Performing Frame and Field: Jessica Stockholder

Published in Elephant Magazine #29 — Winter 2016

Known for her monumentally-scaled, frenetically painted, theatrical installations and self-contained assemblages, Chicago-based Jessica Stockholder’s work is characterized by an intense and brightly coloured palette that envelops, circumscribes, interjects itself onto everyday materials. Stephanie Cristello talks to the artist about her carefully calculated aesthetic, an intellectually engaged formalism that would at first glance appear haphazard.


The theater stage, as we know it, is a Western form—the proscenium structure is a narrative frame; a site for performance built for an audience that is designated toward a singular vantage point. In its most basic premise, the construct divides the actors from the spectators. Few pieces of architecture break this form while still maintaining its objectives; I am reminded of Paolo Soleri’s iconic Amphitheater in New Mexico, which has been described as communicating the “architecture of drama” as a field or landscape of action. This dual register, of both frame and field, is rarely explored as eloquently than in Chicago-based artist Jessica Stockholder’s practice. Known for her monumentally-scaled, frenetically painted, theatrical installations and self-contained assemblages, three recent exhibitions explore her relationship to the stage as a platform to be used and negotiated with; Door Hinges at Kavi Gupta gallery in Chicago in 2015, Snug Parting at Galerie Nächst St. Stephan Rosmarie Schwarzwälder in Vienna, and The Guests All Crowded into the Dining Room at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in New York in 2016. For Stockholder, the vantage point of the viewer is both a subject and a context, an interchangeable set of expectations that figure prominently in her work. She accredits this experience to what she calls “a cubist conceit,” meaning that in both veins of her work—the installations and self-contained-assemblages, characterized by an intense and brightly coloured palette that envelops, circumscribes, interjects itself onto everyday materials—their experience in-the-round is one that unfolds at every angle. Viewers navigate the work both as an audience and its actor depending on their position; they are spectators of the frame at one moment, implicated within its borders the next. Stockholder has been quoted stating, “I don’t think people make anything without assuming some sort of context; The work I make in the studio assumes the white cube as its context.[1]” The white cube, a multidimensional frame in and of itself, is constantly challenged in Stockholder’s work; while it is an essential container for her installations, its typical rules for interaction—distance, sight lines, objectivity—are broken, fragmented, and contested.

In every regard, Stockholder’s approach to three-dimensional objects is unyielding; her sculptures and installations alike are crudely covered in swaths of vivid paint, rapidly applied onto various readymades that she assembles—ranging from tables, chairs, mattresses, lamps, security mirrors, wooden stools, piping, textiles, etc. Stockholder flattens the picture plane of space itself, a type of ‘rasterized’ image that falls apart and snaps back into place as it is viewed in situ. Just as Rosalind Krauss described sculpture as the thing that is not a part of the room, Stockholder uses the term “installation” for the parts of her work that are ephemeral, “Pure installation couldn’t be anywhere else. It is particular to light and the proportions of the space; it’s a work that is intrinsically knit to where it exists.”

I asked Stockholder about an exhibition of hers that had opened in September 2015 at Kavi Gupta gallery in Chicago, entitled Door Hinges—the first occasion I had written about her work. The review began with how there is no one word in the English language that rhymes with ‘orange.’ Its closest assonance was the two words within her title; a cobbled together solution that facilitates a half rhyme, a less harmonious approximation of the original. The term ‘door hinge,’ which Stockholder used again during our studio visit to describe her Assists—a series of large-scale sculptures strapped onto other objects or architectural elements in order to stand—conceptually mirrors the action of thought required to achieve a solution for the word without a rhyme (the doorway, gateway, entrance) just as ‘orange’ contained its own phenomenology, since it is both a thing (n.) and a colour (adj.). An orange is orange; it explains itself. Stockholder shared the affinity, though admitted the primary concern of the title was less about language, and more about the dilemma of how things serve other things. The generality of her description as “things” is purposeful—hinges have no purpose outside of their action. They are built to serve anonymous objects; its only consistency is movement.

