The Decisive Intervention
by Robert Dannin
“Wayfarers and Warblers” is an artistic coup, a flight of fancy, taking the viewer on a space-time detour to improbable yet possible dimensions of history and geography. Jolie Stahl’s assemblages tell stories by fusing particular (archaeological) fragments, fictive moments, and other heterogeneous elements into an act of narration that invites us to escape present circumstances without, for all that, ignoring their deeper origins.
Ms. Stahl’s painting employs the creative techniques of quotation and inversion by mediating a catalog of Greco-Roman ruins, the perambulations of modern tourists, the politically incorrect fantasies of hobbyists, and finally the practice of bird watching (ornithology). The resulting compositions are an unending summation of places and cultures merged into fictional ‘events’ in uncertain futures or alternative pasts. Native American tourists, Ancient Egyptian jet setters, globe-trotting Bedouins? Why not!
Their messages mimic the cryptic postcards of mid-century travelers, too busy like real ornithologists absorbing the fleeting movement of a rare bird to worry much about the kids back home.
In each tableau the artist executes her painterly gestures while fidgeting with odd wooden scraps as the decisive interventions needed to harmonize the scene. These scraps organize our memory by providing a framework for the art-historical knowledge that reveals itself in an instant when the right strokes are completed. This is the instance of art, the moment when talent and a sense of intellectual tactics converge to balance the real with the imagined.
“Wayfarers and Warblers” succeeds through a manipulation of creative authority. It alters perceptions of the familiar and plays delightfully with our mental faculties. Like those rare birds who lay their eggs in another species’ nest, these tableaux insert memories into places that do not belong to them.
Not yet, anyway.
The Genie's Out of the Bottle: Recent Watercolors and Collages
by John Goodrich
There may be no overriding direction to art these days, but the best of it continues to reflect an age-old purpose: to cast a keen eye about the world and offer a response, drawing as needed upon precedents in art. While lazy art tends to reduce our visual environment (and great traditional art) to clichés, the most compelling contemporary art finds something new in both.
These recent watercolors by Jolie Stahl do compel, quietly and quirkily. A glance at the rapid, bold rendering suggests a quixotic talent; as the formal vitality of these works sinks in, one recognizes a more crucial quality: an original temperament.
Although freely reinterpreting what she sees, Stahl always works from actual set-ups of vases, plates, fruits and vegetables. She also includes more exotic items, such as Buddha statuettes and real fish gutted and butterflied for cooking. The most curious objects of all, however, are the “colon” figurines that the artist first encountered in 1991 during a trip to Senegal. Dating back to colonial Africa, these naively rendered sculptures depict men and women (all of them African) wearing western clothing and accessories. Originally intended to show off newly imported possessions, the “colon” figurines are now widely seen as disquieting symbols of western cultural subjugation. By including them in her compositions without editorial comment—and occasionally adding fanciful terracotta figures of her own making—Stahl has added one more twist to their colorful contradictory legacy.
This idiosyncratic humor pervades the work. It shows in the collaged bits of jewel-like tea boxes that in a single watercolor become, variously, a table surface, a piece of wall, and even tendrils of steam escaping from a vase—or is it a teapot? Other works incorporate sections of Renaissance Italian woodcuts, Swedish bread wrappers, and even portions of her own watercolors. At one point a “colon” figurine, accompanied by one of Stahl’s own, peers whimsically from within a water cooler-sized jug. Elsewhere, another stands erect in a dime store tumbler, the very picture of hapless fortitude.
All this would be merely odd, a collection of private concerns wrapped in peculiar idioms, were it not for Stahl’s firm grasp of the basic language of form. Playful as they are, these images attain their own kind of gravity in their energetic color and line. The broad, almost blunt drawing—possibly traceable to Philip Guston, whom Stahl knew and admired—carves out the lumpy volumes of an eggplant with a few deft strokes, and anchors a plate (as well as the entire swath of surrounding negative space) with a well-placed dark.
In The Genie’s Out of the Bottle, 2002, there’s a pleasurable rigor in the way that a large plane of pale, delicate blues (those collaged tea boxes) hovers as a table top in front of the wall’s blackish ultramarine; the quality of illumination deepens in the sequence of hues—pure paper white/mild sienna/granulating cobalt wash/veiled layers of darker blues—that reveals not just a command of watercolor technique but also the surprising complexities of a half-shadowed vase.
The overhead view of plates marching up a table in Offering, 2001, suggests something of Bonnard. Moreover, its expansive opposition of reich oranges and blues makes the resemblance more than superficial. (She can’t resist having the Venetian woodcut print—already an extensive part of the tablecloth—reappear in tiny, effective slivers as plate highlights and shadows, and even the surface of a sectioned orange.)
What finally do these watercolors. “mean?” Stahl sees clearly, but makes no pronouncements. Rather, a cheerful and intense curiosity reigns, suggesting a greater appetite for the lyricism of colors and forms than for art world “isms.” Put another way, the riddles of these works collect about themselves pictorial completeness instead of political chits. Amidst the balanced chaos of her compositions, the “colon” figurines ultimately defy labeling as either victims or heroes. Like every one of these affectionately assembled objects—and like the artist herself—they are unalterably themselves, inhabiting these scenes with a beguiling, cryptic poise.