LUCIE STAHL: End of Tales
Freedman Fitzpatrick | July 30 – September 2, 2017
Lucie Stahl drags her viewers onto the battlefield. An ideological war is being waged, and refuge is a remote, idyllic conceit. Too bad if you showed up at the bunker without your helmet—we’re all in the proverbial trenches now. Squint into the distance; the enemy on the horizon can be tracked by a uniform we know all too well: red baseball hat, khakis, white polo shirt, rage. Some carry tiki torches. Their most potent weapon, however, is a toxic mix of fury, racism, and misplaced entitlement. Stahl’s show End of Tales, rife with combat paraphernalia and clichéd Americana, dwells on our dystopian political present by juxtaposing motives with motifs. Mining artifacts and signifiers of our visual vernacular, the artist approaches these graphic identities with a critical eye. Under her incisive gaze, the sports team mascot, commercial product label, or even the aesthetic of a new historical drama television series assumes a more somber ethos.
Two military style tents that resemble overturned ammunition boxes assume position in the center of the gallery. Splashy centerpieces, these tents command attention, unfurling their flaps such that viewers must carefully skirt around them. A logo of America’s favorite predatory bird is fittingly emblazoned across American Eagle (all works 2016 and 2017), while a familiar bear emblem graces Brown Bear. Inside the latter, a plush teddy bear sits on a green standard-issue military cot beside a well-worn baseball glove. Cue Charlie Brown, Alfred E. Neuman, and the Leave it to Beaver brothers; the Boy Scouts meeting has convened. One wonders whose America Stahl aims to conjure. In the same work, she counters old-fashioned Americana with flickering candles and scattered roses—at once the trappings of a funeral and those of traditional romance. This nostalgic vision of America, however, is, and perhaps has always been, all smoke and mirrors. America, we know by now, was never great.
The artist draws her viewers into another staged mise-en-scène in her on-location photographs of the Weimar-era production set of the Netflix show Berlin Babylon. Recorded from a distance (traffic dividers and contemporary street signage punctuate the street shots), Stahl’s Babylon Berlin series depicts extras in de rigueur bowler hats and Nazi uniforms as they mill about in the company of makeup artists and production assistants. With the historic architecture of Berlin’s central Mitte district as backdrop, these images straddle two spaces: contemporary Berlin and that of an elaborate period piece. As neo-fascist regimes descend upon our quotidian reality in the United States, the show’s tagline—“A metropolis in turmoil”—reverberates far beyond this city, this set, and even this moment in history. For Stahl, the layers of simulacra are manifold.
Other photographs present more straightforward nightmares. A skeleton in profile appears against a scanner bed in the titular End of Tales, a vanitas for the digital age replete with crushed bright pink flowers and blonde braids. This composition counters girlishness with death, a fly decomposing against the glass. Powder is a spectral portrait of two metallic tinged hands pressing against a scanner-bed screen. There is a sense of pleading in the curl of the fingers and the distinguishable smudges against the reflective glass. These outstretched limbs gesture in innocent supplication. What victim—or demon—is trapped and trying to crawl out of this machine?
Is it the age of the new right, of neo-fascism, chipping away at the glass? One must see beyond the packaging and marketing of their alt-fact fables. In a forceful mode of retaliation against these global maladies, Stahl places ammunition boxes on the walls underneath Plexiglas, transforming accessories of war into works of art. Positioned such, they are no longer artifacts of conflict, but objects to grapple with, confront, and behold.