The same could be said of Stockholder’s work. Its cohesion is dependent on its visual energy; a force the artist associates to many facets within the pieces included in exhibitions and their context, “Altogether, I am interested in how my work is dependent on other things, people, and ideas—not just mine, but everybody’s work. I am interested, in a very literal and physical way, questions of boundary, the line between things, the frame, the edge.” For Stockholder, this manifests in what some would consider or label a ‘curatorial endeavor’ within the practice, having included other artists’ work alongside hers in shows since the early 2000s—first at Gorney Bravin + Lee in New York in 2003, in what the artist called the Living Room Situation to complement the exhibition, and more recently as part of Door Hinges, entitled ASSISTED, a group exhibition that occupied the entire second floor space of Kavi Gupta’s Elizabeth St. location. The inclusion of other artists’ work—Polly Apfelbaum, Anthony Caro, Sol LeWitt, Nancy Lupo, and Jo Nigoghossian, to name a few—is most productively thought of when considered in the arrangement of a ‘permanent collection,’ as one would find within a museum at the same time of a rotating exhibition. It informs Stockholder’s history. “Elements of [my practice] is dependent on the wall, but also dependent on the thoughts of other people that have been internalized in my work, and which will be internalized differently by the audience of the work,” stated Stockholder, “I am proposing that these pieces—mine and others—enable dialogue through the objects.” For Stockholder, the context of the gallery space is a shared convention—the inclusion of other artists’ work is another method of adding variation to the expectation of how things and people behave in the white cube, “their work full of content in the same way that the gallery space is full of content in itself.” As viewers expect to see artwork on the wall of a gallery, Stockholder performs this anticipation—her inclusion of pieces by others is not curatorial, but rather abstract in its ability to achieve (and in some sense control) how the formal and conceptual quality of work is judged within its expanded field.

Colour is not easy to intellectualize; this sentiment is an energy also echoed in Stockholder’s work, which resists being labeled for its formalist tendencies despite being seemingly disparate in its approach to assemblage, “I am interested in feeling, in motion, in subjectivity, which are hard to put into words.” In this sense, Stockholder’s work comes off more loudly than the quietness it demands after multiple encounters—where its brazen aesthetic runs the risk of discrediting its careful construction, its relationship to vision (the limitations and triumphs of sight) rewards our engagement as a viewer, while pointing toward the impossibility of omniscience.

The work is conceptual if for no other reason than the completion of the work exists in the viewer’s mind, as any given vantage point is seen on the threshold of absoluteness. “The mirror’s purpose is to complicate our apprehension of the world,” says Stockholder of a piece included in her 2016 exhibition at Galerie Nächst St. Stephan Rosmarie Schwarzwälder in Vienna. “I have been thinking about what makes a picture, which is a human invention. Pictures do not exist outside of us, we invented them. In the tradition that I am a part of, it’s related to architecture, framing, windows, and rectangles.” Indeed, within the language of photography, even the documentation of Stockholder’s work with the full piece in view is a detail shot—impossible to capture due to its ever-transforming appearance that unfolds as one moves around the static object; its angles and crevices resist two-dimensional reproduction. For Stockholder, this is the essence of image making that her work resists, “vision is very located; you have two eyes that you can only point in one direction at a time. Picture making arises from that somehow, but the world nevertheless exists all over the place all the time.” Born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, she describes her early interactions with Westcoast Aboriginal Art, and their use of the oval as a geometry meant to represent the eye within paintings and totems—the artist brings up this reference when talking about the security mirrors within her installation at the gallery, likening their intention to expand the field of vision, stating “you look at them and you see more.”

The three conventional definitions of space—fictive, the illusionistic space of painting; abstract, which transcends its representation; and literal, the real, behavioral traits of how our bodies are guided and interact—are all present in Stockholder’s work. However, it is her ability to break how the eye has been trained, departing from the proscenium convention of witnessing action, and create a standard through which the boundaries of performance and spectatorship no longer carry frontiers that is the largest impact of her work today. Playing field and frame at once, Stockholder orchestrates the dilemmas and realizations of sight, both for and by the eyes of the viewer.


[1] Jessica Stockholder: Kissing the Wall: Works, 1988–2003. Jessica Stockholder, Nancy Doll, Terrie Sultan, Elspeth Carruthers, Miwon Kwan. Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the Univ. of Houston, 2004. Print.