ArtLyst Review By Jack Castle
There is a story going around about a Chinese painter who was tasked by the emperor to draw a crab. The painter asked for ten years, servants, a house, etc.. After ten years the emperor turned up and asked for his crab. The painter had not started, and asked for ten more years. Nine years and 364 days passed, still the painter had not begun. The emperor was furious. The next day ten years was up, and the emperor went to the painter’s house with his executioners all prepared and bloodthirsty. “Where is my crab?!” thundered the emperor. The painter took a brush and, with one stroke, drew a crab. The most beautiful crab the world has ever seen.
Hans Stofer’s show at Gallery S O is made up of a series of three called “Tinkering With Paint” (2009), and a series of fifteen charcoals on paper entitled “Carbon Copy” (2012), and are made with what seem to be very quick, impulsive gestures. This show of works on paper, however, is a bit of a deviation from Stofer’s main metalworking/more “design” based practice that centres on crisp economy of thought, Alessi-like but not for touching. The works on paper are made nearly as an antidote to the lengthy process of working metal or arranging fragments of smashed plates in a matrix. They have the look of being put together impulsively, “starting at one corner of the page and going up” (as Stofer himself describes the process of their creation), occasionally jovial, occasionally menacing.
The weird apocryphal story is meant to extol the “Eastern” value of contemplation building up to a single moment of perfect action, as contrasted to a more “Western” idea of constant toil to refine something into perfection. Stofer is having his eastern moment in these pictures, the “Carbon Copy” series brought on by a friend’s recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis, as a way of finding or organising experience, and using quickness to do so. (There is an assumption everywhere that things done quickly are truer in some cosmic way).
So “Carbon Copy” is a series of fast charcoals, worked into and smudged, that form roughly humanoid black shapes on a white background, with white eyes. Most often they take the shape of comic-book-like heroes or villains which, taken as a series, do look a bit like the product of an exorcism. The eyes are particularly interesting- two vertical white strips look naïve, honest, or lost/scared. Round eyes tend to look meek. Any slant to the white eye-strips gives a look between minor to supreme evil. “Carbon Copy VII” struck me as a standout- drawing on perspective as well as shape to draw out hardwired “scary vs. trustworthy” reactions. The quickness in putting down a kind of subconscious “overlordly” shape lets the shape appear “overlordly” to the viewer. There is also stuff in the gallery’s literature about “the moment just before commitment”, but I’m here to discuss the product of commitment, so I’ll leave that for now.
There is a certain amount of Dada style thinking at work here, in contrast with Stofer’s considered sculpture. The idea that you throw out an image, any image, and the viewer can’t help but map their own neuroses onto it- although I don’t think the Dada goal of calling bullshit on that process is Stofer’s goal. It is more like T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land- a poem in which something is missing but not something specific, so generations of readers have been actually been arguing about what they think is missing from their real world, but they think they have been arguing about The Waste Land. You end up looking at these cartoon-shaped Rorschach inkblots and fishing around for the particular thing you have seen that made you scared a long time ago that now you can’t put your finger on. Whether this kind of “emotional memory” is lost in Alzheimer’s patients I do not know.
The other series “Tinkering with bones and Pac-Man style ghosts, slapped down in bright colour (although there is some evidence of underpainting and planning of composition). There is certainly a fascination again with the “open symbol”, and these paintings do give more and more each time you look at them, particularly “Tinkering with Paint III”. But although I preferred this series (bright colours, put down with a childishness that children themselves aren’t quite good enough to achieve), I think I preferred it because it looks like another chapter in the history of this certain kind of spontaneity: a combination of Impressionist obsession with catching the moment fresh and the variety of quickness that the Chinese painter has in the story of the crab. “Things” suddenly being right, which is then usually expressed in/by bright colour: Bonnard, Roger Hilton, perhaps Gert and Uwe Tobias, certain sorts of graffiti writers, and most obviously Jean-Michel Basquiat, who Stofer has either agreed with accidentally or drawn on, with the political element replaced with a focus on the subconscious/mystic aspect of picture-making that is said to come through with vigorous “Tinkering” (and 80s straight edges replaced with more modern-looking curves). (Does “Tinkering” actually imply a kind of “refining” process? Or was the tinkering in the mind, like the Chinese painter’s 20 years?). Why there seems to be a 100-year old latent equation that basically “exuberant moment=bright yellow” which occasionally makes physical examples of itself is perhaps the biggest question for the subconscious in this show. Whether spontaneity can or should have a history (and what that would look like) is, I think, where I’ll have to end this review.
*** 3 Stars Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2012
Gallery S O, London Brick Lane, 6/7/12- 29/7/12