On ViewCharles Moffett
Lily Stockman: The Tilting Chair
October 28–December 10, 2022
For her third solo show at Charles Moffett, Lily Stockman presents eleven abstract paintings (all 2022) of centrally placed, soft-edged motifs in which surface texture is of paramount concern. Witness the feathery pounced marks in mossy green layered in a radiating pattern within the chamfered rectangle of Meadow Grass, or more dramatically, the scratchy scumbling that permits glimpses of electric blue beneath Swimming at Night’s inky overlayer. Such measured brushwork doesn’t appear everywhere in a single work, nor in every canvas. But where it does, and especially in comparison to the long smooth sweeps that make up Stockman’s signature internal borders, its short hatches seem deliberate and focused. The effect is of a new variable pursued with worker-like dedication to a process that yields its own discoveries. This pursuit contrasts with Stockman’s last showing with Moffett in 2020, which emphasized her personal vocabulary of forms—at that time Us swollen to varying degrees—and with a more recent exhibition in London focused on the articulation of interior borders. The shift from depicted thing or internal architecture to the coarseness of the painted field (whole over part, materiality over image, ground over figure) amounts to a question directed at painting itself: how can I make you? What are your constituent components, and how do they work together? What is the threshold limit for recognizability within an oeuvre? Or most simply, what are your possibilities? Certainly, these are questions one could profitably pose to the whole history of art, and Stockman has done so in other contexts. But here her search seems internal, probing, and related primarily to the arc of her own expertise.
Stockman’s project reads as epistemological rather than ontological in orientation. She queries not what painting is, but how it is what it is and, especially, how we come to know this. The artist candidly tells us that individual paintings arise from specific experiences. Trumpet Vine, for instance, recalls hummingbirds visiting the eponymous creeper in Los Angeles. Despite this aid, however, such information is not necessarily transparent to beholders, and, since we are not in her body, never wholly so. Yet to me Stockman’s paintings surpass the kind of knowledge that is hermetic and particular to the artist (even if they invite us to remember similar occurrences in our own past). Instead, they ask how knowledge materializes in form, whether that form is the residue of the repetitive swipe of paint on canvas, the buzzed grass trailing a tractor’s path, or the flopping prize ensnared at the end of a line, cast so many times in an arc above one’s head. This is the long game of cumulative kinesthetic awareness and passed-down wisdom, the realm of farmer’s almanacs and knowing—learning—the contours of the land well enough to tread in pitch dark, as Swimming at Night’s open-bottomed rectangle recommends.
Stockman has expressed interest in invisible landscapes, like caves or ocean floors, and the human ability to navigate without technology. Here we are far indeed from relying on GPS or handheld search engines for instant answers. Considering where exactly intergenerational knowledge resides places pressure on the specificity of private experience, which Stockman’s paintings reveal as repeatable, but with difference. This is one lesson of Methuselah, a five by eight foot two-panel painting of a swelling stepped mountain in white stamped out against a black ground. The quarter-circle arc that comprises the mountain’s lower segment repeats on the diptych’s other side. On the right Stockman painted its curve slightly flatter than on the left, a testament to variations yielded within the rehearsal of proficient movement.
Stockman titled this show The Tilting Chair after the Shaker ladder-back chair whose rear legs terminate in a ball-and-socket foot, allowing its occupant to lean back without slipping and scratching the floor. This notion speaks to a seated beholder, whose tipped axis occasions a gaze pitched toward the top of a painting. Indeed, two canvases on view here feature a new shape, the dark slice of an oblong crescent—a moon, or a buoy—at the upper margin. Scholars of art’s history have claimed that displacing the upright viewer from their default central position opposite the (often imagined) vanishing point of linear perspective frees them from presumptions of visual mastery. Thus Stockman’s tilted axis proposes a brilliant alternative to the phenomenology of minimalism’s demand that a viewer circumnavigate the art object or the oblique viewing position required to make sense of Renaissance anamorphosis, as, for example, in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors.
In the press release for this exhibition, the artist frames the chair’s ability to tilt away from normative spatial positions as a break from the rules of her own painterly system, and we witness several departures here. Swimming at Night points toward compositional structures in which internal borders are not fully articulated, while Cadillac Mountain suggests that such borders, if sufficiently enlarged, can hold shapes in their own right, rather than acting simply as containers for monochromatic fields or smooth brushy strokes. Lastly, returning to the question of surface texture, the incredibly commanding September Heat indicates the possibilities that attend an openness to chance conditions in the studio: the irregularities and apparent transparency of its magenta ground arose from lacking enough paint mixed in that certain hue, a limitation that Stockman embraced. Such acceptances might break the rules, or amount to a kind of wayfinding. They also suggest not how paintings produce knowledge, but how they are keepers of it.