Review: ‘UH-OH: Frances Stark, 1991-2015’ at Hammer Museum is an enthralling midcareer survey
Frances Stark is not a computer whiz. Her digital skills appear to be no better than basic.
Most of her art is made with some paper and a pair of scissors. Collage, which has been around for a century, is her analog staple in our digital world.
Yet, at 48, Stark is nonetheless emerging as the visual poet laureate of the Internet age. Writing code may or may not be in her toolbox, but deep artistic intelligence most certainly is.
Her enthralling midcareer survey at the UCLA Hammer Museum is unthinkable without the virtual experience that characterizes life today. The artist deftly navigates a notoriously unstable new environment. In fraught matters of human interaction, the work is a marvel of clear-eyed equilibrium.
“UH-OH: Frances Stark, 1991-2015” features 56 drawings, collages, video projections and mixed-media works. The witty title, with its guttural blend of caution and dismay, says a lot: She’s going to venture out onto a limb, just to see what happens; be prepared.
Stark’s wide-ranging work is an uncanny fusion of the analog and the virtual. Her materials incorporate paint and video projection in equal measure, plus scavenged art gallery announcements, orchestrated hip-hop sound, reflective silver Mylar and a PowerPoint presentation.
Like the vibration of a musical note hanging in the air, a spoken word whose substantial presence lives in the otherwise spectral space of memory or smoke rising from the glowing tip of a burning cigarette whose nicotine helps focus the mind, physical presence mingles with ghostliness.
It’s topsy-turvy. Think Goya’s satiric Capricho etching of chairs sitting atop women, rather than the other way around, which inspired several Stark works. Hints of chaos frame a related mixed-media painting, which shows a reclining female figure, not quite life-size, simply holding a sheet of paper. We see her from above, pointedly looking down on her.
That puts the woman’s faceless head down at the bottom of the canvas, near a viewer’s feet, her tangled splotch of black hair a visual ink-drop blown up to gigantic scale. Her torso and legs unfold upward. We’re gazing straight at her feet. She’s faceless, stripped of identity.
Her black-and-white, peek-a-boo dress is pieced together from bits of semitransparent rice-paper. Stylistically the restless, shifting angles make the striped dress Cubism morphing into Op art.
This is no conventional odalisque — no seductive harem girl displayed in the imperialist Turkish manner of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, nor a concubine laid out on an upholstered daybed, like Edouard Manet’s combative “Olympia.” Stark weaves Western art history, its profundities and shibboleths, into much of her work, and her differences with the past help clarify the present.
The sheet of paper held by the upside-down woman is an actual sheet of paper, which Stark pasted onto the canvas. Handwritten across it in black ink: “Why should you not be able to assemble yourself and write?”
When the Mariinsky Ballet performed “Cinderella” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oct. 8, even the wondrous Diana Vishneva as Cinderella couldn’t bring unity to the movement, but she danced with flawless, fearless authority. Read more >>(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins leaves a rehearsal of his play “Appropriate,” opening Oct. 4 at the Mark Taper Forum, to eat first with a reporter, then later with his agent and some unspecified Hollywood people, who presumably hope to lure him away from the field and city where he has experienced meteoric success in the last five years. Read more >>(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Soprano Abigail Fischer performs Oct. 7 in the opera “Songs from the Uproar” at REDCAT in Los Angeles.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Moisés Kaufman’s muscular revival of “Bent,” which played at the Mark Taper Forum, opening on July 26, renders what many had written off as a parochial drama about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany into a gripping tale of love, courage and identity. Read review >>(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Malaviki Sarukkai performing at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on July 19, 2015. Sarukkai is the best-known exponent of South Indian classical dance.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Bramwell Tovey conducts the L.A. Phil with pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl on July 14, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Argentine dancer Herman Cornejo performs in the West Coast premiere of “Tango y Yo” as part of the Latin portion of BalletNow.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Jake Shears plays Greta in Martin Sherman’s play “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through Aug. 23, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Dancers rehearse a one-night-only performance choregraphed by Raiford Rogers, one of L.A.’s most-noted choreographers. This year the dance will be to a new original score by Czech composer Zbynek Mateju.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Mia Sinclair Jenness, left, Mabel Tyler and Gabby Gutierrez alternate playing the title role in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre. The three are shown during a day at Santa Monica Pier on June 16, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
American Contemporary Ballet Company members Zsolt Banki and Cleo Magill perform a dance routine originally done by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This performance was presented as part of “Music + Dance: L.A.” on Friday, June 19, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Miguel, a Grammy-winning guitarist, producer, singer and lyricist, is photographed in San Pedro on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. His new album “Wildheart,” explores L.A.’s “weird mix of hope and desperation.”(Christina House / For The Times)
Los Angeles-born artist Mark Bradford is photographed in front of “The Next Hot Line.” This piece is part of his show “Scorched Earth,” installed at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, June 11, 2015.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles Opera concluded its season with “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Roberto Tagliavini as Figaro and Pretty Yende as Susanna, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
“Trinket,” a monumental installation by Newark-born, Chicago-based artist William Pope.L, features an American flag that is 16 feet tall and 45 feet long. The work is on display at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through June 28.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Alex Knox, from left, Carolyn Ratteray, Lynn Milgrim and Paige Lindsey White in “Pygmalion” in spring 2015 at the Pasadena Playhouse.(Mariah Tauger / For The Times)
On March 17, Google celebrated the addition of more than 5,000 images to its Google Street Art project with a launch party at the Container Yard in downtown Los Angeles.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Ric Salinas, left, Herbert Siguenza and Richard Montoya, of the three-man Latino theater group Culture Clash, brought their “Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival” to the Kirk Douglas Theatre to mark the group’s 30th anniversary. The play ran from Feb. 4 through March 1.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Why not, indeed. The artist invents herself as she goes, writing and assembling her persona into being. The self-portrait that results is wholly distinctive yet utterly anonymous.
