“Wild Braid” is on view at the Night Gallery through June 24
Elaine Stocki’s new exhibition at the Night Gallery takes visitors down a psychedelic rabbit hole with three-dimensional paintings. A key piece, titled The Knowing Hare, depicts a hare with its’ two front feet touching the ground, but the hind hasn’t caught up. The hare appears to be jumping down from a higher surface. The gallery’s press release unconventionally includes a brief letter to the artist rather than a traditional summation of the work. Edward Sterrett writes to Stocki, “The hare would not be gazing at the sublimity of distance, but back in some sense at the viewer.” The hare sets the tone for how we can read these works. This painting, notably, contains to closest thing to realism, and the hare appears poised to jump through the rest of the works from canvas to canvas. One can imagine the hare jumping across the vivid, sublime fantasies of these paintings, winking at us to highlight Stocki’s inversions of painting, nature, gender, and mediated reality. The colors, which seem to inaugurate vivid dreamscapes, might allude toward more dystopian worlds a la Children of Men or The Fifth Element. Perhaps the hare has the keys to navigating these dystopias, and a primary technique of this navigation is, as Sterrett identifies, “inversion.”
Stocki braids a science-fictional exhibition. The realistic hare guides us through Stocki’s inversions of space, realism, and reality. This inversion reminds me of Darko Suvin, a cornerstone in science fiction criticism. His ideas have provided fodder for important debates, but his idea of “cognitive estrangement (1),” remains influential for thinking about the functions of cultural texts as commentators on reality. Suvin describes cognitive estrangement as the function that a text imposes on the audience to “estrange” them from reality in a way that helps them see reality in a critical way. Texts that cognitively estrange work by extrapolating elements of reality to logical extremes in order to draw out critical understandings of those elements of reality. The realistic hare, for instance, provides the anchor that reminds us that Stocki’s painterly fantasies hinge on artistic inversion to reflect on contemporary reality. Cognitive Estrangement allows us to entertain fantastic visions that can invert how we think through and navigate reality. This estrangement begins with, likely, the first painting a viewer might engage with. In Sweet Valley Hoarfrost, Stocki creates a vertiginous “landscape.” A “wild braid” swirls around the canvas, creating a gaping opening – perhaps a portal into this estranged view of the world. The middle showcases the psychedelic forest-scape of the world, and the edges contain a face, a torso, and bent legs of women’s bodies. These women, though on the outside of the dominant portal, are connected by the braid, which might be drawing them in. Once we’ve entered the portal, Stocki’s critiques unfold across the remaining paintings.
Deconstruction of medium is key to Stocki’s work here. She originally gained recognition for her photography, so it should come as no surprise that her artistic shift to a new medium would come with some experimentation. This experimentation, by way of manipulating canvas itself, calls attention to the artificiality of artistic surfaces – mirroring the artificiality of our current reality, which is mediated in so many technological and rhetorical ways. I was immediately drawn to the “wild braids” that are strewn across a few of these canvases. Stocki has cut strips of embroidery thread, braided them together and then painted across them. As a viewer, I’m often interested in how artists use the materiality of paint to raise the surfaces of their work, but Stocki fascinatingly inverts that technique by adding even more to the canvas. The materiality of canvas reminds us that images require surfaces to be manipulated and shaped to match an artist’s vision. As a piece of culture, the hare winks to remind us that culture requires surfaces to shape the world. Those surfaces, in Stocki’s view are bodies and nature, which she depicts as situated and demarcated by aesthetic constructions.
Within this world, Stocki highlights the vexed relationships between nature, bodies, and power by deceptively organizing them. Despite the chaotic feel of the colors and experimentations, there is a tidy spatial logic at work in these. The captured bodies of Hoarfrost, or others that look like them, are trapped in other paintings of the collection. They show up in both Looking Painting (entering) and Looking Painting (leaving). The women are mostly unclothed, sitting in sexualized positions, gazing back at the viewer. The way space is demarcated, however, appears to depict the women as entrapped. In both leaving and entering, the paintings split the subject matters across quadrants. In each of those, the women are situated in the top left and right quadrants, respectively. Not only are they encapsulated by specific colors, but the lines separate them clearly from the other forms of life on the canvasses. In each, a goose flies. In leaving, it is a particularly angelic goose. These canvasses create an estranged, vivid world – but it should be clear that they reflect some of the sinister underpinnings of our modern world. Reading these paintings in light of our contemporary moment might be contextualized by recent movements surrounding reproductive rights. The striking down of Roe vs. Wade and waves of the #metoo movement loom over the pieces, which seem to critique a world in which sexualization, and expectation remain key desires that power structures seek to embed in cultural logics. These demarcations of bodies and geese tie those politics together with politics of manufactured natural sublimity.
Stocki draws together these overlapping matrices to critique orderings of power. The work recalls Carolyn Merchant’s important text The Death of Nature which explores the intersections between patriarchal control over nature and women. Here, Stocki’s choice to move into painting, rather than using the camera, highlights the artificial natures that are critical to modern orderings of space. In the modern world, power structures rely on these ordered, controlled views of nature to generate and control human space. Consider the usage of a term like “green space” which, when used in architectural terms, assumes that nature is something added after a human construction. The celestial setting surrounding the goose in leaving suggests a critique of the natural sublime that humans imbue nature with to uphold illusions of a stark divide between nature and culture – the separation of the geese and the women deepen the critique of such an imagined divide.
These fantasy depictions of women and birds estrange viewers by inviting them into this different world. The “knowing hare” – though only occupying one canvas – looms across the canvasses. The hare’s knowledge might suggest ways to navigate and critique power and the forces that attempt to order and control gendered bodies and nonhuman natures. The hare is exemplary of the kind of wildlife that humans might see in both the desert and the suburb – it navigates wild and civilized environments. Reading it as Stocki’s philosophical bridge between those environments suggests that behind these vivid colors lies a very real modern dystopia. Perhaps the hare wants to suggest ways of navigation and escape.
- Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale University Press, 1979.
“I want to express my appreciation for the review of my show Wild Braid by Josh Beckelhimer. I’m so excited to have these ideas be generated by my paintings and I thank Mr. Beckelhimer for his criticality, thoughtfulness and originality. These are rare qualities in an art writer. I am extremely psyched by this piece of text!!! “