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In the earliest works featured in her mid-career survey at the Hammer Museum, Frances Stark traces excerpts from classic works of literature on carbon paper, investigating the intimate relationship forged between writer and reader, artist and viewer. Painstakingly, she has copied the serif font of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) by hand, as well as the scrawled, and at times inscrutable, marginalia found in a secondhand copy of the poem. These annotations do not illuminate Eliot’s text so much as they gesture to the interiority and intellectual life of the anonymous reader, who scribbles “overpowering depression” in the margins of the poem’s last stanzas. In copying a stranger’s notations, Stark seems to reach out to the anonymous reader in an attempt at literary communion, searching for the source of intellectual attraction that pricked the reader in the original text. In Having an Experience (1995), Stark does not divulge what profound statements could elicit such a profusion of underlining in a copy of John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934), refusing to replicate Dewey’s words as she did for Eliot. For this piece, all that is visible are rows of quavering underlines, traces of the reader’s excitement piqued by the text.
Over the twenty-four-year interval spanned by the exhibition, Stark’s visual style seems to have made an about-face. At the Hammer Museum, her drawings and collages, delicate and replete with traces of the artist’s hand, hang near videos from the 2000s that utilize the readymade imagery provided by computer programs. What unites her artistic output is an interest in language and the intimacies for which it serves as a conduit. Language is tactile. It indents and wrinkles delicate sheets of rice paper; it is the furry, white typeset on a latch hook rug. Language lies dormant. In a self-portrait, the artist’s head bows down over a sheet of paper that reads, “Why should you not be able to assemble yourself and write?” Letters stubbornly refuse to materialize on paper, leaving sheets of lined paper blank, or they incoherently pile on top of each other in collages, forming the woody grain of branches. Most importantly, language is corporeal. It is the task of the writer, she asserts in a print titled I must explain, specify, rationalize, classify, etc. (2007), to guide the reader “to find the work’s head, legs, nose, fingers.” Language looks for a body—it not only wants to be embodied but also desires another body, the body of a reader. Stark seems to claim that the relationship between writer, text, and reader is an erotic one.
Stark’s work often occupies the interstitial spaces between language and the body. This is evident even in the title of the exhibition, UH-OH. A far cry from the unwieldy, enigmatic titles given to many of her works, the exclamation UH-OH is the staccato stammering of inarticulate speech. In a moment of anxiety and self-doubt after revealing too much, says curator Ali Subotnick, one blurts out “Uh-oh, too late, can’t take it back” (exhibition catalogue, 39). Is this utterance not the point of conjunction between the body and language, when speech takes the form of a dumb, corporeal instinct?
In the video My Best Thing (2011), the immaterial texts of Skype chats are given virtual, animated bodies—boxy and nearly nude with Lego-toy proportions. Generated with the free animation software Xtranormal, two figures face each other in an indeterminate lime-green space, reciting passages from sex chats between Stark and two Italian men she met online. Black ovoid eyes blink apathetically as they weave together discussions of the Arab Spring, the possibility of future artistic collaboration, and dirty talk, their computerized voices comically translating heated “mmm”s into a stuttered string of “em-em-em.” In a particularly profound moment of misunderstanding, linguistic wires get crossed when Stark misinterprets a question about her sex toy—referred to as “her play” by her paramour Marcello—as an inquiry about her artistic work, and she responds by describing her paintings. It is no surprise that masturbation and painting are conflated in an artwork that so thoroughly entangles creative endeavor and sexual pleasure.
When instant messaging and texting serve as quotidian conduits of intimacy, one makes libidinal investments in language and its visual form—the Helvetica of iPhone SMS and the Arial of Chatroulette become fetishistic stand-ins for living bodies. Stark suggests as much in Nothing Is Enough (2012) and Osservate, leggete con me (2012), two videos that present fragments of conversations Stark had with men met in online chat rooms. No CGI bodies are offered here. Text flits across the screen in monochromatic black and white. Despite the dearth of visual imagery, the words on screen, rendered in Apple Chancery and Calibri fonts, conjure up scenes that are simultaneously titillating and unsettling. Viewers are positioned as voyeurs who witness moments of vulnerability, illicit divulgences, and empathic exchange between Stark and her many partners.
There is a sense of urgency in Stark’s most recent work in which she baldly addresses the economic and social conditions that face the working artist. Though her tone remains confessional as she invites viewers to witness her online dalliances and financial stresses, her work narrowly steers clear of navel gazing. The interiority that Stark puts on display bends back on itself, twisting like a Möbius strip so that interiority becomes indistinguishable from exterior circumstance—the personal ineluctably fused to the political and the social.
In the video installation Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention is Free (2013), Stark offers an institutional critique, delivered in white italic text that pulsates to the beat of the DJ Quik soundtrack. Unlike practitioners of institutional critique from the 1970s and 1980s whose criticisms were measured and detached, Stark interrogates the art world in a way that is personal and volatile. In language that oscillates between hip-hop bravado and self-doubt, she voices her frustrations with the corporatization of creative fields while recognizing her participation in the very structures she interrogates. “Who am I to judge,” she asks, “Who am I to critique?” Searchlights sweep across a black and white checkerboard densely populated with images: Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (1866), an image of Tupac Shakur, and old photographs of Bobby Jesus, a young man Stark describes as her muse. This is a rhizomatic portrait of her cultural milieu, a mapping of the relationships between Stark, Bobby Jesus, and their respective sites of learning—the University of Southern California (USC) and the streets of South Central.
Juxtaposing images of USC’s mascot, Tommy Trojan, and scenes of violence in the Roman Colosseum, Stark alludes to her strained relationship with the university, where she served as a tenured professor at the Roski School of Art and Design. At the time Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater was made, Stark was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the university and dismayed by the union between Roski and the newly minted Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation, whose mission, Stark asserts, is “to make art school into a conduit for Silicon Beach” (Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, “Class Dismissed: A Roundtable on Art School, USC, and Cooper Union,” Artforum 52, no 2 [October 2015]: 249). For Stark, this merger reflects a systemic corporatization of higher education and an academic climate that positions students as customers and ideas as things to be bought and sold.
What gets lost in an education that stresses “the business of innovation” are the pleasures of knowledge and intellectual intimacy that so easily evade monetization. These are precisely the pleasures Stark explored in her copies of annotated texts from the 1990s, in which she followed the unspooled mental thread that a previous reader left on the page in the form of annotations. The desire to forge intimate connections with the text and its readers—in other words, a desire for discourse—continues to permeate her more recent work as she interrogates the state of arts pedagogy. Whether such pleasures of the text can truly be recuperated remains a question left unanswered.
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, University of California, Los Angeles
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