Houston

Gael Stack

Janie C. Lee Gallery

Much of the substance in Gael Stack’s recent paintings derives from what is spoken or written in the course of ordinary interpersonal experience. Within an entirely visual context, she operates in the manner of a writer—a transcriber of stratified messages. The messages are of the sort received from others (like folded notes passed in school ) as well as those seized from the flux of everyday events. The oral or auditory plane is not the work’s exclusive level of content, but it does offer a surprisingly useful entry into the dense scrawl of words, numbers, hatchings, and cryptic figures that otherwise devolve into a seemingly impenetrable gestalt.

When we imply that Stack’s paintings are a kind of writing, we mean to place equal emphasis on the corporeality of the writing or drawing process: the active hand that embodies speech in its trace. In giving body to spoken words, what was once heard disappears into the materiality of drawn words—but not entirely. We imagine that echoes of sentence fragments are still audible in the work even as sound diminishes and decays (a term borrowed not from biology but from electronics, because it so well describes one of the most subtle effects in these paintings). Stack prompts these responses by her careful management of spatial cues and the use of open-line drawing in which figures and text are overlaid, interwoven, and, at the same time, articulated by distinct color separation. Stack’s method in general is one of accumulation—the building up of linear elements on dark, layered grounds that vary in color from deep bister to neutral black. A painting appears to be complete when a certain critical mass has been achieved, one capable of lending depth as well as opportunity to meaning.

The notion of “lessons,” specifically incorporated into four of the paintings’ titles, was the exhibition’s theme. We would characterize these as multiple lessons in life and art, which is to imply neither didacticism nor a resident moral imperative in the work. For the most part, “lessons” has been used as a code word for those tragicomic moments that comprise one’s confrontation with the world. With disarming honesty, Stack implicates herself in the recurrent drama and folly of existence. Then, there are also the proprietary lessons of the artist that she confronts as well, such as the ongoing struggle “to get the thing right.”

Untitled (for Tim), 1985, is the one work in the exhibition composed almost entirely of writing. The voice represented in the text—gleaned from appeasing notes of periodic conscience in which “sorry” is a plaintive refrain—is that of the artist’s son, to whom the painting is dedicated. But the active voice, as in all the work, is that of the artist, in this case as a mother simulating the handwriting of her child. In Hôtel l’Ouest, 1985, Stack is the primary actor in a reflective drama. As the seated cerulean nude, she is surrounded by a simultaneity of scripted thoughts and symbolic objects (including other self-images) from which she has been curtained off in an un easy division of interiority and exteriority.

Neither the personal iconography and private ciphers that animate the paintings nor the potential interpretation of their often uncanny interrelations leads us directly to the origins of the experience being reconstructed (or to any judgment of it). We seem, rather, to be given just enough with which to speculate on the uncertainty and irony implicit in personal experience. For Stack, fantasies of expectation are forever being tested against the realities of experience, which confounds desire as well as the rational ordering of one’s world.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom