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Issue 223

Lucie Stahl Reveals the Sticky Side of Photography

In her forth exhibition at dépendance, Brussels, the artist's slick images of oil fields reflect our petroleum-fulled dreams and desires

BY Emile Rubino in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 29 SEP 21

For the seven photographs of encrusted oil wells in ‘GOO’, Lucie Stahl’s current solo exhibition at dépendance, the artist has pushed the polyurethane that usually covers her signature posters onto the frames of her pictures. Stahl is known for her large, unframed prints coated with a layer of clear polyurethane that echoes the glass of a flatbed scanner – the tool she uses to turn artful arrangements of consumer products, liquids and body parts into compound images. Here, however, instead of using a scanner, she has embodied one by directing her camera downward to ‘surf' over the shimmering surfaces of petroleum spills in an abandoned oil field in Albania.

Lucie Stahl, Goo 5 (detail), 2021, Hahnemühle museum etching paper, wooden frame, polyurethane, 54 × 76 cm. Courtesy: the artist and dépendance, Brussels; photograph: Kristien Daem

Though her close-up photographs sporadically depict pipes, valves and holes, these distinct elements are bound by crude oil into all-over compositions in which each part feels treated with the same undiscerning attention a scanner would dispense. Reproducing the texture of reality in a stripped-down but evocative manner, these modest photographic studies invoke other artworks that operate direct translations of surfaces, such as Albert Ranger Patzsch’s deadpan photographs of geological formations and Pati Hill’s photocopies of domestic items. With their silvery aspect, Stahl’s digital prints on matt etching paper also bear a resemblance to frottage drawings – rubbings of textured surfaces pioneered by Max Ernst and postwar artists like Wols. In particular, the shapeless intricacies formed by the sticky substance in Goo 4 (all works 2021) manifest the same ‘remarkable liquidity’ identified by art historian Ed Krčma in his essay ‘Wols and Smallness’ (2014).

Lucie Stahl, 'GOO', 2021, exhibition view, dépendance, Brussels. Courtesy: the artist and dépendance, Brussels; photograph: Kristien Daem

Contained by their black gooey frames, Stahl’s photographs maintain an equally queer relation to liquidity. They appear at once stable and in the process of becoming. In his short text ‘Photography and Liquid Intelligence’ (1989), Jeff Wall sets up a binary between photography’s mechanical ‘dry’ side, and the medium’s ontological yet contrived relationship to water. Goo, however, is viscous, like the tar and gelatin of the photographic imprints that captured the industrializing world in which photography and combustion engines were concurrently invented. Stahl’s ‘Goo’ – like mucus in the feminist theory of French philosopher Luce Irigaray – is neither solid nor liquid, with no fixed form, at once mobile and immobile.

Placed at various heights and intervals throughout the exhibition, five wall sculptures (‘Guise 1-5’), derived from organic forms found in the photographs and enlarged as cut-out shapes glazed with a thin layer of black polyurethane, further enact this fluidity. But, detached from the photographic specificity of the images, these generic blobs – which appear to spill out of Stahl’s pictures like a sentient substance – overstate the otherwise subtle effect of the photographs. Nonetheless, they act as mental links that fill the gaps in-between images by eliciting secondary ones through pareidolia – a tendency to perceive faces or creatures in otherwise unrelated objects.

Lucie Stahl, Ghost Rider, 2021, various materials, metal drums, polyurethane, wood, 115 × 90 × 23 cm. Courtesy: the artist and dépendance, Brussels; photograph: Kristien Daem

At the back of the gallery, a creature finally emerges from the goo. Advancing on a row of shiny oil barrels, Ghost Rider comprises a Mickey Mouse-like puppet riding a western-style carriage and dragging junk items. Coated in the same black polyurethane as the frames and cut-outs, this assemblage of post-consumer waste recalls Stahl’s use of similar objects in her scanner pictures. As Susan Sontag writes in On Photography (1977), ‘as we make images and consume them, we need still more images, and still more’. Similarly, the only way forward for this rodent is another barrel – more goo. In Stahl’s libidinal lexicon of waste and consumerism, objects and images always merge, joined by the carbamate links of polyurethane. Like damp bodies stuck in tight synthetic costumes after a long party, her pictures reveal the sticky side of photography. They ooze with the remnants of our petroleum-fuelled dreams and desires.

Lucie Stahl's 'GOO' is on view at dépendance, Brussels, until 23 November 2021.

Head image: Lucie Stahl, Goo 6 (detail), 2021, Hahnemühle museum etching paper, wooden frame, polyurethane, 54 × 76 cm. Courtesy: the artist and dépendance, Brussels; photograph: Kristien Daem

Emile Rubino is an artist and writer based in Brussels, Belgium.