Notes on the work of Esther Stocker
he horizon of the lowlands of Holland, a suspended pier in an almost monochromatic continuum of sea and sky, can be translated into an extremely simplified image on canvas (Mondrian). But something occurs when this simplification happens. On one hand, it’s as if from the viewing experience structured lines have emerged that assemble the vision of the objects observed: a sort of immaterial ideography, where reality tends to expose itself as “essential.” On the other hand, something else emerges from this ideography on canvas, the surface on which the images are realized: the orthogonal structure of the inherent lines of the painting’s primary geometric form. The grid—oscillating between the essence of the vision of objects and the geometric components of the painting through which that very vision is rendered—has represented in the history of Western painting an extraordinary dispositive that reflects reality. The viewer is placed not only in front of an essence that denies every comforting sensation with which the world clothes him and a concrete revelation of the painting “by itself,” but also in front of an essential dimension of his own being that does not have much to do with his personal culture, personal history and tastes, but instead regards the general and “anonymous” characteristics of his (and obviously not just his) psycho-perceptive condition.
In this condition we must perceive an irregular black area as if it were a rectangle that “continues” below a blue triangle (Malevich). From the reduction of the multiplicity of the world (even if it is the already extremely simplified Dutch world by Mondrian) to the steady structures of the images, the revelation of what constitutes the “internal” structure of the surface, which receives the image, touches no ontological foundation of the image (as Rosalind Krauss would say). But in the case of the receiver of the image—that is the observer/viewer—naturally he perceives the image even before being conscious and aware of it. That the black rectangle seems to continue underneath the blue triangle (in a gestalt environment this is called “amodal completion”) is the game, then discovered, of how things appear, not how they are. Our lives take place within the constitutive asymmetry between thinking/knowing and seeing, in a constant and definite balance and reorganization between what we see and what we actually know about what we see.
So there on the canvas, the image is at the same time something to see and to know/think about, highlighting the intimate structure of reality (just as supporting structures of a building come to light despite the ornamentation); where the structural characteristics (the grid) are highlighted by the same surfaces that receive the image, (ideally making the image and the surface one), when in some way a truth of the image seems revealed in the splendor of the tautology and in the utopia of transparency—this is where the perceptive characteristics of the receiver of the image come into play; characteristics that highlight ambiguity, not certainty—
relative to what I see little by little—but both are part of the same physiological act of seeing things. Esther Stocker is correct when she reminds us that something extremely complex happens when a sign meets a surface.
There’s also another affirmation, perhaps even more inherent in her research, which merits our attention. It can be described by this quotation: “The mimicry of animals is based on the limited perceptions of their predators.” In the light of this quotation, let’s consider the work of this Viennese artist and try to comprehend where this movement occurs when it is portrayed in her research of geometric abstraction, by now a classic in the modern age and in the research of the 1950s and 1960s, in particular by Italian artists (Colombo, Varisco, De Vecchi, Mari). The concept of mimicry (Tarnung, camouflage) to me seems fundamentally unrelated to modernism. If it did contribute to the philosophic-platonic background of the issue of images and imitative arts in general, it contributed to a background linked to the concept of Mimesis.
The concept is very effective in confirming the distinction between painting and other techniques, condemning painting for its vain and deceiving production of mere representations of reality. A substantial amount of twentieth-century art came out of mimicry, or rather the concept rediscovered the beauty of numbers and order, even if in a Pythagorean-Platonic environment. In a rigorous arrangement of very few elements, the image on the canvas translated a dimension illusive from reality but in this case ideal: In the painting a visible aspect of the idea is shown.
In the fields dedicated to the study of animal behavior, the terms mimetic or mimicry do not at all refer to the philosophical problems of Plato; instead they refer to survival techniques. The term is used even among humans, mostly in military language, and still carries a definition connected to hiding oneself and blending into a given situation with a defensive or offensive objective.
This definition of mimicry, which is quite different from Platonic echoes, seems useful to get close to Stocker’s work. I notice that when observing her work I have difficulty describing it (am I alone in this?), because she insists on ambiguities and uncertainties in appearance; because it is an elusive work that at the same time is precise. It seems to be a strategy to attract the viewer, and just as when we have trouble bringing an object into focus, our gaze persistently returns to it. It is a work that camouflages itself in the folds of perception and a catalogue of solutions and elaborate, modern dispositives. Is it then a work of defensive camouflage for the observer/predator? Or a subtle “offensive” strategy in order to propose the problem of the autonomy of “vision,” a problem that does not seem at all to have been exhausted by current, contemporary research. In this way, one knows that Stocker’s work doesn’t at all concern a rethinking of aspects that have been analyzed for some time by Gestalt psychology, and that the work is not based on gestalt logic, even if it reminds one of that. This is the clear plan, the revealed game, the “confessed” camouflage. The orthogonal grid, a dispositive for excellence, is a game revealed and present in her works since 1997. The grid is presented in various ways, some of which show a partial cancellation of lines as if a regulating dispositive were suffering a progressive loss of meaning: Sometimes some lines appear incomplete, and the eye instinctively averts the interruption and tries to go beyond it and connect the detached parts; and geometric figures emerge from the orthogonal net, but it is as if they were indecisively oscillating back and forth from the net. But it probably no longer concerns the pictorial grid but an even more complex regulating system of the image that shows its leaks—a system that “reveals” in itself its weaknesses and at the same time more effectively camouflages itself—like files on a hard disk corrupted by an undetectable virus. In some previous reviews, Stocker’s works have been compared to urban maps or to the layout of buildings in a metropolis. And like a hard disk’s files that are disappearing, possible plans and urban maps are superimposed on the surface areas of a big city: Here the works obviously suggest some narrative connections in an attempt to interpret them, as if the images were speaking to us of today’s times. But this more “narrative” reading does not exclude the perceptively ambiguous plan of the work, and it does not exclude its being, from a formal view, an internal reflection on the big, analytical dispositive of painting, and in particular that of twentieth-century geometric abstraction. And it all starts, as always, from the surface of a painting, recalling a visual, minimalist grammar composed of very few elements: orthogonality (and the interferences that “disturb” it), background/figure, white/black and their gradations. And it is perhaps the strongest reference to Italian research; everything is in view, from a new relationship with the observer to the way the observer enters into the game of the work of art. Work which, in the most recent pieces by Stocker, consists not only of “paintings,” but also of “environments” (and here the Italian issue forcefully re-emerges: Gianni Colombo’s “elastic” space seems to be a lesson that the Viennese artist has deeply assimilated), where the “white cube” of the museum and the gallery are to be acted upon and revealed as an ideal place of the “capture.” Maybe the next step will concern the city itself; several years ago in South Tyrol, Stocker attempted this. Contemporary artists continue to research this, because it is in the public space where this game of form will be played, and where the plan of the “vision” of its full and problematic autonomy will be considered again.
In every serious philosophical question uncertainty extends to the very roots of the problem. (Wittgenstein)