In 1971, when Daniel Buren wrote The Function of the Studio, he predicated the work of art on a double bind. When the artwork leaves the studio and enters the public sphere of the museum, it suffers alienation from its origin; but if it remains cloistered in the studio, it suffers 'total oblivion' and the artist 'death ... from starvation'. For Buren, the work of art born of the studio is always already compromised because, since it is seen out of place, it never really takes place. So, it was in addressing an entrenched model of artistic production that relied on the 'idealizing and ossifying function' of the studio, that Buren penned the phrase 'the unspeakable compromise of the portable work of art'.
Frances Stark has borrowed Buren's phrase as the title and organizing principle for a series of 16 works produced between 1998 and 2002, recently exhibited together for the first time. Stark, like Buren, took the studio as her point of departure: she made the first piece on moving her place of work from home to a studio. But under Stark's hand 'unspeakability', 'compromise' and 'portability' take on different meanings. First of all, Stark insists that the studio, hers at least, is not an 'ossifying' place, but one where mishandling and de-idealization reign, and damage and dirt are as much at home as anything else. And if, 30 years later, there is something unspeakable about the work of art, it pertains to the inordinate sum of money that Stark owes to the Department of Education for having sold her the privilege of going to a good art school and, eventually, showing in impressive venues - or so Stark's work tells us. And what's yet more unspeakable - she further hints - is that all the high-falutin knowledge for which she carries that debt, has also bought Stark an unfair share of critical misunderstanding based on her so-called 'overly academic tendencies'. Such are the lived compromises of the work behind Stark's art.
But this is to speak indirectly of what Stark's 'Unspeakable Compromise of the Portable Work of Art' (1998- 2002) actually looks like. With several of the works assembled and mounted with tape and tacks, the series is wrought with transience. Such appearances can be off-putting at first. One has to wade through a fog of initial reactions and a lot of paperwork in order to grasp how conceptual this work is, not in spite of its complex materiality, but because of it. The series consists mostly of works on paper with type-formed texts - usually reworkings of the titular phrase - inscribed not horizontally but vertically, and not actually with a typewriter but by hand, as Stark carefully retraces typographic letters through carbon paper onto her work. 'Look here, this is already the unspeakable compromise' Number 7 of 16 (1998) alerts in a repeating striation of letters. Stark favours tissue and rice paper, yet not for their delicacy and grace but for their susceptibility and suggestibility - the way they register touch unwittingly, making it hard for us to discern between a pleat and a crumple, a charming touch or an inadvertent blemish. Indeed, these nuances must also be the locus of her artworks' compromise. A pleat, for example, does double duty as both design element and memory trace of transport. Like-minded details reappear in the rather substantial documentation included with the exhibition. Stark provides equivocating instructions (themselves littered with typos, cross-outs and hesitations) for the preservation, transportation and installation of her work. For Number 6 of 16, she notes: 'This piece can hang or sit or lean etc.' For Number 7 of 16 (1998) she explains: 'hang rice paper with red text over the orange so that the row of commas is just [and the next line is obscured with a row of Xs] right above the line of the orange sheet ... I mean just a hair above it' [sic]. Stark runs out of room, runs out of film, runs out of patience, and explains that even 'fadeless' paper fades.
Above all, this exhibition confirmed that Stark is an artist of the letter. Where her work turns pictorial - as in the most recent additions to the series - the wonderful complications in practices of reading imposed by her hand-typed phrases simply become overburdened. The series culminates in a book that refers to the whole series and has been produced as a limited edition of 50 copies. Contrary to Buren's admonitions, Stark endeavours to ensure the portability of her work, and at a reasonable cost.
First published in Issue 72