Frances Stark

Portrait of a Bird: The Work of Frances Stark

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, January, 2016

LANGUAGE FLOWS through the work of artist Frances Stark in singular, unusual ways. In several works on paper in her current Hammer Museum retrospective she portrays herself as a bird—a peacock, a wren, a cockatoo­—as in Portrait of the Artist as a Full-On Bird (2004), grasping a twig made of collaged letters; or a woodpecker, as in A Bomb (2002), about to nudge with its beak the penciled “A” in an Emily Dickinson fragment printed and repeated in the shape of a sphere. The bird analogy is fitting in many ways for an artist who flits between media, alights gently, sometimes tentatively, on ideas, and pecks through a library’s worth of books for bits of text. But the bird is also in her name: Frances Stark, starling, lark, perching on branches—and “stark” describes the spare, black-and-white aesthetic of many of her works; stark is the way she bares her person, and/or her persona. “But what of Frances Stark,” the title of a 2009 artist’s book asks, “standing by itself, a naked name, bare as a ghost to whom one would like to lend a sheet?” The perfect fit of this artist’s name is almost enough to convince you that people are language’s instruments, and not the reverse.