Critics’ Picks

View of “Uh-Oh: Frances Stark 1991–2015,” 2016.

View of “Uh-Oh: Frances Stark 1991–2015,” 2016.


Frances Stark

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
465 Huntington Avenue
September 17, 2016–January 29, 2017

“Concealing what is shameful to you will never lead to anything of value,” Norwegian diarist Karl Ove Knausgaard told the Paris Review. Uninhibited, soul-baring autobiography has never been more in demand, and the demand has never been easier to fulfill. Which makes Frances Stark, whose recent videos incorporate dialogue plucked from her online sex chats, possibly the most representative artist of our navel-gazing age. This retrospective, which originated at the Hammer Museum, in the artist’s hometown of Los Angeles, attempts to encapsulate Stark’s rambling, passionate career but fails to capture how complex and radical her oeuvre truly is. Her numerous collages (most shown here were made between 2005 to 2010), which often feature strutting peacocks and women in frocks, are overly precious, compositionally inert, and lack muscle—one searches in vain for a sense of challenge or risk on the part of the artist. In this entirely too-conventional exhibition, these facile works dominate––a format that is particularly ill suited for Stark, whose ideal métier is media-driven. Fortunately, Stark’s peculiar and fearless brilliance comes through in her writings used in the wall labels. One text, commenting on the architect R. M. Schindler’s relationship with his wife, bemoans the “unfathomable struggle of human being vs. artist/author.” The artist also deploys her confessional practice to great effect in videos such as My Best Thing, 2011, in which she appears along with one of her online lovers in the form of toy avatars, discussing David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the LAPD, and other topics. If only the MFA had downplayed the two-dimensional pieces and used their ample galleries to give pride of place to Stark's 2013 video installation Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention Is Free, in which an intoxicating hip-hop beat accompanies images and text that sum up the artist’s admirable MO: “As I prance about/ club in hand/ seeking new idols to smash/ I am precise man and I take a chance man.”