Face­less en­coun­ters

THE PAINT­INGS OF LINDA STO­JAK

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The ghostly forms of the women in painter Linda Sto­jak’s first solo ex­hibit in Santa Fe are ren­dered fea­ture­less save for the barest hints of fa­cial def­i­ni­tion. Sto­jak al­ludes to the past by paint­ing sev­eral of her sub­jects in pe­riod dress, but the anony­mous fig­ures are mostly re­moved from any kind of set­ting, their nar­ra­tives un­known to us. Her ex­hi­bi­tion Silent Voices is on view at LewAllen Gal­leries through March 26. Sto­jak’s richly tex­tured, lay­ered sur­faces lend the com­po­si­tions a lush qual­ity that con­trasts with their ethe­real hu­man forms. The fig­ures seem poised half­way be­tween ap­pear­ing and dis­ap­pear­ing. On the cover is a de­tail of the artist’s 2015 oil and mixed me­dia on can­vas paint­ing Un­ti­tled (LS15-313).

“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.

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