After self-assuredly taking to the rostrum and subduing the ambient chatter, Jessica Stockholder delivered a talk last Thursday before a crowd of colleagues, art patrons, and enthusiasts gathered in the University of Chicago’s International House. Stockholder, a sculptor, painter, curator and site-specific installation-creator for over three decades, will begin her tenure as chair of the University’s Department of Visual Arts (DOVA) this summer. She spoke earnestly about her body of work, furrowing her brow on occasion to study the projection screen. Rather than identifying any particular ambitions for DOVA’s future, Stockholder’s presentation was a more personal introduction: a retrospective look at the contents of her career.
Stockholder’s work enters into a tactile and dimensional confrontation with the viewer. Often, the spectator must walk through a multileveled space in order to encounter the entirety of her installations. â€ªHer ability to draw her viewer into her work (not just up close to it) remains one of Stockholder’s definitive accomplishments.â€¬Â Where representational sculpture is quite literally based upon the pedestal, beholden to what it approximates, and often resignedly inert, Stockholder’s constructions are shaped by her impulses and liberated from formal presentation.
Stephanie Smith, chief curator at the Smart Museum of Art, described Stockholder and her peers as “people who think through making”–and Stockholder’s artistic, academic, and curatorial pursuits, as well as critical responses to her work, have greatly impacted the international art community. Odense, Denmark; Saint Gallen and Basel, Switzerland; Torino and Ferrara, Italy; Palm Springs, California; and Duisburg, Germany have in recent years given Stockholder’s colorful swathes of construction material, clustered balloons, and modified backyards a home. Stockholder’s practice has long emphasized how transience can elevate the meaning of a space and its contents. She values, she says, “the idiosyncrasy that’s possible when things aren’t kept.”
The diversity and constant evolution of Stockholder’s materials and work surely portend new benefits for DOVA. While she didn’t go into detail about her plans for the department, Stockholder commented on what her artistic ambitions were not. She explained that her work is not “literary or narrative, not storytelling.” She does not “make environments,” she said, but is interested in creating a coherent whole that intersects a space. She rejects the idea that art can be divorced from self-expression, believing that, “insofar as each of us is authoring a work, it is the expression of our person.”
Twenty years ago this fall, the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society hosted Stockholder’s exhibition “Skin Toned Garden Mapping.” At the time, Stockholder’s colleague Joe Scanlan noted, “every object or color that Stockholder chooses has many functions or ‘lives,’ depending on whether we look at it personally, socially, or aesthetically.” This observation perseveres as an apt characterization of Stockholder’s subsequent installations, with their vivid, larger-than-life quality.
In response to an inquiry about her transition from oil paint to algae floating on an astral-shaped dais, Stockholder described the first time she attached a wire to a wall hanging, and the natural extension of that impulse–attaching material to that wire, and eventually allowing that material to be an autonomous installation within the space. But Stockholder’s proclivity for dynamic tableau doesn’t mean that less immersive, less expansive art is unwelcome at DOVA–she intends to celebrate, she says, “that [which] isn’t spectacular also.”