Ann Shostrom

still another formalism

Saul Ostrow

The practice of painting has substantially changed since the period of its hey-day in the late 1940s to early 60s. At a glance, its changing status begins with the triumph of Abstract Expressionism and the emergence of Pop Art and Minimalism. These movements represented the explicit incorporation of the industrial logics of standardization, repetition, variation, and reproduction into the painting process. As soon as these propositions were set in place, “post-Minimalism” stressing process, duration, and procedure, asserted itself. In reaction to this expanding field of strategies, post-Modernism set about to undo what Modernism had come to represent, because it was no longer capable of being self-reflexively challenging. Under the pressure of this critique of culture’s reified logics, the practice of painting struggled to survive.

Since then painters have sought to re-assert painting’s viability by reconstituting it as a field of operations consisting of differing forms, concepts, styles, and modes of expression. In this context, the work of Ann Shostrom draws on narratives that create an index of painting’s attributes, and generate a non-linear, non-exclusionary aesthetic and emotive content. Through layering and juxtaposition, she literalizes the optical space of painting, while sustaining its frontality and pictorial space. Her use of a syntax associated with abstract painting leads to a discussion of formalist concerns, implying the self-referential arrangement of forms, processes and materials. It is apparent that Shostrom is not merely dismantling or sustaining some a priori model of painting or its conventions. In contrast, she is engaged in an aesthetic and conceptual enterprise meant to determine the rational and the subjective conditions that operate within the framework of painting.

Her work asserts a view of painting as a means to represent and integrate perspectives that are both temporary and partial. This is manifested in such works as Rose Nebula, where the very supporting fabric is in the process of disintegrating, only to reveal pristine blue and red fabrics beneath. In Colony, parts of its pattern of grey microbe-like shapes have been meticulously embroidered with multi colored thread. In these works, the destabilizing effect of process orders and fragments the image and form. An array of sub- topics and themes — concealment, degradation, opacity, separation, and suggestion — are revealed.

Shostrom’s work offers us another type of formalism, which is premised on the notion that painting is a mode of actualization whose contents exist as events and situations that resist closure and are subject to change. This formalism subsequently knows no a priori and therefore avoids the prescriptive stranglehold of essentialism and material determinism.

Shostrom’s unstretched collage-like arrangements of fabrics and images might be better located within the surrealist tradition of George Bataille. These assemblages can be viewed for their pathos, fragility, and enchantment. Embedded and embodied in their materiality, are images and processes. As such, Shostrom’s formalism is a means to explore the meta-code by which painting may negotiate the space between the personal and the historical.

While the changing qualities or effects, discerned in terms of appearance, structure, and sense, are specific to each work, these do subscribe to a priori meanings. This is because their specificity lies within the context of how they have come to be assembled. Shostrom often makes use of readymades in the form of domestic fabrics: table cloths, curtains, and tea towels.

Insurgency’s strong painterly panels reference abstract expressionism, but that interpretation is undermined by a partial border of grey camouflage material, which terminates or begins in panels of satin and floral fabric. Luncheon combines differing categories of images and image-making processes to form a discreet narrative of the abjection, nostalgia, and indeterminacy of the everyday. The painting’s sensibility of clothing, fabrics, and painterly gesture recalls Rauschenberg’s Combines. Works that incorporate pictorial elements such as the inclusion of baskets of strawberries in Flaming Strawberries, or farming scenes from domestic linens in Yield, adhere to a formalist logic. In Elegy, Shostrom places three black ovoid forms and a rectilinear bar on raw canvas. She veils this with a translucent pink fabric, and then drapes a rectangle of translucent cadmium red cloth with cutouts over the upper right hand corner. The overall effect conjures up associations to Robert Motherwell’s Spanish Elegy series. Using a similar material vocabulary in Divers, she constructs overlapping rectilinear planes of transparency and opacity, which result in a composition that veils what lies beneath, at once concealing and revealing. The result is pristine, negating the cigarette burned canvas. Similar strategies are played out in the floral and painterly layers of Secret Sharer, Part 1&2, and in the aggressive flamboyancy of Firestorm and Golden Section.

The variety of aesthetic, intellectual, phenomenological and textual effects that Shostrom incorporates into these things she calls painting interact on the level of individual experience. This appeal to the primacy of experience and self-reflection, within the context of painting, is inseparable from a discussion of the material conditions of life.

© Nov. 2010