In a 1972 piece of writing entitled “The Untroubled Mind,” the painter Agnes Martin wrote that she was “anti-nature.” Nature, to Martin, was contiguous both with a conceptual framework that suggested conquest and possession as well as a kind of bleak instinct for reproduction— not to mention an insatiable, ceaseless appetite. Painting, on the other hand, was a space where one could “get in and rest.” To Martin, art was different from eating, say, exactly because it wasn’t a necessity. Painting became a place for respite and, as she wrote, “the absolute trick in life is to find rest.”
In a direct reference to Martin’s quote, Elaine Stocki’s exhibition at Night Gallery in Los Angeles last winter was titled “The Absolute Trick.” The show of six, mostly oval-shaped abstract paintings on stitched canvas and linen marked Stocki’s first solo presentation with the gallery and also her first exhibition solely comprised of painting. Stocki is already a recognized photographer who in recent years has started displaying canvases along with photographs, and her formal transition might be more startling if it didn’t seem somewhat of a piece with her other work. As a photographer, while often making portraits of people alone or in groups, she is still drawn to abstraction and the more material aspects and possibilities of the medium. Devoted to the analogue process of the darkroom, she has hand-tinted photographs, and her work can feature saturated sections of colour that nearly lift off the ground of subjects. Stocki has also painted on her pictures, and included her paintings in photographs as backdrops. At Night Gallery—per Martin perhaps—she forewent the natural world that photography has historically indexed and found a template for compositions that allowed for continuous reworking and invention, and maybe a bit of “rest” after a year where we could have all used some.
Hung at eye level on the gallery’s black-painted wall, Stocki’s works vaguely resembled prismatically hued planets seen from space, as in the famous Blue Marble photo of Earth taken by members of the Apollo 17. Up close, each had a unique logic, but all took the seam as a unifying principle and shared a similar process. For these works, Stocki stitched together pieces of linen and canvas in various formations and then flooded sections with watercolour, in a nod to colour field artists, giving the impression of surfaces that were dyed, or spilled onto, rather than marked. Disassembled—with some sections washed and bleached—and then restretched, the works bear the vestiges of material transformation and time, fading, slackening and softening like skin. A dividing seam of canvas in Oval with Fallen Flag, 60 Inch, February 2021 (all works 2021) is even-painted in a checkered-like pattern recalling the hide of a snake. The two halves of the painting oscillate from light to dark: one side is a light, washed-out ochre, and the other its saturated, mirrored reflection, with magenta bleeding from the underpainting and the dividing seam.
If colour here appeared more manifested than mark-made, the register of Stocki’s touch was still evident in the frayed seams along the surfaces of her works. The most ornate of her pieces was The Absolute Trick, January 2021, with numerous orbits of canvas encircling the painting’s oval core, also broken up into quadrants that contained further ruptures. This painting has a furious intricacy; one section is so worked that the seams bust outward, the canvas becoming fuzzy and nearly worn away, as if the outer layers of rich pigment had exerted pressure on the painting’s wispier interior, causing it to give way. Other works like Reverse side Oval, 50 inch, January 2021 or Snow Moon (curved seam diptych, February 2021) are more symmetrically constructed, the latter with two panels coming together to form an oval buffeted by vertical streaks of lime green paint on either side, like curtains. But a tension between a feeling of disparateness and the possibilities of its containment remains in all the works.
Of course, this pressure is far subtler and formally minded than we might see in Stocki’s photographs. The drama of people, and the difficulties and ethical quandaries of trying to portray them, will always be more immediately arresting than the slower, more internal practice of abstraction and mark making. Still, the overall atmosphere of Stocki’s show was transfixing. As Martin writes in “The Untroubled Mind,” all you need is a hint of nature in your work. And only time will tell if Stocki remains sated with just that sliver or if she’ll return to its fuller iteration once more. Martin speaks to this as well: “Unless it’s you yourself following your own track / Why you’d never get anywhere.” ❚
“The Absolute Trick” was exhibited at Night Gallery, Los Angeles, from February 27 to March 27, 2021.
Kate Wolf is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is one of the founding editors of The Los Angeles Review of Books, where she’s currently editor at large and co-host and producer of its weekly podcast.