UH-OH at the Hammer Museum presents the first comprehensive mid-career reflection of artist and writer Frances Stark. The show is saturated in internal dialogue, over-sharing, the ambiguity of language, vulnerability, construction and intimacy.
Stark’s presentation of self-doubt breaks that fourth wall of identity so solidified by separate public and private domains. The ugliness of it all, the embarrassment, the vacancy, a mature complacency sets her work apart and it is beautiful. Treading too close to the internal lives of others, Frances Stark offers viewers the uncomfortable tension of too much information besides our candid voyeurism.
Stark’s “My Best Thing” (2011), a feature-length video piece based on Chatroulette conversations between Stark and anonymous others sets the stage. These conversations are presented in the analog of two pixelated bodies with automated voices. They talk dirty, they talk day-jobs, they stumble through the coincidences of nothing.
You sit and watch the projection from one of those uncomfortable gallery couches with no back and cannot decide if it’s appropriate to laugh. (My gallery-mate laughs and at first, I am embarrassed. She is breaking the rules, violating the tidy etiquette of the museum. But she’s right… it is funny)
Besides the video projection, a framed movie poster hangs. In a jumble of mixed fonts and text bubbles, “My Best Thing” is reviewed in digestible, laudatory clips sans attribution. A promotional poster to and for no one.
Several of Stark’s video works explore the disconnect between digital and sexual, abstract and intimate. Another piece titled “Osservate, Leggete Con Me” (2012) projects a conversation between Stark and another e-lover soundtracked by the Mozart composition of the same name. The conversation pivots from wall to wall and the irony of the music lays a thick glaze. (The aria is from Don Giovanni, Mozart’s opera recounting the legend of infamous lover and dilettante Don Juan.) It leaves me sticky and metallic, as if steeped in a soda can disintegrating itself. The residue of ugly feelings.
Her work is densely intertextual, revealing the private conversations of text and marginalia. She references the literary canon from TS Eliot, Goethe, David Foster Wallace; the music of the Velvet Underground and The Fall. A retired punk.
Stark reproduces Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” on carbon paper from a thrift-store copy of the book. The poem is presented with the previous owner’s annotations intact. Over five pages, blue cursive adorns the bleeding serifs of the Eliot’s history-seasoned text. The gestalt of self-awareness and seeming privacy tug at one-another. The unknowability of the writer reminding us of the unknowability of anything.
In other pieces, Stark plays with the physical form of language. Typewriter letters anchor themselves in sculptural repetition. Red characters scream from the page. Quietly. In eight point font.
Although Stark’s recognition of language and meaning are persistent, there is a disconnect between Stark the artist and Stark the writer. Both sides seemingly at odds, competing for her attention.
A piece called “Music Stand” (2008) juxtaposes two letters from fellow artists. One pleads for her to write again. The other praises a recent visual show. A paper facsimile of a music stand holds each letter, thoughts rubbing elbows. The inability to conjure language and the desire for appreciation stare at each other.
A hooked rug displays some pithy feminist critique. The message is obscured in the sweep of the carpet hairs and the cluster of academic subclauses. “How does one sustain the belief in total babes…” it asks, begging the next question I had: How does one sustain a belief in oneself? Do we make ourselves real in objects or are we only crafting more characters?
Some of the language hits like Barbara Kruger, while other times Stark’s critique yields a certain softness. The volume is low, lacking conviction in its own argument. Ballsy, yes, but wanting some sort of inscrutable something. Her language is sometimes powerful, but at the same time reveals profound vulnerability, creating a peculiar tension between the simultaneous feelings of self-hate and self-love. An irreconcilable yet all-too-familiar tension.
UH OH is full of difficulty, loose ends and personal history. It lacks resolution or warmth. It provokes and unsettles but in the most pale shades. It is like the low buzz in an over-lit room, the one you do not notice until it has gone away. Frances Stark sits with you because she is grossly honest without romantic self-loathing. And she may be sitting a little too close.
UH OH: Frances Stark 1991-2015 is on view at the Hammer Museum until January 24, 2016.