PRINT March 2014


Lucie Stahl, Power Aid, 2012, ink-jet print, UV-resistant lacquer, polyurethane, 65 3/4 x 47 1/4".

THERE IS SOMETHING ARRESTINGLY ARTIFICIAL about the work of Lucie Stahl, an aura of highly elaborate staging. Working with an off-the-shelf scanner, Stahl creates large-format posters in which found photographs, many drawn from mass media, are arranged in disorienting montages along with snippets of text, objects such as Pringles cans or dead leaves, and any number of other elements. In her more recent work, the Vienna-based artist’s own hands are often featured prominently, hovering just above the scanner bed as if to verify, with an almost comic explicitness, that these compositions are just that—composed, crafted, fabricated. The fact that Stahl coats her ink-jet prints in polyurethane, giving them a liquid sheen, underscores their synthetic quality. At the same time, the glimmer of the polyurethane has the effect of unifying the heterogeneous fragments; the resulting impression, paradoxically, is of a fluid homogeneity, a radical equalization of images and objects. It’s as if everything is embedded in a single translucent mass. And that sense of mass is key: The posters look extruded, intensely physical, even fleshily animated, and their visceral surfaces are alive with sexual overtones (and the occasional slightly NSFW image). There seems to be a relationship to Finish Fetish, a recapitulation of the unnerving representational slippage—characteristic of advertising from its inception—from the sensuality of skin to the seductive surface of the commodity. Once prototypically metal, then plastic, this surface is now in fact not a physical surface at all, but a skin of image on a screen, whose insubstantial shimmer the polyurethane evokes.

Critics have emphasized the abject aspect of Stahl’s works, their formlessness, their appearance of moistness. At times it seems that Stahl is indeed staging a drama of l’informe, enacting an ontology of picture-making in terms of the tensions between the upright and the splayed, structure and dispersal, “good” form and its undoing. When you look closely at the posters that depict the artist’s hands, you notice that these appendages are covered with a caked, scabrously cracked substance that might be either mud or paint—at any rate, a base material. The depiction of the artist’s body reinforces the dimensionality of pictorial space, as does the gesture of showing or offering for display, which seems an assertion of the thingness, or sculptural qualities, of the objects Stahl holds. But the hands that emerge from the murky background also seem in danger of receding back into the depths: Dissolution might occur at any moment.

This deliquescence is not exactly subversive or undermining, though; it also points to the liquid magic, the near-enchanted malleability, of processes of visual representation today. These processes may defy spatial orientation, and so do Stahl’s posters. If her images insistently disclose their horizontal beginnings—they are clearly arrays of items scattered across an imaging surface—they also confound directionality. Rather than an upright viewer’s sightlines or a static flatbed, we find optical labyrinths. The pictures’ deep backgrounds—some of the posters, like those presented in her exhibition “Natural” at Paradise Garage in Los Angeles last year, even feature peephole-like excisions, so that looking “into” them is looking through them—are mazes in which the analytic gaze is rendered ineffectual, made vulnerable to voyeuristic fantasies and meandering daydreams. Not unlike Duchamp’s Étant donnés, the works blend photorealistic clarity of depiction with a certain spatial indeterminacy that lets the viewer slide into a vortex of his or her own projections and desires.

This is an endless abyss, with no discernible order, no comprehensible layering of material stuff. It is a pictorial structure that is more like the infinitely woven, dimensionless space of information. And in some of her works, Stahl establishes this space of information quite literally, which is to say linguistically, by including trenchant and often slapstick fragments of text in her compositions. In these texts—printed on sheets of paper that are then put onto the scanner along with everything else—Stahl sketches absurd scenes from everyday life, dryly paraphrases sexist remarks, or comments on current affairs. The 2009 work Sensitivity in Journalism, for instance, features a text that reads: “An article in the NY Times about former comedian Al Franken’s appointment to the U.S. Senate read ‘Send in the clown’ . . . Ah, sensitivity in journalism.” Lately, texts have not appeared within the pictures themselves, but Stahl continues to integrate writing into her practice via press releases. One of these texts, written for her 2013 show at Giò Marconi in Milan, was incorporated into a giveaway “limited edition” of about fifty assemblages. (Each comprised a copy of the press release, a plastic bag, a sheet of plastic, and a crushed can, all held together by a single rivet; Stahl wrote various titles on these ensembles with a Sharpie, then signed and numbered them.) In this press release, Stahl recounts how, while undergoing acupuncture to treat an ailing knee, she had a sudden vision of what her next body of work would look like. In the course of describing how ideas and images—an Economist article, cans she collected in the California desert—emerged from “the darkness behind my eyes” and morphed into ideas for artworks, she observes that “‘knowing’ something doesn’t really mean shit.” The suggestion is that there is a kind of knowing without knowing: Real knowing, Stahl implies, emerges from the space behind one’s eyes, which might be understood as, simply, the three-dimensional world of sensory experience, rather than the field of signification and data.

