Painting through a Spyglass

Angela Stauber’s paintings are not really portraits, landscapes or still lives, and yet they encompass all three genres. Stauber’s favorite subject is her surrounding space. Brushes and canvases are her scanning tools to explore every inch of the architecture in which she lives and works.

The artist’s studio is historically viewed as a mystic and magic location, something in between a science lab and a Wizard’s cave. It’s a creative area, where ideas takes form and become art. Stauber’s approach to painting is clearly informed by this concept and adds new elements to the equation. The space is analytically dismantled and reproduced in small and only apparently insignificant details such as the end of a table, a curtain facing a wall or a window sill, highlighting their ordinary and extraordinary qualities. Indeed their representation is so generic that it becomes almost impossible to establish the exact nature of the space where they belong. The occasional presence of an object, like a pile of cans and papers in a corner suggest that it’s the artist working environment, but the general feeling is of a rigorously anonymous space.

When Bruce Nauman made his multi-screen installation Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage) in 2002, his intention was to provide a view of his studio in rural New Mexico. A series of surveillance cameras conveniently placed in different rooms were left on all night with the task of capturing the noises and sounds generated by the wind or the movement of cats, mices, insects, and the artist himself, who can be seen on a couple of times walking around as if unaware of the elaborate mechanism he himself has installed. What emerged was a portrait of the studio as an autonomous entity capable of creating art even in the artist’s absence. Stauber’s work adopts a similar take but her using the studio as a muse is attributable to necessity if not curiosity. Like an actor busy measuring the stage, Stauber’s sense of observation and interpretation is an attempt to improve her level of familiarity and confidence of the environment around her.

The studio is both a three-dimensional projection of the artist’s mind and the platform in which these take place. If glanced one by one, Stauber’s paintings can be deceptive. They are more remindful of a notion which was very popular within the early historic avant-gardes – lime lighting objects so noticeable to the point of being invisible, setting the ball rolling for their transformation from banal to special. It’s only when you see her work as a whole that it’s clear that there’s a lot more at stake. Three points, in particular, emerge.

First, her paintings move within a specific timeframe, freezing a determinate time in the life of the artist. In the late summer of 2008, for example Stauber held a four-month residency at 92 White Post Lane, E9 in London. The building was situated in the Eastern part of the borough of Hackney – one of the many post-industrial outposts in the area who fell victim of the economic recession and subsequent loss of population. The series of paintings made during that period are not just about architecture. They’re a study of the initial sense of estrangement in front of a place that is destined to play the considerable role of future home and shelter. They are a log, a chronicle of months spent trying to convert a new and somehow intimidatory experience into a safety net. Every detail is like a snapshot, which little by little marks the increasing appropriation of the space facing the canvas.

Second, once put in exhibiting mode, Stauber’s work forms a space within the space. Every painting is a tassel and the resulting puzzle recreates the atmosphere and the outward appearance of the places in which it was created.

Third, the dialogue between hosting and painted space generates a new hybrid and yet strangely harmonious architecture. Clearly the ordinary look of the objects Stauber paints is a crucial contributing factor to this, but the outcome is still surprising. This peculiar union of private and public results in a new dimension that, although very personal, doesn’t make the viewer feel as an intrusive presence.

There are many artists that look at painting as a performative act. It’s a notion that goes back to Jackson Pollock and that found new lymph with Neo-Expressionism a few decades later. Behind the painting there’s a mysterious and physical practice, which presence can be detected from the energy of the strokes and the intensity of the colors. From a strictly formal perspective Stauber partially preserves this aspect. Her subjects are painted following a very delicate tight-rope walk. They can be quite approximate but very recognizable. Her method to involve the public in the creative process is different. Once the viewers are invited to place themselves between her eye and her subject, they are in the position to have a glimpse of the very same place where the action took place.

Overall the feeling is the comparable to the one of standing next to someone watching a view through a spyglass. Our vision is broader but inevitably frustrated by the impossibility to focus on the detail. Stauber’s ability is to make a strong point of this apparent limit. Or, to conclude with a metaphor: years ago a petulant journalist questioned Beck Hansen about the wisdom of his decision to publish an album of leftovers from previous records. Surely a creative block was in sight? ‘It’s like when you throw a plate against the wall’ replied the musician. ‘Sometimes you focus on the stuff on the wall, other times you focus on the crockery on the floor.’

Michele Robecchi