By John Biscello
During a recent visit to Santa Fe, I chanced upon the artwork of Linda Stojak. Her show, Silent Voices, being featured at LewAllen Galleries, and entering the shrine-like atmosphere of the nine-painting exhibition, I immediately felt as if I were holding sacred vigil or bearing witness to metamorphic elegies.
The female subjects comprising Silent Voices seemed to exist in a haunted chrysalis state, or embryonic purgatory. Their faces, ashen swabs which are kin to Di Chirico’s faceless enigmas, suggest not only the tragic obliteration of identity but also the potential for rebirth, i.e., a Bardo makeover. Who are these women? Who are they in the process of becoming? What is the nature of their shedding and reconstitution? Lyrical, understated, speculative, and lucidly incomplete, Stojak’s artwork brings to mind a passage from the 14th century Japanese text Essays in Idleness, in which Kenkō writes: “In everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth.”
These women, with latent longing and coiled grace, demand that you participate in their mystery. Fashion also plays a significant role in their allure. Outfitted in period dresses and formal gowns, a sense of high style pervades. Yet it is this elegance, juxtaposed against backgrounds doubling as voids, monochromatic tones, and spectral moodiness, which thickens tension and endows these “portraits” with jarring disquiet. These women could be brides at their own funeral. Ballroom Ophelias in a fugue state. Or models in a Vogue photo shoot set in the Twilight Zone.
In Stojak’s world, a symbiotic merger between stitch and flesh, fashion and form, seems to be taking place. The unspoken vocabulary of the interior is spelled out in slashes and smudges and hyphens, implying that psychic wounds run deep.
Figure 90 shows a woman whose hands are bracing either side of her face, an almost cinematic pose of terror, as if she’s just received tragic news or is perhaps covering her ears so as to not hear something, while a dark stubby gash bi-sects her waist and extends snake-line down the length of her gown. The woman in Untitled II, dark hair like enfolded raven-wings screening her face, head bowed, seems to be stranded in a gauzy limbo, her right hand gloved in the stigmata of rose-blood. Figure 70, short ghost-bleached hair, bright yellow dress with hints of flowers, is poised off-center in an engulfing void. A faded horizontal slash, and a trail of lighted embers, are the only elements connecting her to the dark empty space that monopolizes the right half of the frame. The two women in Figure 73, perhaps mother and daughter, standing rigidly side by side, appear to be enveloped in pearlescent mist. An adagio in soft-focus, the picture’s etheric quality is disturbed by the serpentine ravels of bright red winding around the “mother’s” body, an umbilical blood-let which extends to her “daughter.”
Stojak presently lives in Philadelphia, after having spent twenty years in Brooklyn (where she earned her master’s degree from Pratt University). She is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, and her work has found its way into over 300 private collections, as well as public ones, including Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Harn Museum of Art. When I asked her to cite some of her influences, she said, “One of my favorite artists is the Polish sculptor, Alina Szapocznikpw (Stojak is second-generation Polish). I also love the paintings of Marlene Dumas. Chantal Joffe is a painter that I really like . . . I usually work from photos of myself or my daughter but also use images from fashion magazines or the newspaper and I appreciate how she uses similar images in such a different way. Jacqueline Humphries is an abstract painter that I always look for. I don’t think of these artists so much as influencing my work but rather as almost reinforcing it or letting me allow it to exist.”
Stojak also mentioned her love of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry, and how some of his passages reflect back to her what she thinks her paintings are: “the caution of human gesture, “widowed skin,” “the temptation to blossom,” “barely measurable time between two moments,” “the posture of someone going away,” “the interval of being.”
Her thickly layered compositions, painted with a palette knife, slowly materialize through diligence and revision. “In terms of working I tend to be pragmatic,” Stojak said. “I can’t wait for inspiration. Painting is hard work for me and I try to go to the studio every day even if I do nothing. I can only figure out a painting by making the painting. I don’t always like the process but the finished product is extremely satisfying and the only way to get there is through the laborious process.”
The women in Silent Voices all seem to be the offspring of a thematic trajectory, and I asked Stojak if she worked in terms of conceptual grouping: “I definitely work in series and the differences can be more obvious (clothes vs. no clothes . . . or black/white vs. color) or more subtle such as lines holding the figure in a space . . . I had show titled Tethered which I thought was about the idea that if the painted/collaged line around the figure was pulled off the figure would dissolve. I will sometimes have a series that uses a lot of paper glued to the canvas and then will do a series that has none.”
I know that many artists have their bulletin-board pearls and nuggets, those guide-light mantras which serve as helpful refrains, and when I asked Stojak if she had any “talismans” of that sort, she said, “I can’t think of any kind of personal mantra that I have . . . the only thing that I do continually go back to is the beginning of Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory where he writes about life being ‘a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’ That is very reassuring to me, not depressing and I think of that often, that death will be the same as before being born, again I have that interest in that time between movement.”
