BY Helen Molesworth in Reviews | 05 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 28

Jessica Stockholder

BY Helen Molesworth in Reviews | 05 SEP 96

Jessica Stockholder's latest installation Your Skin in this Weather Bourne Eye-Threads and Swollen Perfume (1995) starts with a billboard image on 22nd street and continues, upon entering the Dia Center, with a long acid green linoleum path that leads you to the installation proper. There, true to Stockholder form, one finds a barrage of objects (lamps, plastic milk crates, a swimming pool liner), colours (large painted fields of orange, red, blue and yellow), and textures (carpets encrusted with glue and paint, stacked drywall, poured concrete, papier mâché). Extending out of the 'interior' of the installation are thick yellow extension cords which fan out and connect to bare light bulbs arranged in a grid on the ceiling. These cords also run out of the building and up into the second floor bathroom. One wall in the room has been punched out, exposing a Dia storage room behind a rusted fence.

The entirety of this review (and then some) could be spent merely describing the work, and an overwhelming amount of the literature on Stockholder does just that. Then again, most of the writing about Stockholder also makes claims for the 'formalism' of her work; a claim that troubles me. While I believe that artistic meaning is formed through, and deeply rooted in, materials and gestures, most discussions of Stockholder's work as 'formal' champion the terms 'composition' and 'resolution'. These readings are boring and unconvincing for two reasons. Firstly, what constitutes composition or resolution seems highly arbitrary, and the use of such language depends on rather problematic notions of objective aesthetics. The second reason is that these terms result in the utter neglect of the meanings of the objects (primarily domestic) and methods (variations on assemblage) that comprise her work.

In other words, discussions of formalism preclude some rather basic questions: what is Jessica Stockholder's work about? What does it mean? What is it trying to say? In Stockholder's previous work two dominant ideas came to the fore: the abject and the uncanny. Her overwhelming use of found objects and viscous, glutinous paint gave rise to readings of the work that engaged the abject. The return of the repressed came in the form of urban detritus and abandoned domestic objects. One felt acutely aware of the unfamiliarity of familiar things. Her installations were also elaborate sets on which viewers could see and be seen; a stage that seemed to be waiting in anticipation of a dream or drama that hadn't happened yet. The effect was a bit like walking into someone else's dream-scape. Unfortunately, these attributes are sorely missing from her latest installation. The abject quality of cast-offs is gone, as most of the objects in this work look too clean - ready-mades rather than found objects. (Even the stuffed shirts look brand new.) And while Stockholder retains her extraordinarily dramatic manipulation of space (roping in an enormous room with a piece that sits stubbornly in one corner), this installation lacks the condensation of displacement that makes dream work possible.

Instead of the uncanny, the abject and theatrical dream space, Your Skin in this Weather... offers a compendium of art historical styles and gestures. Stockholder's not-painting, not-sculpture strategy has always evoked references to Rauschenberg, but here the stacked purple milk crates look like a perverse Sol LeWitt; the hard edge paint calls forth Ellsworth Kelly; and the shelf of lamps is a poor man's Haim Steinbach. In addition, the work exploits Minimalism's concerns with phenomenology, installation art's preoccupation with space and the historical relation between the ready-made and the found object. Finally, there is the ubiquitous gesture toward institutional critique, the 'exposing' of the store-room.

While some critics might find this cataloguing of avant-garde strategies cynical, I do not. Repetition need not merely be reduction or recapitulation. However, in this installation the effect of such historical repetitions, placed as they are in such an unwieldy encyclopaedic structure, remains baffling. The references do not bolster or disturb one another, neither do they, as a whole, offer any discernible commentary on the series of avant-garde strategies they jumble together. And while part of the strength of Stockholder's work has always resided in her ability to perplex, here the viewing experience feels emptied out rather than full of possibility.