by Jonathan Griffin
“What is this? This is me writing.”
So begins a text Frances Stark wrote in 2002, part of a handmade publication titled The Unspeakable Compromise of the Portable Work of Art. For two decades Stark has been writing about writing, and making art about the vexing processes of artistic production. If that sounds limited in scope or overly solipsistic, then consider the range of themes that this activity has, in Stark’s hands, enlisted. From performance anxiety and creative block to exhibitionism (peacocking, as she often characterizes it), to the art market and artist community, to pedagogy, her favorite music and books, her sexuality, and her family, the Los Angeles–based Stark has never lacked for material. Everything in her life has the potential to be incorporated into her art. Her collage Push, 2006, shows exhibition invitation cards flying through her mail slot like a horizontal tornado.
Self-doubting, self-deprecating, self-critical, self-conscious, self-involved, self-reflexive, self-indulgent, self-obsessive, self-pleasuring: All are adjectives (some critical, some factual) that have been thrown at Stark over the years. But in her latest installation, made for the 2013 Carnegie International exhibition now on view in Pittsburgh, the artist is consumed by subjectivities not her own, by concerns way beyond her usual frame of experience.
“I wanted a black man to speak for me,” she says of her collaboration, in 2011, with dancehall hype man Skerrit Bwoy. Stark met Bwoy on a plane and instantly recognized him as the world’s most famous practitioner of the sexually explicit style of dance known as daggering. She convinced him to take part in her performance Put a Song in Your Thing, commissioned by Performa in New York, in which he flung her about the stage with choreographed lewd abandon. In an inversion of Bwoy’s signature move, it was she—not he—who launched herself from the stage to straddle him on the floor at the climax of the show. As the mother of a 10-year-old hip-hop fan, Stark says she wanted to look more closely at the content her son was consuming. “Yes it’s misogynistic, yes it’s homophobic, yes it’s greedy, but it’s also totally important and amazing,” she says. She talks admiringly about the facility of some young African-American men with telling stories through serial, autobiographical, musical form—just as more privileged white teenagers might sit down to write a journal: “That’s what rap is, and that’s what I do.”
Stark herself appears in her work in numerous different guises. In addition to the intimate, first-person mode of address that she adopts in most of her writing, the figure of the artist intercedes in collages such as I must explain, specify, rationalize, classify, etc., 2007, which depicts her standing on a chair to adjust the placement of a word in a large text. Stark gets in the way (literally) of her words. Sometimes, it’s just the artist’s arm or hand that intrudes into the picture, holding out a found, collaged piece of print or sometimes a reproduction of one of her earlier artworks.
Although it might seem that Stark is in the business of ingenuous self-exposure, the character that has featured in her work has generally been a graphic cipher, a framing mechanism that is often the content itself. Rarely does she feature in photographs; up until 2010, when she staged her first performance at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado, she had not appeared before a live audience. Her stage performance I’ve Had It! And I’ve Also Had It!, 2010, reworked a piece of musical theater that premiered at the Wheeler in 1951. In Stark’s version, she wore a kimono-style dress that was designed to resemble a rotary telephone, inscribed with both letters and numbers. The garment was titled The Inchoate Incarnate: Summon Me and I’ll Probably Come, 2009.
“I was searching for a manifestation,” says the artist. The telephone dial is a textual key that has the potential to enable spoken communication. As an object with Stark inside it, the dress was more incarnate than inchoate. A subsequent performance, I’ve Had It and a Half, 2011, commissioned by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, ratcheted the intimacy of the viewer-artist relationship up a notch. As well as Stark’s reading selected texts, the performance included a projected dialogue that, the audience gathered, was transcribed from the artist’s interactions with men in online sex-chat rooms.
At Bice Curiger’s exhibition “Illuminations” for the 2011 Venice Biennale, the whole world seemingly became privy to Stark’s most personal business. At the far end of the Arsenale, a procession of tired art tourists sat down in a dark room to watch her serialized animation My Best Thing, 2011. Each of the 11 mini episodes was prefaced by a synopsis of preceding plot developments. (Stark was concerned about her audience’s ability to concentrate on a single artwork for any length of time.) Many stayed to watch the whole thing.
Paying attention—and, in particular, our culturally conditioned incapacity to do so—has long been a preoccupation for Stark. Her compulsive online entanglements were symptomatic of her inability to concentrate on her studio work, but she soon realized the exchange value in paying attention to other people instead. One of the characters in My Best Thing is an Italian political activist who gets beaten and thrown in jail; others from the later videos Osservate, leggete con me (“Observe, Read Along with Me”), 2012, and Nothing Is Enough, 2012, are unemployed young men from countries affected by the European recession and the Arab Spring.