Lucie Stahl, Nature, 2013, ink-jet print, epoxy resin, wood, aluminum, 66 7/8 x 47 1/4".

If language and image are becoming more cleanly bifurcated in Stahl’s work, the vexing yet essential interpenetration of these registers, spatial and semiotic, is ever more insistently articulated. Stahl’s picture plane (i.e., the scanner bed) is always both a screen across which information proceeds and a lens that captures actual space. Among the Milan show’s collages and vaguely absurd blow-ups of imaginary Economist and Health magazine covers were a few old beer and soda cans like those included in the edition. Crumpled and corroded by exposure, the wall-mounted cans staked out positions in real space without disavowing that space’s penetration by capital and commerce. The encroachment of three-dimensional form on the posters’ visuality was even more directly established in another 2013 exhibition, “Holes,” at What Pipeline in Detroit. Here, Stahl and artist Tom Humphreys mounted Humphreys’s glazed plates on the walls in a pattern that had its own rhythm; strikingly, the pair placed some of the dishes squarely on Stahl’s own posters. The layering of two installations not only generated a sort of displacement or vacuum—holes in pictorial space-time, just as the peepholes in Los Angeles were—but also forcefully raised the question of the relationship between images and objects, form and surface.

Such interventions should be seen in the context of Stahl’s few previous sculptural works, which clearly establish a relationship to Pop—for example, an oversize Oldenburgian whisk from 2009, or the surreal “Stomach Tables,” 2011–13 (a collaboration with Will Benedict and Tom Humphreys), whose glass tops rest on stylized replicas of a digestive tract. (Shades, or rather parodic hints, of Allen Jones’s infamous coffee-table nudes?) Scuffed and bleached—some were even used for target practice—the cans in the Milan show were like enervated ghosts, rebukes of consumerism and its bright, bland promises, and, perhaps, exhausted descendants of Jasper Johns’s Ballantine bronzes. Stahl’s cans also seemed to question just how much of an object’s identity—as a product for mass consumption or as an artwork—inheres in its form and how much in the signs on its surface, while acknowledging the extent to which every object’s identity today, including that of human bodies, is vested in its value as a commodity and as a screen image.

A recent collaboration with Amelie von Wulffen takes a kind of acerbic, double-edged position with respect to such objectification: For that project, von Wulffen produced drawings of animated red and pink “awareness” ribbons engaging in various activities (sharing a postcoital cigarette, spiritedly marching in an aids walk) and then Stahl created posters based on the images. If the oddly self-possessed ribbon-creatures seem somehow empowered, they are also comic avatars of the incursion of a marketing ethos into every corner of life—causes are brands now, and people create themselves through their choice of charities as much as through their choices of jeans and beer. In a way, to wear the ribbon is to be the ribbon, just as Stahl cartoonishly proposes.

The commodity fetish is at the core of Stahl’s work, but so are all the forces, from self-branding to social media to big data, that are now outstripping the commodity as capitalism’s chief agent in everyday life, rendering it quaint in ways that Johns in 1960 could not have imagined. The ribbons, considered along with the Economist and Health covers, triangulate a vision of contemporary experience as utterly banal, anodyne, and aesthetically empty, a perpetual waiting room where all the magazines are boring, where financial and physical “wellness” are essentially the same and are equally worthy of obsessing over, and where one cannot even take refuge in virtuous activity because virtues have been reduced to meaningless bits of ribbon, static codes. This blankness is the obverse of the dazzling liquid flux of products and media, things and words and images, characteristic of life under advanced capitalism. Acknowledging the seductiveness of the one, Stahl elucidates the vertiginous fact that it is always in danger of collapsing into the other.

Daniela Stöppel is an assistant professor in the art history department of the University of Munich.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.