Frances Stark

by Jonathan Griffin

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Frances Stark 2010_-_Pull_After_Push

I don’t believe it is cruel or unfair to say that a museum is probably not the natural home for Frances Stark’s work. The artworks that she has made over the past 24 years (the timespan covered by this retrospective) are many things – epistolary, diaristic, notational, self-referential, accretive, serial, slapdash, intricate – but they are not, in the main, the kinds of forms that museums are traditionally built to house.

En masse, in the generously proportioned and high ceilinged galleries of the Hammer Museum, Stark’s delicate carbon paper, pencil or gouache text pieces and collages (to cite just a few of her myriad media) are somehow too much, and not enough. They over- and underwhelm.

And this is not their failing, because Stark is one of her generation’s most strident and original voices. The problem is that of the museum, which is incapable of reshaping itself to accommodate her output. The issue is something to do with the architecture, which is designed to house masterpieces that are big enough to absorb many gazes at once or bold enough to project across a room. (Mark Bradford’s recent Hammer exhibition is a case in point, as is the new but lifeless Broad museum.) Stark’s work mostly asks to be read ­­up close and slowly, even held in one’s hands; careful attention must be paid to its layered literary references and recurrent motifs. In front of one of the exhibition’s salon-style walls of framed drawings and collages, a visitor’s head is liable to swim.

Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention is Free (2013) is arguably Stark’s Guernica, her mature work that comes closest to the designation of ‘masterpiece’. A text- and music-based video projection overlaid on a wall of mainly found images, the work synthesizes many of Stark’s long-range concerns about motherhood, pedagogy, and sexuality, with the realities of her life in 2013, when she was locked in battle with the administration of the beleaguered art school (at USC) where she taught and had also just begun working with a young muse named Bobby. Along with issues that pertain only to Stark (and her work can, at times, feel solipsistic), Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater also surprises by opening up to racial politics and religious faith.

The masculinized category of the masterpiece, however, does not seem to be something that Stark is interested in. Instead of singular statements, she tends to compile dossiers of related works: for example, the series of ‘chorus girl’ collage drawings that punctuate the exhibition, or the trio of large collages, beginning with Push (2006), that play off the signage on her studio door.

Stark really comes into her own in her performances-cum-lectures-cum-PowerPoint presentations, one of which – I’ve Had it and a Half (2011), in which she confessed her Chatroulette addiction – she famously performed at the Hammer. The museum retrospective is inadequate for representing such events, just as it is in displaying Stark’s Instagram feed or her series of Cat Videos (1999-2002), both of which are here shown on monitors but which really belong online.

‘Uh-Oh’, this exhibition’s title, evokes the real risks involved when a practice like Stark’s unfolds in real time, at 1:1 scale to the artist’s life. It is full of anxious excitement for whatever might come next. It is the precise antithesis of a museum’s tendency to survey, to look back, to slow down and distance.

First published: Art Review, December 2015