By Michael Abatemarco, Pasatiempo Magazine
“Oddly romantic” is how art critic Edward Leffingwell described the paintings of Philadelphia-based artist Linda Stojak in the May 2006 issue of Art in America, which is quoted on a gallery wall in her first exhibition at LewAllen Galleries. The works do recall a romantic past, not in any nostalgic way, but in a knowing way, as through a filter of time — though it might be more accurate, in terms of Stojak’s painting style, to say layers of time. The nine paintings on exhibit are enigmatic renderings of women, lushly executed and textured by building up the paint.The subjects in some of her works seem plucked from the canvases of a bygone era. The figures may put you in mind of 19th-century portraiture — paintings by artists such as John Singer Sargent — and the clothing some of Stojak’s figures wear harks back to Victorian times. Compare Sargent’s work to Stojak’s and you’ll see some similar aspects, including the use of stark color contrasts and formal compositional qualities, such as a figure’s pose.
But while Sargent painted a number of portraits of members of high society, they were identifiable subjects. Stojak’s figures are not — their features are indeterminate, and the faces are almost entirely featureless. In several paintings, the women are partially rendered in outline, and little besides the line designating the figures separates them from the background. Some wear hoop skirts that wouldn’t have been out of place in Sargent’s time. One can think of this shape as formed by a metal cage — which seems pertinent to Stojak’s feminist subject matter. The clothing in her works sometimes indicates that these figures belong to a world of privilege, but as women they are united by something that cuts across matters of class: They are all silent and without faces, which might be another way of saying that they all have the same face or fate.
Traces of blood red, as in an untitled painting from 2015, suggest violence and appear in several other compositions. The figure in the untitled painting is turned slightly from the viewer, self-protectively. The red is used to partially outline the form, but it also gathers in a deep blood-red splotch at her back like an open wound. The woman’s anonymity marks her as everyone and no one. Even if these paintings are regarded as self-portraiture of a sort, giving voice to the interior, sublimated archetypes of the psyche, the pain and sorrow with which Stojak invests them isn’t personalized but generalized across the body of work.
Stojak uses a red line in dramatic fashion in 2012’s Figure 73, which shows two women standing side by side against a stark white background. The one on the left, her figure traced in a subdued grayish blue, is barely there. The bold use of the red line, zig-zagging over her body, suggests that she is bound by it, as though by a rope. The form of the slightly smaller figure on her right (the figures could be mother and daughter, but nothing overtly indicates that) is also partially delineated by red. The painting may deal in some regard with the issue of domestic violence and generational cycles of abuse, but one should be wary of reading too much into the work. Stojak avoids the trappings of allusions to specific people or places, which could give her paintings a narrow frame of reference. Her subject matter feels nonspecific and universal.
Stojak’s works can be seen as commentary on paintings under the jurisdiction of the male gaze (Sargent’s Madame X comes to mind), in which the female form is objectified and sexualized. In Stojak’s paintings, identity is obliterated. There is a single nude among this small presentation of large-scale works, called Untitled (LS07-267), from 2007. The painting’s subject is prostrate, a pale white figure against black, but there is no trace of eroticism in this nude. The painting frustrates the viewer who’s seeking more information or a narrative. Is the woman dead? Is she sleeping? Is her voice still because she has been silenced? Stojak’s figures exist somewhere between the somatic realm of the corporeal and the elusive, ethereal worlds of time and memory, where names and histories dissipate and where faces grow vague and indistinct.
According to the gallery, Stojak is not a prolific artist — Silent Voices is the culmination of years of work. She paints with a palette knife, adding layers, scraping away, and adding more. Hers are labored works but don’t appear as such. Stojak’s use of paint provides a textured but uniform surface where close inspection reveals numerous colors, even in the backgrounds, which from a distance read as more solid black or white — or in the case of Figure 72, from 2012, light blue. Her subjects, traced in paint, recall a statement from the Ashcan School’s John Sloan, that “painting is drawing, with the additional means of color.” The drawing/painting dynamic is one of Silent Voices’ many contradictions, not the least of which is captured in its title. But these silent voices say a lot.
By Michaël Amy
Linda Stojak’s pictures, showing the figure in complete isolation, challenge us. They are arresting because the human body, however rudimentarily rendered, is always about us. The figure is a vessel filled with meaning, since we are in theory capable of feeling whatever the rendered person undergoes. We are pretty good at decoding the feelings and thoughts lurking behind the poses and gestures of bodies, and the expressions of faces, however schematically portrayed, for we know both how our own bodies and those of the people we interact with reveal the inner self. The human body conveys emotion more easily than, say, a depicted landscape, or still-life. There is no more loaded subject. Linda Stojak, who needs to bear her feelings, paints the figure.
The impact figures make upon us has relatively little to do with verisimilitude, witness the extraordinary, oddly impassive, schematic, monumental Archaic Greek kouros at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is both distant and –perhaps therefore- unusually moving all at once. Stojak is interested in archaism. Like the anonymous Greek artist, we have the impression that she too is discovering the human body, as it were, for the first time. Her paintings have that rawness to them. Like the 6th century BCE Greek sculptors and the Egyptian artists who preceded them, Stojak renders elementary -and therefore universal- poses. Her figures are shown in full frontal view with their arms placed along their sides and their legs situated one next to the other, or in full frontal view with their arms spread, or lying almost in pure profile on their back with their legs dangling, or leaning forward in profile with both hands raised up to the face, or crouching in profile, etc. It is as if Stojak is re-discovering a vocabulary of poses. Art seeks to reveal what is as yet unknown.
