This review of Frances Stark’s solo show ‘Sorry for the Wait’ was published at Art Agenda, Jun 12, 2015
Hard-drive art: exhibitions and discrete works as life audits, comprising the photographic and documentary contents/detritus of an artist’s hard drive or cloud-space (a collective term for an individual’s online storage facilities). Not yet a widely acknowledged post-digital subgenre, but seemingly the organizing principle behind Frances Stark’s disappointing greengrassi solo show: a neatly ordered exhibition of seven paintings, a collage, and four videos (Sony cubes placed on white plinths in a white cube) that offer a glimpse into culture clashes that take place in the eclectic world of Stark’s cloud-space.
Formally, “Sorry for the Wait” is arranged according to the binary logic of color contrasts, two-tone to be specific. Black ink on white paper is used in the paintings, each with a variation on one form: a signpost composed of three lines and either the word stupid or clever written above it. The form is abstracted in Moment in Clever/Stupid Revolution (2015), rendered positively and negatively against a black or white background in others, and in Stupid Moment in Clever/Stupid Revolution Repurposed (2015) and Clever Moment in Clever/Stupid Revolution Repurposed (2015) it is placed on a black and white checkerboard floor. Echoed by the four black-gray monitors placed against white walls, this two-tone pattern appears again as op-art background in the collage Every other eye in this world is dying to hear (2014), and finally extends, via video works, into the concrete and abstract territory of race—the white against the black body, the hypermasculine “black swag” of rapper Big Sean’s “IDFWU” bouncing off the clean white walls of greengrassi’s antiseptic white space.
The four videos, titled variously as Poets on the Pyre I, II, III and IV (all 2015), are each overdubbed with Big Sean’s paranoid turn-up track and are essentially video slideshows put together in iMovie, made up of images and footage shot on a smartphone or pulled from Stark’s Instagram account, @therealstarkiller. The results are the type of juxtapositions and incongruities you would expect from the browser history of a contemporary artist with one foot in the rarified world of theory and the other in American popular culture. So, literary figures and artists and miscellaneous excerpts from critical texts (the end credits site Joan Didion, Isabelle Graw, Werner Herzog, and Rirkrit Tiravanija as covered content) sit alongside images of Nicki Minaj, Joni Mitchell, and Stark’s selfies and shelfies (images of her book collections). The suggestion, supported by the linguistic and aesthetic polarities (clever/stupid and black/white, respectively) in the paintings is that perhaps Stark finds herself shifting between these two points of high and low culture, between, to put it crudely, the clever and the stupid (depending on where you’re standing). Unfortunately, the liminal space inhabited at such times, represented here as a trawl through stuff-Stark-posts-online, is unengaging, superficial, and strikingly unoriginal.
“Sorry for the Wait” is also undermined by the faint air—perhaps a deliberate subversive strategy designed to provoke viewers into a critical engagement with their own preconceptions and implicit biases, perhaps not—of negrophilia, understood as the fetishistic fascination with a constructed version of “black culture” along with its various racial essentialisms. Author Petrine Archer-Straw wrote about the condition in her book Negrophilia: Avant-garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s (2000) exploring the fascination for all things savage, African, and, by extension, black. In this seeming contemporary enaction of an old impulse, Josephine Baker and tribal aesthetics are substituted for trap stylings and thug symbologies. The suggestion in the system of contrasts and collisions the exhibition sets up and Poets on the Pyre cements is that theory is the Apollonian force of order and rational cogitation (even when it is an excerpt from Valerie Solanis’s 1967 SCUM Manifesto) to African-American culture’s transgressive, impulsive, sexualized, and hypermasculine roughness. Whatever the case, it is clear that Stark uses signifiers from the constructed ends of so-called “black culture” to gain access to a certain attitude of defiance or nasty nihilism. A photograph in Every other eye in this world is dying to hear sees Stark with her top rolled up to reveal the words slut life written on her stomach. A play on the iconic “Thug Life” tattoo written in the same place on deceased rapper Tupac Shakur’s torso, the original gesture of anti-authoritarian defiance (the black rapper defying American society’s prescriptive behavioral norms) is used to create an image of empowerment capable of undermining repressive patriarchal gender norms and the concomitant practice of slut shaming. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe an image of Stark with her shirt rolled up and the words slut life written across her stomach is just that. There is a tiresome ambiguity to the work, tiresome because a perpetual loop is set up between empowerment and objectification, depth and surface; neither angle is presented as more valid than the other. As a result, Stark appears to present the contents of “Sorry for the Wait” with an equivocal shrug, leaving the viewer, like Stark’s own clever/stupid revolutions, to cycle continuously between two hermeneutic positions.
That “Sorry for the Wait” seems so remiss is as a result of Stark’s stellar track record as an artist with a reputation for making brilliant work. Here, however, that brilliance has been displaced by a gnawing sense of emptiness, a feeling akin to the sensation of swiping through an endless array of photographs on somebody else’s smartphone.