BY Lisa Liebmann in Features | 05 MAR 93
Featured in
Issue 9

Junk Cultured

Jessica Stockholder

BY Lisa Liebmann in Features | 05 MAR 93

Jessica Stockholder's now characteristic, Brobdingnagian junk-picker's approach to assemblage and installation has perhaps encountered bits of resistance here and there - it's been called 'arty', of all things - but her claim to seriousness has largely been upheld, and she has over the last few years enjoyed a succès d'estime of proportions commensurate to her work. That work, according to an unpublished statement by the artist, exists 'in a need to explore the nature of experience directly,' and is 'rooted in physical circumstances. It creates an experience, a time bound experience happening to the body. Even so, it depends on its placement in the world as an art object, and on the history of art, to communicate at a level of intensity I relish.' Her smaller sculptures are mostly untitled, and a lot of her more elaborate efforts - site-specific projects such as It's Not Over 'Till The Fat Lady Sings (1987, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver), Making a Clean Edge (1989, P.S.1, New York), Where it Happened (1990, American Fine Arts Co., New York), or Skin Toned Garden Mapping (1991, The Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago) - are destroyed, like stage-sets struck at the close of their run. As these values and conditions, so redolent of the 70s, might suggest, Stockholder is both a pragmatist and an idealist.

Her work, however, is open to a variety of interpretations. It gives rise, for instance, to a number of dullish formal questions of the sort we all entertain now and then, such as whether it should probably be described as painting, sculpture or installation - the answer is, of course, yes. Stockholder's visual astringency and her deft management of colours earned her the sobriquet, 'Matisse of the 90s,' from one enthusiastic critic. And because of her sometimes downcast materials and her ideology of salvage and waste, socio-political analyses have been offered up as well.

More precise historic readings have been proffered. In the April 1990 issue of the now defunct Arts Magazine, for instance, Jerry Saltz notes that 'Stockholder's work harks back to an earlier point in the early 60s (or late 50s) before Pop and Minimalism took shape. Early Chamberlain, Oldenburg, and Rauschenberg come to mind in front of her strange objects. Improvised stage sets for weird "happenings" and odd props for unruly plays are suggested. Unexpected conversations between the organic and the inorganic take place.'

Later that same year in Artforum, Jack Bankowsky invoked Rauschenberg's famous paint-encrusted bed. 'The significance of Rauschenberg's gesture,' Bankowsky wrote, 'hinges, in no small measure, on whether we see his "synthesis" of an essentially European Dadaist impulse and the painterly formalism of the New York School as a fertile cross-roads of two "great traditions", or as a less urgent transition en route to Andy Warhol, freighted with a debilitating nostalgia for American-type abstraction. Equally subject to the vagaries of a particular artistic milieu and moment, Stockholder's project reads as slight or significant, depending on whether her efforts are perceived as irredeemably local stylistic pendulum swing based on a harebrained misunderstanding of recent art history, or as a decisive revisioning of a range of precedents, Rauschenberg's not least among them.'

As far as local pendulums are concerned, it is in fact true that Stockholder, during her initial rise to prominence in New York, rode piggyback on Cady Noland, who had been first to spark an onset of interest in the gallery - American Fine Arts - where both artists were showing work. (Noland has since switched galleries.) A pair of tough new girl sculptors in a tough new venue sounded pretty good in a tough new economy. But Noland and Stockholder are very different artists - as different, perhaps, as Rauschenberg and Johns, for all their early co-dependency. Where Noland relies on the literary and cinematic - and to an extent on sheer attitude - to achieve her Peckinpah-esque visions of America on collision-course, Stockholder is a grand colourist and perhaps the outstanding orchestrator in three dimensions in recent years. Not since the 70s and the work of Richard Tuttle had so heartfelt a poetic been in vogue.

Stockholder, in fact, was born in 1959 in Seattle, and grew up in Vancouver, the daughter of academics. By the age of 14 she was studying art privately with one Mowry Baden, a faculty friend of her parents who continued to be a big influence on Stockholder later on at the University of Victoria - her preoccupation, she says, with the physical dynamics of object and viewer, may be traced in part to him. A year in Toronto followed, then two years at Yale before the artist moved to New York, eight years ago. When I visited Stockholder on a recent afternoon in Brooklyn, she was in the middle of a move and the small, ground-floor apartment about to be vacated was full of boxes and piled-on stuff that evoked her work: A vignette of the 90s.

Sandwiched like a car-door in a Stockholder assemblage, I looked at slides of Stockholder's earliest student efforts - mostly drawings, on the whole abstract, along with a few tentative 'paintings' in space. Many of the qualities that still characterise her work were clearly present. These were unfussy and serious essays on the theme of forms in space. A few things reminded me of what artists like Dorothea Rockburne and Mel Bochner were doing in the middle and late 70s, only looser and more openly involved with paint. Then as now, her work was full of the contingencies, charged but unforced, of form and illusion, colour and space, that animate the work of Frank Stella. It was not hard to see how or why Stockholder, too, broke away from the wall, though not from painting.

Stockholder indeed came of age during a period when the whole notion of sculpture was being recast. Elements of theatre and architecture, Conceptual art and painting were to be included in any new definition. This new idea of sculpture was based not on pedestals of course, but on givens established the decade before. The accomplishments of artists on both sides of the Atlantic - from Robert Smithson and Richard Long to Eva Hesse and Tony Cragg, from Ree Morton or Gordon Matta-Clark, to the verbal constructs of Lawrence Weiner, to Sol LeWitt and his compositions for rooms - had apparently rid sculpture of its more limiting neuroses. And there it was, free at last to be minimalist and baroque, austere and sensuous, conceptual as well as constructed, even as it probed some newly-exposed nerves.

In England in the 80s, such routes continued to be explored by younger artists, but in America the cult of the image almost wholly prevailed. When works such as the beat-up commode, enamel paint and glued newspapers that are Kissing the Wall began to appear a few years ago, they surely stood out. To those of us who had been wondering why nothing very interesting had been happening to the concept of sculpture in the round, it seemed that an abandoned torch was being relit.