Stojak’s figures are in a state of becoming, or breaking down –they thus offer a remarkable evocation of our very lives. Their brittle outlines and loose facture suggest more or less imminent dematerialization. Stojak’s actors transcend the laws governing both the body and the here and now, as the artist places her figures in front of painterly, more or less monochrome fields, without a hint of architecture or landscape, and barely a suggestion of an interior or open air. I say barely, for we tend to read a figure lying on a bed as being situated indoors, witness “Figure 11” (2004). The bodies are surrounded by open space on all four sides, which gives them a floating quality. For even those appearing to stand in frontal view are, in fact, not standing, since their feet point downwards. The figure of “Untitled” (2003), with the feet placed horizontally, stands in profile on top of a black void with both hands raised to the face, from which a torrent of medium pours down. It is as if this person were dissolving into tears in front of our very eyes.
Stojak’s figures are almost always naked -therefore vulnerable- and in singular isolation, with nothing but indefinite space around them. Exceptionally, “Figure 8” (2004) depicts a woman in full frontal view against a black ground, removing a garment as white as her skin -though dripping pink- gathered at this very instant above her shoulders and masking her head. In “Figure 11” (2004), another exception, the protagonist, as white as the sheet beneath him, lies face down on top of a bed seen in strict profile. Other figures occasionally sit or lie down, though it is not always clear upon what. Their nudity highlights their loneliness, which may turn into melancholia or even despair, although some paintings suggest a figure before or after the act of making love. Amor vincit omnia. “Figure 27” (2005), unusual for its dramatic cropping of the protagonist’s legs, shows a woman as white as milk with her knees pulled up, her left arm placed over her head and her right arm stretched out, against a field of flaming red that bleeds both into and onto her body. The languor of her pose evokes Delacroix’s felines seen through the broad simplifications of form and bold use of color of Matisse. This female, whose body trembles in space, literally drips with satisfaction. Stojak aims for an impression of liquidity, in which things are seemingly in a state of flux.
Linda Stojak delights in the materiality of the oil, a fluid medium allowing her to conjure bodies flipping back and forth between paint and the illusion of almost intangible flesh, as open as a wound. She is an existentialist, who captures the pain that is part and parcel of being. In this respect, as well as in the process of appearing and disappearing, her figures are reminiscent of those of Giacometti. Stojak knows how much the viewer is able to project onto her paintings, filling in the gaps as it were -for the eye is all knowing. Thus, her drawing may remain tentative -as if it were searching the forms, which act we find deeply expressive- and the relation of part to part in the body approximate, for we can do with mere hints. Stojak lavishes particular attention upon the densely layered, at times waxy, at other times velvety or flesh-like surfaces of her pictures -rich epidermises filled with the history of their own generation.
By Linda Yablonsky
For her second solo show, Linda Stojak relied heavily on the redoubtable image of the crucifix to embody a haunted and private martyrology. At a distance, her somber, dangling, androgynous torsos, bobbing “heads,” and helpless limbs look as if they were burned into their scuffed, bone-colored grounds with a brand just beginning to cool; up close, they communicate an arresting sense-memory of a deep personal loss that just won’t let go.
Stojak channels this melancholia into a blessedly simple, if not entirely welcome, cathartic ritual of repetition. Her waxy layered surfaces, some with small papier-maché constructions, seek a life beyond grief and invoke a primal vitality equal to the emotive qualities of her silhouetted body parts. However, because Stojak makes her esthetic bed with figurative choices that replicate Kiki Smith’s more powerful physical imagery—albeit with a more metaphysical slant—much of the work here felt slightly familiar, even secondhand.
Still, the concentrated austerity of a few of these shrinelike paintings suggests unsettling sacrificial privations—particularly a pair of rough-edged works from 1992 in which crude bench-bed forms occupy one edge of the picture. One bed is a stark, lunar white, framed in the blackest of cavelike spaces extended by pieces of painted wood; the other, in scabby black, bone, and deepest red, traverses the picture plane beneath doll-like effigies that rise behind it like multiple wounds. Closer inspection of sister images in some of the other paintings reveal the penitent “legs” to be these same bench forms laid back to back and driven, upside down, through the top of the field.
The sad, life-draining effects Stojak achieves by reshaping her bed and torso images with black spidery drips, which fall like torn netting over a pock-marked crucifix, perversely enrich a larger 1993 painting whose two panels are joined by an altarpiece-worthy wooden beam. The crucifix theme might place these works at the center of current fashion if they didn’t create an atmosphere of genuine devotion. Though bodies float and surfaces seethe as if entire insect colonies were crawling under their skins, Stojak’s distinct asceticism envelops her vigil in a kind of cloistered quiet that almost soothes one’s sense of unrelieved anxiety. This is moody work, but it is centered in an illuminated consciousness that draws strength from its curious visual tensions.