Not Safe for Work

Left: Artist Frances Stark. Right: Dexter Sinister's Stuart Bailey and artist Silke Otto-Knapp. (All photos: Andrew Berardini)

WHAT ARE THE BOUNDARIES BETWEEN personal and professional? The most serious artists, it’s often said, refuse the cult of personality and spurn the biographic. “It’s about the work,” goes the bromide. But sometimes it’s the bleed between labor and life that makes the best material, a fact made brilliantly evident by Frances Stark’s performance I’ve Had It and a Half last Sunday at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The press release promised “adult themes,” not “suitable for all audiences.” This wasn’t going to be personal in the decorative, Facebook sense of the term.

As the audience settled into the cushy red theater seats beneath the spacey neon lights of the Wilder Theater, a string sextet began playing a divertimento by Haydn (one that he had composed explicitly as a kind of background music for parties). The sounds accompanied a PowerPoint presentation projected onto the screen—derived in part from a 2009 exhibition Stark made with Mark Leckey at Galerie Daniel Buchholz—that featured writing by Witold Gombrowicz:

“What in reality is a person aiming at nowadays who feels a vocation for the pen, the paint-brush, or the clarinet? Above all, he wants to be an artist to offer himself whole to others [. . .] But here you run into trouble. The awkward fact is that you are neither Chopin nor Shakespeare but at most a half-Shakespeare, or a quarter-Chopin (oh! Cursed parts!), and consequently the sole result of your attitude is to draw attention to your sad inadequacy and inferiority . . . ”

The PowerPoint clicked off and Stark mounted the stage. Sporting a black hat and tie, she resembled a dapper impresario—of what exactly, it was still unclear. Stark asked that the audience not take pictures or video, noting that there was deeply personal information in the performance, and she wouldn’t want visual evidence floating around the Internet. I suppose there’s public—a free performance at a museum amid an assembly of well-wishers, acquaintances, friends, and fans—and then there’s public. Then the lights went down, and things began to get more intimate.

Left: Hammer Museum senior curator Anne Ellegood. Right: Contemporary Art Gallery Vancouver curator Jenifer Papararo and artist Aaron Carpenter.

Stark grabbed a hat on the stage and from it began to randomly pluck out pieces of paper. These notes pointed to texts she would then read to us—personal letters mostly, some about writing as work, all inflected with the details of life. Then the performance took a sharp left turn. The next PowerPoint, again accompanied by Haydn’s divertimento, was a back-and-forth conversation—words appearing and disappearing on either side of the screen—with one of Stark’s many Internet lovers, men she never physically met but with whom she regularly coupled online. Stark’s long-term partner was sitting behind me, wearing an expression of patient support. One Internet lover, Marcello, was Italian. Stark sent him an essay I wrote on her that had been translated into his native language. “Nice,” was Marcello’s response to my piece. “He loves you.” I sunk lower into my seat in the front row. “Masturbation is a monologue,” another lover mentioned later on. “A genre unto itself.”

Marcello told Stark to watch Fellini’s 8 1/2, and then we the audience watched clips of Marcello Mastroianni playing a director whose life is unraveling, his vaguely autobiographical film falling apart as his fantasy life begins to intrude on his reality. Then, two crude digital animations appeared on-screen. Clad in nothing but Edenic fig leaves, they conversed on a green field. The “Frances” avatar told her interlocutor, an unnamed Spaniard, that she had broken it off with everyone but him, keeping their relationship intact because it had developed into a real friendship.

As the performance-screening-concert-monologue ended, we saw amid the credits, in lightning-fast slide shows, an army of engorged cocks, faces off-camera, lubricious goods in hand: a visual compendium of Chatroulettes.

Many in the audience slipped out to cocktails at the Tavern, a mile away in Brentwood. Stuart Bailey of Dexter Sinister, Gavin Brown (in town for this and a party for artist Laura Owens), and I talked loosely about life over beers and champagne, regaling one another with stories about our kids, reminiscing over those times when we’d found ourselves uncontrollably emotional in public. I pondered aloud the attraction and repulsion one feels seeing someone else being so emotional and so intimate, so openly.

After a few drinks I got up to leave and ran into Stark. As I congratulated her on the performance, someone joked, “Was it as excruciating for you as it was for us?”

“Was it excruciating?” Stark replied, bemused. Yes, but not in that way. Excruciatingly human, excruciatingly tender—excruciatingly good.