Review: “Frances Stark in Chicago: the Digital Private is Political”

Art Institute of Chicago.

In her texts and interviews Frances Stark often quotes the famous 1970s feminist movement rally cry – “The personal is the political”. That is the mantra that drives her work. But what exactly is the political bent that she is angling towards? A thorough survey on Stark’s show entitled “Intimism” offers a unique opportunity to unpack her approach.

One would imagine that self-defining as a political artist suggests a sense of radicalism. However, Stark’s choice of creative expression is manifested through internet-related platforms such as conversations in online sex chat rooms in the works like “Osservate, leggete con me” (2012) and private images printed from those shared on her Instagram account “@therealstarkiller” (2015), which are decidedly the most banal things anybody can do these days. She is lauded for exposing herself in her artwork, although – different from other contemporaries like Andrea Fraser who made an amateur sex tape of prostituting her body to a collector in 2003 – Stark’s works are markedly innocuous, despite the allusions to cam sex, daggering and an occasional formal visual reference to female body parts. Rather, her works are humorous, witty, and bitter sweet. She pointedly mixes art history with pop culture and draws inspiration from rappers such as DJ Quick and writers such as David Foster Wallace with his concept of “videophony”. Her works deal with relationships and domestic environments as seen through the lens of changing technologies, which Stark observes with astute foresight. These technologies are used as tools, not to expose herself, but to expose the language of communication used in contemporary life for connecting people across an alienating digital divide.

Frances Stark, installation view of Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention Is Free, 2013, courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York, photography by Mark Woods
Frances Stark, installation view of Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention Is Free, 2013, courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York, photography by Mark WoodsOther cult artworks included in the exhibition are a series of pre-YouTube, low-fi “Cat Videos” (1999-2002), which hinge directly on the recurrent fascination with cat image memes surfacing online today. In a 2007 interview with fellow artist Amy Yao, Stark describes: “There’s something about living with cats that is very visual, that is so much about observing them, being able to stare at them.” Herein this simple statement, we find the crux of what drives the genius in Stark’s work – a sensitivity to the visual language of interiority. She is interested in how images can tangibly materialise through matter and how the consumption of culture and images functions and changes in our environments.

Born in 1967, Stark is from a generation that knew had the internet as a remote option and she chose to opt in. There is a considerable lack of cynicism about the manipulation of online communications in Stark’s work, which can be juxtaposed with younger artists like Amalia Ulman (b. 1989) who created a huge following on her Instagram account sharing a personal journey through plastic surgery and self-development, all of which turned out to be a huge scam as a conceptual project.

Frances Stark, still frame, this is not exactly a cat video: with David Bowie’s “Star Man,” 2006, image courtesy the artist

“Intimism”  – the title of Stark’s exhibition, hails from a largely unknown early 20th century art movement in France. Intimists created small paintings and drawings featuring quiet domestic scenes with natural colours distorted to express mood – similar to the way Instagram and its filters are used today. A principal work in Stark’s survey “Madame Vallotton and Her Niece, Germain Aghion” (1899), painted by chief Intimist painter Félix Vallotton, was pulled from the Art Institute’s collection and hangs among Stark’s works as a locus for a broader historical understanding, for reading into and sharing personal of imagery.

Frances Stark, from therealstarkiller #1298, 2015. Courtesy the artist.

Frances Stark, from therealstarkiller #1298, 2015, courtesy the artist

Life-size murals of dejected females holding telephone receivers “Detumescence and/or its Opposite (from a Torment of Follies)” (2012) and oversized black and white images of tin can phones “Non-Electrical Telephony and/or Lovers’ Telephone” (2010) are dispersed throughout the galleries as if the flat, vacuous forms are trying to connect with other humans in the unknown. Across the way hang the series of ten drawings “Clever/Stupid Pirouette” (2014) where the ambigram term is drawn for reading both backwards and forwards above a signpost of arrows leading one to the next but always turning in on itself. To the cynic existentialist, this can be read as a moment of defeat but for those who have faith in honest human connections, it’s a reminder to stop looking elsewhere for intimacy, once the restless pirouettes come to a halt, a security found in intimacy is already there, right where you stand. Perhaps it is in that taboo of revealing her belief in “faith” that Stark’s political message can be found.

First published on, August 18th, 2015.

arielle bier