Frances Stark is not a computer whiz. Her digital skills appear to be no better than basic.
Most of her art is made with some paper and a pair of scissors. Collage, which has been around for a century, is her analog staple in our digital world.
Yet, at 48, Stark is nonetheless emerging as the visual poet laureate of the Internet age. Writing code may or may not be in her toolbox, but deep artistic intelligence most certainly is.
Her enthralling midcareer survey at the UCLA Hammer Museum is unthinkable without the virtual experience that characterizes life today. The artist deftly navigates a notoriously unstable new environment. In fraught matters of human interaction, the work is a marvel of clear-eyed equilibrium.
Stark's wide-ranging work is an uncanny fusion of the analog and the virtual. Her materials incorporate paint and video projection in equal measure, plus scavenged art gallery announcements, orchestrated hip-hop sound, reflective silver Mylar and a PowerPoint presentation."UH-OH: Frances Stark, 1991-2015" features 56 drawings, collages, video projections and mixed-media works. The witty title, with its guttural blend of caution and dismay, says a lot: She's going to venture out onto a limb, just to see what happens; be prepared.
Like the vibration of a musical note hanging in the air, a spoken word whose substantial presence lives in the otherwise spectral space of memory or smoke rising from the glowing tip of a burning cigarette whose nicotine helps focus the mind, physical presence mingles with ghostliness.
It's topsy-turvy. Think Goya's satiric Capricho etching of chairs sitting atop women, rather than the other way around, which inspired several Stark works. Hints of chaos frame a related mixed-media painting, which shows a reclining female figure, not quite life-size, simply holding a sheet of paper. We see her from above, pointedly looking down on her.
That puts the woman's faceless head down at the bottom of the canvas, near a viewer's feet, her tangled splotch of black hair a visual ink-drop blown up to gigantic scale. Her torso and legs unfold upward. We're gazing straight at her feet. She's faceless, stripped of identity.
Her black-and-white, peek-a-boo dress is pieced together from bits of semitransparent rice-paper. Stylistically the restless, shifting angles make the striped dress Cubism morphing into Op art.
This is no conventional odalisque — no seductive harem girl displayed in the imperialist Turkish manner of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, nor a concubine laid out on an upholstered daybed, like Edouard Manet's combative "Olympia." Stark weaves Western art history, its profundities and shibboleths, into much of her work, and her differences with the past help clarify the present.
The sheet of paper held by the upside-down woman is an actual sheet of paper, which Stark pasted onto the canvas. Handwritten across it in black ink: "Why should you not be able to assemble yourself and write?"
The earlier silent movie's flat projection screen is here pushed into the three-dimensional white cube of a contemporary art gallery. The domestic fuses with the institutional, blurring private and public. Its text is the legend of a rake — an Internet Don Juan — merged with sad-clown Pagliacci as Mozart plays on the soundtrack.
The show's excellent catalog uses the descriptive word "porous" for Stark's art. One meaning of porous is "capable of being penetrated," and the sexual implication is apt. Stark conflates the explosion of Internet sex with the established modern convention of artist as free-thinking libertine.
She's teasing out the artist's ambiguous place in today's befuddling society, money-obsessed and entertainment-possessed. The moment an artist moves her work from studio to gallery, she begins performing for the crowd. So Stark's charming collages include a series featuring a life-size chorus girl.
Her jaunty costume is a burlesque cluster of disks, each striped in black, blue and green, which optically twirl like pinwheels when your eye moves across them. It's post-Toulouse-Lautrec.
My favorite is "Chorus Girl Folding Self in Half," which she does with her back to the viewer. Bent over forward, she peers out at us from between her legs like a Belle Époque poster remastered in Marcel Duchamp's eye-bending optical roto-reliefs. The chorine assumes the famous music-hall pose that ends a raucous can-can.
Why not, indeed. The artist invents herself as she goes, writing and assembling her persona into being. The self-portrait that results is wholly distinctive yet utterly anonymous.
Its unique inventiveness arises from engagement with the Internet, where sock puppets and catfish play. The digital universe, with its weird aura of alienated intimacy (or, is it intimate alienation?) is crystallized in cyber sex. The show features three video projections built from the artist's experiences cultivating online flirtations. They're among the most poignant, sly and moving pieces on view.
The first stars a virtual Adam and Eve. Rudimentary talking avatars court a fall from grace in pop-up Eden.
The second is a silent movie — a tragicomedy made from projected text and improvised piano accompaniment. Its tender tale of recovery from an audacious online entanglement is a heartfelt foray into humanity's eternal discombobulations.
The third is a full environment. A visitor curls up on a chic gray sofa to read black texts projected onto three surrounding white walls.
Suddenly, you realize she is actually mooning you.
The work unpacks socially constructed biases toward women in general and artists in particular, then delivers a visual raspberry. Marvelously interactive, the fictional chorine talks directly to its anonymous audience as surely as the artist does in an online chat room.
Stark attributes her interest in artistic communication to her mother, a lifelong telephone operator. Her job was to connect strangers remotely. The digital revolution changed the terms of the hookup but not the desire for connection.
One Stark sculpture — it derives from a performance costume — seems a mom-homage. The ensemble is black, its outstretched arms with cascading sleeves held above a voluminous skirt. A big rotary dial is attached to the front of a mash-up of traditional Asian robes — Korean hanbo, Japanese kimono, Chinese hanfu.
The overall shape evokes a handset cradled atop the housing of a vintage telephone. A black cord unfurls out the back, rather like a pesky rodent's tail. It's notably detached from the wall, as if to say, "I'm sorry, you've been disconnected."
Stark carries within her remote remnants of a lost world, partly from her youth. And partly it's the once-radical, now conventional Pop landscape of artists like Claes Oldenburg. Mining past art and autobiography helps navigate new terrain.
The exhibition is large. The 21/2 hours of video culminate in a marvelous multichannel installation in which text and imagery merge USC, a privileged school where Stark taught until a controversial curriculum change prompted a high-profile split, with the "University of South Central" — the school of the street.
The hip-hop duet with Bobby Jesus, a street kid who is her talented young studio apprentice, unfurls on a vast chessboard landscape scanned by celebrity klieg lights crossed with police searchlights. They finally unite at the far horizon into a single orb that rises like the sun.
Although large, the show is beautifully paced. Hammer curator Ali Subotnick, working with the artist, traverses nearly 25 years not through chronology but through echoes, repetitions and revisions among art objects. They footnote one another as they talk with us.
That isn't easy to pull off. "Frances Stark: Intimism," a smaller focus show last spring at the Art Institute of Chicago, also included compelling work — some the same as what's in the Hammer exhibition. But sequestered in a warren of rooms, it felt chopped up and impermeable — disconnected rather than porous.
This one doesn't. "UH-OH" is among the finest solo museum shows this year.
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