New York

Joshua Stern

Greathouse / Craig Cornelius Gallery

The visual and verbal rhetoric of the advertising logo has been investigated extensively in recent art. Practitioners of this genre (Gretchen Bender, Nancy Dwyer, et al.) have studied the prominence of the logo in our mediated environment, in which words efface themselves into dumb objects and, conversely, images acquire a concise eloquence. However, such an inquiry has generally been pursued through electronic media and other technologically oriented approaches common to advertising. Joshua Stern offers another perspective on this discourse.

The five large vertical paintings shown at Greathouse are oils, with mostly monochromatic backgrounds worked over and obscured through elaborate glazing techniques. Murky bronze, deep wine red, and mat-finish gold are three of the colors applied in flat layers and then stumbled or dribbled to create an impression of hazy irresolution. Against each of these, Stern has superimposed a real product manufacturer’s name and, sometimes, an image of the product (i.e., the propeller in DOWTY, 1987 or the ambiguous object in ARMORPLY SLAVE PALLETS, 1985), although it is not always clear whether the actual logos conjoin image and word the way they are presented here. Stern’s logos are decontextualized, isolated, and seemingly immobilized by the opaque density of the paint. When the “image” possesses any mobility at all, as in the columnar repetitions of “BloApCo” (BLOAPCO PALLET SHREDDERS, 1986), it is akin to the languorous crawl of slowed-down film credits. In the five smaller, horizontal paintings at Craig Cornelius, all in oil and encaustic, all from 1987, Stern focuses more on the linguistic aspect of the logo. In fact, these works rely entirely on the interaction between a logotype and a mottled or patterned ground for their effect, with pictorial symbols or images omitted altogether.

Stern has a considerable gift for conveying the graphic power of the label, as in FLOWHOOD, 1987, where the elongated script has the suggestive fluency of the names emblazoned on ’50s automobiles. Because the product names and symbols/images are fairly obscure, their rhetorical charge far exceeds their intelligibility; what seduces us, or commands attention, is the generic tantalizing effect of graphic suasion. Sometimes, the identity of the product remains ungraspable, as in the BloApCo Pallet Shredders. Is the pallet referred to here “a straw bed or mattress” or, instead, “a low, portable platform, on which materials are stacked for storage or transportation” (two of the possible meanings of “pallet” offered by my dictionary)? Stern seems to suggest that what enthralls, captivates, and beguiles us is the opaque resonance of the label, and that it is just this dumbness that gives the product environment its transfixing hold.

By working in the medium of painting—a medium not often favored by similarly minded colleagues—Stern is able to develop a disjunction that reinforces the abstract disembodiment of the product logo. But the passing reference in the gallery’s press release to this being an instance of the recent “revival” of Conceptualism (“ . . . Stern explores the reinvention of the conceptual aspects of painting in post-war art”) will be read with surprise by those who never marked its departure or who associate it with more than a superficial penchant for words. In this impressive exhibition, Stern demonstrates that it is in the analysis of representations and their efficacy that the most salient ideas in contemporary practice are developed.

Kate Linker