While you could say that language is Frances Stark’s primary medium, Frances herself is Stark’s primary subject matter. Taken individually, most of her works are self-portraits of some kind; put together, they fan out into full-blown autobio-graphy, featuring not just the central protagonist (in her various roles, professional, intellectual or domestic) but also a supporting cast of favourite authors, friends and collaborators, gallerists and curators, musicians, cats and kids. Invariably riddled with self-doubt and well-articulated anxiety, their cumulative effect is an oscillating image of what it means to be a practising artist (or, for that matter, a woman or person) today.
The first works you encounter in this exhibition, which gathers together more than 50 works from the past 15 years or so, are a small group of early pieces that introduce the various themes that Stark revisits throughout her oeuvre. Stick figures on a large sheet of paper, labelled ‘Me’ and ‘You’ (You & Me, 1991), show Frances among her peer group, while Untitled (Self-portrait/Autobiography) (1992) carbon-copies her college grade sheets, semester by semester. Untitled (Sexus) (1992), an original edition of Henry Miller’s 1949 novel Sexus, placed next to a handmade carbon-copied version of it, is a mind-boggling endeavour of transcription, which raises the recurring issue of quotation and influence within her work. Meanwhile, a drawing of a blank sheet of notebook paper (with horizontal and vertical reversed so the lines are red and the margin black), made on a large sheet of drawing paper (Untitled (Piece of Paper), 1992), addresses the dichotomy between writing (reading) and drawing (looking) and the conceptual flexibility of two dimensions.
This see-sawing between conceptual inquiry into the nature of an art work and its production, and attention to the mass of details that constitute daily life, is at the heart of Stark’s practice and is well demonstrated in the show’s dense, a-chronological hang. Avoiding the easy elegance that a sparse and spacious installation of her largely white, often delicate, mostly paper-based works would offer, the artist has opted instead for the concentrated effect of many works, hung close together. The blank expanses of her earlier works begin, over time, to accommodate more text, imagery and pictorial elements until we reach recent collages such as Foyer Furnishing (2006), in which large Mylar and paper cut-outs form a two-dimensional interior with dresser, mirror and handbag. The role of language modulates from subject matter to means of representation; a favoured effect is to compose words or sentences vertically, stacking carbon-copied typed-out letters while repeating them horizontally, drawing lines from letters to form undulating landscapes or endless horizons while scrambling the viewer’s usual means of deciphering both text and image. Much peering, squinting and head-cocking are required to make out the tiny, faint, dislocated, rotated and repeated words in her works. In every case, however, the textual elements act like a thought bubble, as a cerebral way out of the two-dimensional picture plane.
The looping circles and tangential swoops that typify Stark’s writings, which rarely touch on their subject directly, take a different form in her art works, but the self-referentiality remains. Here it is in a concentrated intertextuality and cross-reference, where almost every work refers to another. The compositions, which at first appear so calm and elegant, on closer inspection buzz with frantic textual snippets. Collaged details are invariably made up of texts copied from previous works, exhibition posters or invitations. Motifs such as birds and flowers recur. Everything appears tightly tied together. Even quotations from authors (Robert Musil, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Beckett) remain anchored to Stark through her designation of them as her ‘favourites’. A tinny soundtrack, which jangles throughout the exhibition, turns out to belong to a video projection, a compilation of Stark’s ‘Cat Videos’ (1999–2002), which are, clearly, home movies of her cats lounging around at home, each with a different theme, from Throbbing Gristle to Rossini. The piece acts like a mix-tape of favourite tracks while providing a voyeuristic glimpse of the artist’s domestic set-up. Another wall projection, in the final room, extends this insight in certainly the most evocative use of a PowerPoint presentation I have ever seen. A wonderfully paced visual essay, which interleaves text with photographs of art works and Stark’s home, is a profound reflection on the struggle to summon some creativity from the clutter of the everyday and her overlapping roles as ‘a woman, artist, teacher, mother, ex-wife’.
In a typical spot of pre-emptive self-deprecation Stark titled this, her first retrospective, ‘The Fall of Frances Stark’. Given the assuredness of this exhibition (not to mention the exhaustive accompanying ‘artist’s book’, which deserves a whole review to itself), such a prediction seems highly unlikely.