“I was very conscious of the fact that there was a massive population of brown men in their early 20s out there who were just fucked,” says Stark of the men she met on Chatroulette and Omegle. “They’re not paying for my time and attention—I want to be there doing what I’m doing. Jerking off to porno is not about absorbing attention, it’s purely one-sided. What I was doing was free love, for real. Free love has a huge impact on people. It doesn’t have to be sexual. I brought a kind of goddess power to strangers. I radiated it, I affected them. And, in turn, I wound up with some really funny, brilliant text from which to tell a story.”
As becomes clear through the typed conversational form ofOsservate, leggete con me and Nothing Is Enough, Stark becomes an important mentor to some of these young men. She invites one of them—a Spanish boy who has broken up with his girlfriend—to come to Los Angeles and work as her studio assistant. The accomplished piano soundtrack for Nothing Is Enough was composed and performed by the guy from My Best Thing who claimed that music is “no good for lazy people like me.”
Stark does not reveal just what she had in mind when, at her son’s skate park, she approached a young black man who was reading a book called The Art of Seduction. In an audio work that she recorded for the Freize New York art fair (to be played to VIPs in a fleet of sponsored BMWs), she claims that “I felt this striking young man and his little pickup manual could possibly avail me of the opportunity to discuss my virtual engagements in a different, more self-critical light.” The work, which she called Trapped in the VIP and/or In Mr. Martin’s Inoperable Cadillac, 2012, goes on to relate how the man (who introduces himself as Mr. Martin) gets arrested, seemingly without justification, on suspicion of burglary. The story is picked up by Mr. Martin and his friend Bobby when Stark meets him once he is out of jail.
During the course of recording the piece, Stark became friends with the pair. She was especially captivated by the long-haired, Hispanic Bobby, not only because of his beauty but also because of his resemblance to pictures of Mary Magdalene. She was coming to identify with the “holy whore,” stating “I conflate sexuality and faith, sexuality and spirituality.” A text on the wall of her studio, culled from the blurb of a book found online, gives some insight into her thinking: “When the Goddess of Love was still honored, the sacred prostitute was virgin in the original sense of the word (one-in-herself), a person of deep integrity whose welcome for the strange was radiant, self- confident, and sensuous. Her purpose was to bring the goddess’ love into direct contact with mankind.”
She began inviting Bobby and his homeboys to her studio, partly in an attempt to get to know them but also to give them something to do. She would just hang out, watch television and eat with them, listen to their stories, their ideas and hopes for the future. Some drifted away and one robbed her, but Bobby stayed loyal. She compares her relationship with Bobby to her role as a teacher at the Roski School of Fine Arts, at the University of Southern California; she suggests things for him to read and films to watch, and talks to him about art—not just her own. But Bobby is more to her than a student. She is learning from him, and she compares him to Paul Rosano, the usually naked muse of Sylvia Sleigh, one of Stark’s favorite painters. Bobby does not take his clothes off, but Stark likes to look at him and his life. She has started to call him Bobby Jesus.
Just as her relationship with Bobby has deepened in recent months, her position at U.S.C. becomes increasingly fraught. She takes an unpaid leave from her post as co-director of the art school’s M.F.A. program, frustrated over the university’s lack of curricular or pedagogical vision for its students. Her concerns are confirmed by the announcement of the new $70 million U.S.C. Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation, due to open in 2014 and funded by former gangsta rapper Dr. Dre and his business partner. The development—which promises to direct students’ attention toward the more lucrative ends of the creative spectrum—seems to Stark to be symptomatic of the accelerating commercialization of the higher-education system in the U.S.
Meanwhile, more than one in three young black men in the U.S. without a high school diploma are in prison. Bobby told Stark that on the streets they refer to prison as “college.” The private prison operator GEO Group was in the news recently when it tried to brand Florida Atlantic University’s football stadium with its logo. (The bid was retracted after widespread protests.) Stark has recently been listening to a lot of DJ Quik, the influential Compton rapper who had all the promise of Dre but whose inability to extricate himself from his turbulent past has left him bitter toward the music industry and artistically unfulfilled.
All of this material and more coalesces in the installation Stark recently completed for the 2013 Carnegie International. Titled Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention Is Free, 2013, the installation combines collaged images applied directly to the gallery wall with unfolding texts projected above and numerous simultaneous rap soundtracks. The effect, Stark concedes, might be overwhelming. But she hopes that viewers choose to pay attention to one element at a time.
Stark once described sentences as “solid little trains that choo-choo to an unworldly destination sometimes right past their readers”; as an artist who uses words in images, she is acutely aware that texts are built from constituent parts and have the potential to disintegrate or gel together. The relationship between the parts and the whole is endlessly fascinating to her, and is applicable not just to language but to economics, community, and personal identity. It is not just the Internet, as has been widely theorized, that threatens to fragment our sense of self; our lives entail playing any number of different roles to any number of different people. Stark, a mother, teacher, lover, artist, student, and citizen, knows this as well as anyone. Her art is, in part, a bid to reconcile these parts of her identity with a single focus, a focus that is itself redemptive. “Art is a kind of faith, it’s a faith in paying attention,” she says. “And that is free, period.”
First published: Modern Painters, November 2013