New York

Mark Stahl

Massimo Audiello

I first saw one of Mark Stahl’s assembled wall pieces incorporating “found” bathroom accessories and fake rocks in the exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form” at Bess Cutler last fall. The show’s title perfectly traced the artist’s trajectory from conceptualism to a commodity-based practice, just as the word “form” hinted at the closet formalism characterizing much current commodity art. In Stahl’s case, the visual values involve sophisticated plays on Minimalist esthetics. The works in his recent one-person exhibition, all from 1986, consisted of the same kind of “found” accessories and fake rocks of his previous wall pieces, with the added element of monochrome, shaped canvases in some of them. For example, in Personal Best a U-shaped pink canvas provides a support for a carefully arranged stack of pink-striped towels, while in Who’ll Take Your Place a large dark gray “rock” hangs above a striped cotton bathrobe suspended from a stainless steel hook. Stahl’s rocks are pure frauds—simulations of stones—ordered from a theatrical-props and architectural-decor supply company. I’ve described his found objects as simply bathroom accessories, but their origins are a bit more varied than that, also including bedrooms (the pillow cases of King Size) and public spaces or waiting rooms (an “industrial” ashtray in You Could But You Won’t; a paper-cup dispenser in May I Buy You This Drink?). Whether high-tech steel or Lucite, they have the standardized, anonymous look of products that are mass-distributed: Stahl’s intention seems to be to make our culture appear hygienic, sanitized, squeaky clean.

Stahl is a master of the visual wisecrack, rendered with a gritty, Magritte-y kind of humor. In You Could But You Won’t three large rocks seem to float above a lobby-style ashtray, as if weighty stone were transmuted into smoke puffs. In May I Buy You This Drink? two rocks appear to crush a paper-cup dispenser until you see them as clouds “raining” drops of water. Everything here is so carefully arranged that each work is at once a visual joke, a formal composition, and a logical conundrum. Inevitably, the viewer casts around for clues: if rocks become clouds and clouds make showers, maybe there is a logic behind these bathroom stunts. It’s all somewhat rollicking and rather inane, but Stahl pulls it off very well.

When the faux tomfoolery dwindles, Stahl has a surprising gift with social clichés, a talent for elaborating, and illuminating, what underlies the allure of current “vintage” objects. The way in which prop rocks are juxtaposed with objects indicates that both are “props” for a way of life or, more correctly, for a fantasy of style. Here, Stahl traverses the terrain of created consumption, in which function is negated and objects are acquired for their social connotations. By employing bathroom and bedroom articles, he points to the puritanism supporting social luxury and, by allusion, shows up Minimalism as the esthetic product of late-’60s extravagance. The an/design dialectic is extended in works like King Size, where the scalloped edge on two pillowcases placed on the floor is echoed in the Barnett Newman-ish “zip” cutting through the black canvas hung from the wall. The point is obvious: if art is corn-modified and the commodity estheticized, the work of art and the designer object are interchangeable.

Perhaps my problem with these works stems from Stahl’s seeming unwillingness to adopt a more critical stance toward his conceptual material. You can play the game of simulation only so long before the term begins to exceed its practical use. In contrast to his photographic installations of the early ’80s, the social consciousness of these pieces never approaches social concern, nor is any cogent esthetic or political commentary permitted to develop. The result is the circularity common to commodity art, in which remarks about display are ratified by exhibitions, and comments on consumption are confirmed by the collector’s own acquisition of the object. In Stahl’s case you can easily imagine a scenario in which these bathroom-based wares rest within living rooms located next to bathrooms furnished with the same objects in a pointless treadmill of equivocal identities.

Kate Linker