of paper is not enough (It is not enouff, 1998).
Stark cautions against reading all this collegiality as a testament to the special community spirit of the L.A. art scene. While she confirms a sense of “invisible connectedness,” and there is an undeniable tendency toward promiscuity in the matter of social as well as textual and visual allusions in her work, she is also at pains to demonstrate how much of her time is taken up with perfectly chaste domesticity. Stark’s home life can be glimpsed in Cat Videos (1999-2002), which features feline antics in alternation with those of two little boys—her son and a friend of his. The kids watch David Bowie on a laptop and groove, four-year-oldishly, to the music. Stark says she didn’t intend to make an artwork when she turned on the camera, but was delighted to find it had recorded what she describes as a “perfect essay on cultural reproduction”—i.e., small boys acting out the pop-cultural myth of Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, touching down to greet the planet.
The sense of hominess in these videos is expanded in several large collages featuring cabinets, mirrors and flowers. Foyer Furnishing (2006) is a large (more than 7-foot-high) drawing/collage that features all three: the mirror (made of Mylar) reflects potted flowers drawn in gouache; a collaged bag slumped by the cabinet’s side holds actual printed matter (student papers, bills). In To a Selected Theme (Fit to Print), 2007, a long-stemmed chrysanthemum, in a vase on a table, leans its head toward the cover of a David Hockney catalogue on which the artist is seen lounging with trademark insouciance.
Most of the work that was shown is on paper, occasionally mounted on canvas and/or panel. Scale varies widely, and while a few compositions are offhand, the majority are executed with considerable care; text is sometimes cut out and set into its support letter by letter, and the drawing is deft throughout. But self-doubt always threatens. Oh god, I’m so embarrassed (2007) makes use of a poster for a 1994 Sean Landers exhibition on which that irremediably self-demeaning artist wrote, “I regret to inform you that I could not come up with an idea for the invitation card. . . . Something is terribly wrong with me. . . . Oh god I’m so embarrassed.” Stark helps demonstrate the perfect ordinariness of his mortification by pairing the poster with a mundane accessory: an umbrella parked in a stand (though that could allow Surrealist or sexual readings as well).
Speaking for herself, Stark asks, in the title of a work of 2008, Why should you not be able to assemble yourself and write? The question also appears on a piece of paper held in the subject’s lap, which we view from above; in this drawing, the seated figure’s feet drift upward and her head anchors the drawing’s bottom. In I must explain, specify, rationalize, classify, etc. (2007), the subject—again, it is presumably the artist—stands on a chair on casters, not the steadiest of supports. Her back to us, she substantially obscures a long text, holding a builder’s level under the word “nose” in the passage, “I must explain, enabling the reader to find the work’s head, nose, fingers, legs, . . .” There will also be things that I don’t like (2007) finds the subject standing on the same chair, struggling to hang a garland of big Mylar sequins; the titular declaration, printed in yellow vinyl letters, blares beside her.