Its unique inventiveness arises from engagement with the Internet, where sock puppets and catfish play. The digital universe, with its weird aura of alienated intimacy (or, is it intimate alienation?) is crystallized in cyber sex. The show features three video projections built from the artist’s experiences cultivating online flirtations. They’re among the most poignant, sly and moving pieces on view.
The first stars a virtual Adam and Eve. Rudimentary talking avatars court a fall from grace in pop-up Eden.
The second is a silent movie — a tragicomedy made from projected text and improvised piano accompaniment. Its tender tale of recovery from an audacious online entanglement is a heartfelt foray into humanity’s eternal discombobulations.
The third is a full environment. A visitor curls up on a chic gray sofa to read black texts projected onto three surrounding white walls.
The earlier silent movie’s flat projection screen is here pushed into the three-dimensional white cube of a contemporary art gallery. The domestic fuses with the institutional, blurring private and public. Its text is the legend of a rake — an Internet Don Juan — merged with sad-clown Pagliacci as Mozart plays on the soundtrack.
The show’s excellent catalog uses the descriptive word “porous” for Stark’s art. One meaning of porous is “capable of being penetrated,” and the sexual implication is apt. Stark conflates the explosion of Internet sex with the established modern convention of artist as free-thinking libertine.
She’s teasing out the artist’s ambiguous place in today’s befuddling society, money-obsessed and entertainment-possessed. The moment an artist moves her work from studio to gallery, she begins performing for the crowd. So Stark’s charming collages include a series featuring a life-size chorus girl.
Her jaunty costume is a burlesque cluster of disks, each striped in black, blue and green, which optically twirl like pinwheels when your eye moves across them. It’s post-Toulouse-Lautrec.
My favorite is “Chorus Girl Folding Self in Half,” which she does with her back to the viewer. Bent over forward, she peers out at us from between her legs like a Belle Époque poster remastered in Marcel Duchamp’s eye-bending optical roto-reliefs. The chorine assumes the famous music-hall pose that ends a raucous can-can.
Suddenly, you realize she is actually mooning you.
The work unpacks socially constructed biases toward women in general and artists in particular, then delivers a visual raspberry. Marvelously interactive, the fictional chorine talks directly to its anonymous audience as surely as the artist does in an online chat room.
Stark attributes her interest in artistic communication to her mother, a lifelong telephone operator. Her job was to connect strangers remotely. The digital revolution changed the terms of the hookup but not the desire for connection.
One Stark sculpture — it derives from a performance costume — seems a mom-homage. The ensemble is black, its outstretched arms with cascading sleeves held above a voluminous skirt. A big rotary dial is attached to the front of a mash-up of traditional Asian robes — Korean hanbo, Japanese kimono, Chinese hanfu.
The overall shape evokes a handset cradled atop the housing of a vintage telephone. A black cord unfurls out the back, rather like a pesky rodent’s tail. It’s notably detached from the wall, as if to say, “I’m sorry, you’ve been disconnected.”
Stark carries within her remote remnants of a lost world, partly from her youth. And partly it’s the once-radical, now conventional Pop landscape of artists like Claes Oldenburg. Mining past art and autobiography helps navigate new terrain.
The exhibition is large. The 21/2 hours of video culminate in a marvelous multichannel installation in which text and imagery merge USC, a privileged school where Stark taught until a controversial curriculum change prompted a high-profile split, with the “University of South Central” — the school of the street.
The hip-hop duet with Bobby Jesus, a street kid who is her talented young studio apprentice, unfurls on a vast chessboard landscape scanned by celebrity klieg lights crossed with police searchlights. They finally unite at the far horizon into a single orb that rises like the sun.
Although large, the show is beautifully paced. Hammer curator Ali Subotnick, working with the artist, traverses nearly 25 years not through chronology but through echoes, repetitions and revisions among art objects. They footnote one another as they talk with us.
That isn’t easy to pull off. “Frances Stark: Intimism,” a smaller focus show last spring at the Art Institute of Chicago, also included compelling work — some the same as what’s in the Hammer exhibition. But sequestered in a warren of rooms, it felt chopped up and impermeable — disconnected rather than porous.
This one doesn’t. “UH-OH” is among the finest solo museum shows this year.
‘UH-OH: Frances Stark, 1991-2015’
Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood
When: Through Jan. 24. Closed Monday.
Info: (310) 443-7000, www.hammer.ucla.edu
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