Other Pluralities

The Painting and Photography of Elaine Stocki

In this exhibition recently opened at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris, Elaine Stocki—formerly from Winnipeg, now living in Los Angeles—here proposes what appear to be two equally emphasized streams of work, one of images produced photographically, and the other and more recent of the two groups in the form of paintings. It’s tempting to retain the simple notion that photography is about looking and recording the look, and painting is about touching and the immediate touch. However, both are the result of our being touched by light, which has famously been called “information.” Nevertheless, it is not information that comes first in this exhibition; it is feeling and emotion, together often called “affect.” In this case, the feeling is precisely one of disruption and discordance, one of the most prized outcomes of seriously contemporary art. Stocki here enacts an apparent diversity of everyday life in the environment of virtuality. The feeling of disruption she presents is not comforting, but it does encourage questioning one’s own perspective and considering the plurality of alternatives. This disruption is relative in the sense that it pertains to the notion of an underlying stable ground that we count on to validate “reality.” Undermining this opposition of stability is often where the interest lies in art; no longer one “reality” but many. Stocki proposes various pluralizations through her eclectic proliferation of sources and influences, most of which are located among different media, current art and popular culture.

Elaine Stocki, Untitled 10, 2019, watercolour on canvas, 73.5 x 73.5 inches. Photo: Lee Tyler Thompson. All images courtesy the artist.

There is a sense in which Stocki’s painting refuses participation in the discourse of abstraction in painting, while still remaining non-figurative. The history of abstraction in Canada was importantly described by Paul-Émile Borduas in the 1950s when he asserted an organic basis to abstraction, describing it as “inert matter … brought to life.” If his interest was in the play of retinal phenomena, Stocki’s abstraction favours a more diagrammatic visual realm, and this links her photographs and painting to the photographically sourced paintings of pop and conceptualism and particularly the lineage of Warhol with his sources in the world of fashion and consumer design.

Of the nine paintings included in this exhibition, we could say seven are squares and two are vertical rectangles. However, as inevitable as it is to call these works “paintings,” consisting as they do in the material sense of paint on stretched canvas hanging on a wall, it’s not convincing. Something is making them “other” to painting, or “other” than painting. Untitled 4, 2018, is a roughly six-foot-square canvas; however, as is the case with many of her square canvases, this one has rounded corners, which contributes to making the painting more object-like but also more emblematic. Equally unusual is her use of watercolour on canvas; the result contributes to her refusal to be drawn into the discourse of formalist abstraction or of painting at all. Untitled 4 is perhaps closer to a landscape format than most of her works, being a horizontal composition stretched across what we might call a “diagonally” posed canvas. Untitled 5 and Untitled 6 are also positioned in this way, while the others in the series presented here are posed conventionally. The horizontality of this painting proceeds from layered gradations of colour moving from dark to light, with the central lightest and widest band being bare canvas. The width of each fluidly defined band of colour recedes from widest at the bottom and top to narrower as they approach the light central band. The colour scheme for this painting is as unusual as the composition and material, being a transitioning from a deep neutral navy at the bottom moving up through green, lightening to yellow, then the bare central band sliding up through yellow, orange, red-orange, brown and dark brown. This scheme suggests a look perhaps deriving from textile work, even tapestry, more than it belongs to any history of abstract painting, although perhaps the Bauhaus work of painter and theorist Johannes Itten and textile artist Anni Albers could figure here. This persistence of fabric is enhanced by the use of watercolour on the canvas, penetrating into the fabric as it does and bleeding along the boundaries of the colour bands. This bleeding also records the fact of the paintings’ having been done flat on a floor or other surface perpendicular to the pull of gravity. This instigates a degree of perceptual disequilibrium or discrepancy when the works are positioned on a vertical wall.

Top: Untitled 1, 2018, watercolour on canvas, 58.5 x 58.5 inches. Photo: Cameron Crone.

Bottom: D, 2013, hand-tinted gelatin silver archival print, 36 x 29 inches.

If we anticipate feeling that sensuous pleasure traditional to abstract painting, in the face of these paintings we will be disappointed. For Stocki, the criteria associated with the discourse of painting are neither here nor there; she’s on another track, one that affiliates with a realm of virtuality and semblance but without posing any oppositional relationship to an originating “materiality.” What interests her is the instability of having these look like paintings without being grounded by the discourse of painting, or, rather, without any grounding reality, occupying a paradoxical space we might call a “virtual materiality.”

Untitled 1, 2018, is a roughly five-foot-square canvas again with rounded corners. The aspect of the rounded corners is reiterated in the composition by way of Stocki’s use of an arc as a prevailing form. That is, three of the four corners are each diagonally opposed by an arc form spreading out from its opposite corner. Large dark arcs here spread out toward the centre from the lower left and upper right corners while a uniform beige arc shape fills in from the upper left. The dark forms are sharply contrasted with the lighter field area as well as that beige upper left arc. These dark arcs are actually gradations from light grey-beige toward black as they reach their corners. Both dark arc forms are superimposed over the lighter areas above which they claim to be on top, perhaps overriding the more neutral underlying, near-canvas colours. As in the other paintings, Stocki has used watercolour, which on canvas functions like a staining technique.

The remaining two paintings are vertical rectangles about five feet by two feet but divided midway into two halves, each having a similar composition of vertical stripes, again in watercolour. As I’d noted earlier, the strongest reference is to fabric design, and this is reinforced by the bleeding of the edges of each stripe. Insofar as these might be considered modernist abstraction, the feeling is that they are imposters, mere poseurs, and that their reality is elsewhere, perhaps in the play between semblance and resemblance, and this might suggest an affinity to ’80s neo-geo painting.

In her catalogue essay for this exhibition, curator Catherine Bedard introduces a contemporary notion of the image, an understanding in which circulation and its speed produce an environment where images are not tied to specific origins but simply exist by way of their interchangeability; their being is in their circulation. As Bedard says, “images replace other ones … the fixed image is thus, in short, constantly in motion.” Perhaps the mode of impermanence this proposes is the source of the “weird and creepy” feeling Stocki’s photographs evoke, that mention of Freud’s “uncanny” one often encounters in discussions involving photography.

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Volume 38, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #151, published September 2019.

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