There is something magical about Elaine Stocki’s photographs. It is not just that her subjects are posed in mysterious ways, in darkened rooms or in front of her own abstract paintings, but also the fact that you truly struggle to comprehend how they are made. When I first walked into her show at Thomas Erben Gallery in New York, I was certain her process involves taking photographs, cutting them up, layering and reshooting. Simple photomontage. There is obvious layering, which I deduced could be done using Photoshop, or manually with double exposure or sandwich printing. There is also an extreme flattening of the image, with layers of gestural paint marks, tacked up paper and cut-outs of other photographs. In each case the space of the photograph radically does not make sense. Drips of paint that seem to be on the background of the image jump to the foreground, other elements seem flat but unexpectedly cast three-dimensional shadows.
Stocki hires actors to be photographed in her studio, but photography is not her only medium. Abstract paintings feature in the exhibition, both as accompaniments to the photographs and backdrops or props in some of the shots. In one case, the painting that dominates the composition of a photograph hangs directly beside the photograph of it, giving a nod to Kosuth’s semiotic exercise, One and Three Chairs, the famous juxtaposition of a photo of a chair with an actual chair and the dictionary definition of “chair.” Painting and photography, reality and illusion, are interwoven here. Some of the prints are painted on the surface and amplify the forms in the paintings-as-props. The effect of this is a constant pull of the real paintings in the gallery into the imagined space of the photographs, and a push of those in the photographs out into the viewer’s space. Like in a magic trick, the viewer is left thoroughly spatially disoriented. Stocki’s actual method involves less technical manipulation and lots of clever in-situ staging. She hangs objects in her studio corner, shoots from awkward angles, and plays with strong lighting to distort perception. Certain motifs and patterns recur in the series. Floating heads wearing bear-like headdresses and blonde wigs populate a number of works. Sometimes these objects are hung from strings in the artist’s studio corner, other times her models interact with them. The most eerie effect results when she adheres printed headshots of her previous models onto these wigs and bear-like hoods. In the photograph they turn out paradoxically flat and rounded at the same time, having been doubleflattened in their journey to the image.
The characters and situations in Stocki’s photographs are also ambiguous. She poses people in mysterious ways without revealing what they are doing or who they are. A woman sits on the floor nude from the waist up. A heavy-set man lies in bed in near-black shadow, holding a dark, cruciform object. Another man appears to be lying under (or is he sitting behind?) a pile of empty food cartons, with brown pudding-like goo around his mouth.
Often included are hints to her use of analogue film in the form of sprocket holes appearing at the edges of photographs. This allusion to the history of photography and its myths of truthfulness and straightness is paired with unexpected juxtapositions and sandwich layering. These strategies draw parallels with Surrealist photographers who utilized such trick effects to destabilize rational meaning. The cast of heads, wigs and fur in Stocki’s tableaux also bring to mind Hans Bellmer, who photographed doll parts arranged in disturbing scenarios. There are links, as well, with contemporary photographers like Cindy Sherman and earlier work by Diana Thorneycroft in the elaborate stagings and posings involved.
What sets Elaine Stocki apart is that she seems to be appropriating more painterly strategies to subvert traditional perspective. What started with Cézanne and ripened in Modernist painting are the trick effects of painting. That which should be underneath appears to be over top and what ought to recede doesn’t, causing the viewer to be unsure of their judgement and to question their ability to understand visual phenomena. This casts doubt on human knowledge in general. The viewer, placed in a befuddled subject position, is rendered passive in what Rosalind Krauss describes in Bachelors (October Books/The MIT Press, 1999) as a “viewer stripped of authority and dispossessed of privilege …trapped in a cat’s cradle of representation, caught in a hall of mirrors, lost in a labyrinth.”
The pacification of the viewer in this series acts to decentre a human perspective of the world and reintroduces a sense of magic and mystery into the images. In a world where people see more images than ever before—in all kinds of mediums— in news stories, in politics, on phones at work and in bed—it is crucial to be reminded of the limits of human perception. And since we now seem to find ourselves at the crossroads between an intensified destruction of Earth’s biological systems and a more empathetic stance, work like this reminds us that humans do not know everything, and even worse, we might be catastrophically wrong about a few things.
“Hoar Frost” was exhibited at Thomas Erben Gallery, New York, from November 3 to December 16, 2016.
Anna Kovler is an artist and writer living in Toronto.