George Stoll is a latter-day American Transcendentalist. That may sound like a pretentious title, but the American Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Thoreau, were anything but a pretentious lot. A large part of their project was in fact to deflate the Classicising tendencies of art and return it to an honest treatment of everyday realities. Of course, it's always easy to approve of everyday realities when they're couched in the comforting haze of the past, especially the pre-industrial, pre-urbanised past of Emerson. The soft warm patina of history can actually make the mundane look appealing. The present, though, is a different story and Stoll is willing to take it on without the benefit of any romanticising distance. Just the opposite: he's willing to produce work that's as numb, dry and banal as the industrial, urbanised culture it addresses.
The banal has been a compelling topic for some time: artists as divergent as Dan Graham, Jenny Holzer and Meg Cranston have all considered its hallmark qualities of homogeneity, repetition and, above all, disposability. But with work that includes painstaking casts of Tupperware in paraffin and beeswax, meticulous paintings that transfer the text and design of fastfood wrappers, paper towels and whole newspaper pages onto canvas, not to mention a rather amusing series reproducing the distinctive patterning from different brands of toilet paper, Stoll distinguishes himself by his dogged, programmatic literalness.
His current series of sketches in coloured pencil on tracing paper takes its cue from the mindless craft activities with which countless elementary school teachers sedate their pupils just before the winter holidays every year. Using a variety of different scraps of paper, all folded and snipped at the edges, the artist first made a collection of geometric 'snowflakes'. His drawings go on to reproduce not only the schematic pattern of these cut-outs, but also the colour of the original paper as well as the ruled lines and any other printed information that might have appeared on it. Rather than give each design a distinguishing character though, these details only make them more anonymous. The snowflakes are re-associated with the generic worthlessness of graph paper, wrapping paper, newspaper or, perhaps most tellingly, plain white typing paper.
Any schoolkid can tell you that what makes snowflakes special is that no two are ever alike. In Stoll's hands this uniqueness quickly becomes boring. The standard of absolute non-repeatability turns into a kind of regimentation or, more accurately, a form of 'quality control' that returns us to the archetype against which the project is modelled: impersonal mass-produced consumer goods. It's significant that Stoll has set up the exhibition so that no unit can ever be considered by itself. All 100 drawings are framed identically and clustered in groups of two, three and five to squelch any trace of individuality.
One might argue that no matter how hard he tries to emulate the denigrating ethic of mass production, Stoll's simulations still come out as valuable, handmade collectibles. It might be tempting to find in this the 'transcendental' part of American Transcendentalism, the part that finds wonder, beauty and awe in the otherwise neglected, degraded and overlooked. But that would be a mistake, because this is where the artist parts company with his 19th-century predecessors.
Stoll does not redeem detritus. If anything, you might say he's appreciating detritus and that his art is, in many ways, complicit with the culture that produces so much of it. His working method turns the studio into a kind of factory with an extremely controlled and quantified output. Of course, a human quality still shines through in the imprecision and copious irregularities of each drawing, but it's not a saving grace. Nor is it enough to overcome the neutralising sense of standardisation. In fact, the human element in this work is virtually incidental. The effect of this can be either frightening or refreshing, depending on how you look at it: frightening in that the human quotient is degraded and perhaps the most disposable thing about the whole project; refreshing in that this fact is treated with undiluted, uncompromised and unflinching honesty.