Text / The misleading clarity

Martin Prinz

Throughout its history painting (representational painting as well as the various forms of non-representational painting) has always dealt with perception and its circumstances. Unlike the academic discourse on visual perception, the artistic discourse led to the realisation that this topic can never be discussed as a static unit or without being set in a certain time or context. During the first half of the 20th century non-representational painting was considered as leaving behind representational illustration methods, i.e. an abstract form which has always had its (ideological) origins in mimetic presentation. Some aspects of a painting fade into the background while others are accentuated. This concentration suggests a certain kind of clarity – while looking at the painting one concentrates on certain features such as colour, surface, shapes or gestures. However, the act of perception always contains a decisive moment of rediscovery and recognition: always trying to find something recognizable in a painting, no matter how abstract that painting is, is an attitude scorned by experts which derives from a belief in art as a mimetic presentation. This way of thinking makes the very idea of „non-representational“ painting an impossible concept, since we automatically start the process of rediscovery and recognition every time we look at a monochrome painting or even a blank canvass, and therefore we always assume representation. This is due to our cultural knowledge about images and their history. In this context, visual perception theory speaks of „higher processes“, which means that when we look at things we refer to things we already know, i.e. have stored somewhere in our memory. But here we are facing a fundamental logical problem: It is undoubtedly a fact that our perception is based on already available knowledge and information, and that we recognise things even if we only see parts of them or see them from most unusual perspectives. But there must be more to it, such as visual perception without prior experience or knowledge. Experiencing is influenced by the experience and there must be a way leading from experiencing to experience. Each of us started to see the world without knowing anything about it at some point. We are able to bring a visual structure to it, without always having the experienced knowledge of what we see. So there is a purely visual knowledge, which comes before the experience, and exists beyond interpretation and its representation. This is exactly where Esther Stocker’s work is to be found, where there is no abstraction as in leaving behind the figure, but rather the exploration of a fully autonomous, non-representational world, and no questions of reduction or simplification of the representational world.
Most of Esther Stocker’s paintings have a grid pattern; they seem like a chess board, where the artist tries her various moves. At first sight, everything seems to be clear: geometrical pattern in black and white mainly, and sometimes with nuances of colours. The clarity quite soon blurs, when the mostly subtle interferences come in our field of vision. Suddenly there are alternative ways of seeing – the clear and obvious becomes fragile and fleeting, the simple does not turn into something complex, it is us who start to doubt about existence of „the simple“ as such. When some of the rectangles comprising the grid pattern are displaced, the effect of this pattern in Stocker’s paintings seems to contradict intuition: it is no more a network containing points of reference, but it rather seems to prevent us from grasping the other pattern which is formed by slight irregularities. The artist seems to exploit the ostensible robustness of geometrical forms in order to dismantle that robustness completely. It is not a complex world, it is the way we see the simplest structures which makes us doubt about everything. Thus she leads us back to the pure act of seeing, where we have to differentiate between things without referring to interpretations or any prior knowledge. In her paintings from the 1990s Esther Stocker still kept to certain references to the figurative: blurred details of faces are arranged to build a grid pattern. In these paintings the explicit difference to traditional abstraction is already apparent. Even though the blurring and the details are strategies of reducing the figurative, the repetition in the grid pattern adds a completely new dimension to the painting, with no reference to the figure what so ever. On the one hand she removes visual information but on the other the information is multiplied by repetition, thus adding to the information. However, this process does not lead back to the figure, i.e. to the faces, but it rather moves away from the figurative. Here, too, meaning is left out and made inaccessible. She deals with aspects of perception, which function like reflex responses – things we cannot control because they seem to be an integral part of our perceptive system, even though they contradict our rational logic. Since we cannot resist these compulsive reflex reactions by means of our consciousness, we call them ‚illusions‘. In other words, the reflex perception contradicts the objective reality, which is commonly agreed upon and accepted. Therefore, we regard illusions as misrepresentations; our objective knowledge does not correspond to what we see. Comparing this with the above mentioned perception of abstract paintings one might come to the conclusion that in this case the way leading back to the figurative is blocked or there are many paths leading to different directions and we cannot decide on which one to take. This is what Esther Stocker deals with in her paintings with increasing intensity. Her focus is not on the various levels of the image such as figurative and non-figurative, but rather the actual connection between the two levels. Ludwig Wittgenstein discussed the difficulty in determining the meaning of an image with a drawing of optical illusion, showing an animal which could be a hare as well as a duck. Esther Stocker’s art is not about pre-defined terms or meanings, but rather about various levels which are defined through the act of seeing; her work is about a meaningless ambiguity. The tension between the various levels is not eased; it is a no-win situation, i.e. there is no path leading to an interpretation. In one of her latest paintings, thin vertical black lines run absolutely regularly across the white canvas. At some points, these lines break away and move for a short distance across other lines, like some scrawls, only to immediately turn back to their vertical arrangement. The contrast between the regular lines and the chaotic lines dominates the picture. While we look at the picture, this contrast remains present, even though we try to subordinate the scrawls to a certain pattern, i.e. to a geometric design. In yet other paintings, there are layers, which Stocker arranges upon each other in a way, that defy classification: on a grid she has painted grey-white cloud-shaped structures reminding of a view from a window, and upon this she has put similar structures painted with white colour spray. Here, too, our gaze oscillates between the various levels and cannot concentrate on the structures placed behind or before the grid. Again and again the contrast between the simplicity of the forms applied and the complexity of the results is astonishing. Unlike classic abstraction, the simplicity in Stocker’s works does not necessarily mean clarity and order, but rather a very fundamental chaos and disturbance.
There are other aspects, too, that make Esther Stocker’s work different from classic abstraction in painting. She does not regard the canvas as a cohesive and autonomous unit. In recent years she has often tried to carry her thoughts beyond the limits of the canvas and realise them in form of large mural works, façade projects or room installations. A fine example for this is a project which the artist realised in the summer of 2004 in the exhibition venue ArGe Kunst Galerie Museum, Bolzano (Italy). The title of this work „Das Wort ‚gleichartig‘ zieht unsere Aufmerksamkeit auf sich, und doch besagt es eigentlich gar nichts“ (the term ’similar‘ attracts our attention, while it is but an empty word) is a quotation from the German philosopher Gottlob Frege, and it shows Stocker’s interest in issues of form and meaning. On the walls, the ceiling and floor of the exhibition room, which is open towards the street, Stocker painted her typical grid pattern. In addition, cubes of various sizes „grew“ into the room from the walls, ceiling and floor and on the surfaces of these cubes she had also painted her grid pattern. There is another level in addition this mixture of painting and room installation, of two- and three-dimensionalities. This level is hardly perceivable, and it causes confusion: Depending on the position in the room, the grids seem to be shifted; there is no overlapping between the various dimensions. This way the unity of the installation seems to dissolve, but there is a converse effect as well, since the surfaces of the cubes are linked to each other and to the rest of the installation. And depending on where you are standing in the room, perspectives and the arrangement of the grid pattern seem to shift. The painting turns into an installative sculpture just like the room turns into a picture. Here, in her own typical way, Esther Stocker refers to the perception of three-dimensionality: seemingly simple aspects and single parts are put together in a way that we suddenly cannot say for sure if we are looking at a picture or standing in the installation. We have lost orientation even before we can start to think about what orientation could mean.