Anne Stagg

Anne Stagg: texture, trace, and time

Buzz Spector

“The abstract object or image is a reduction (abstraction) from a signified that existed prior to it. In other words, like representation, abstraction harks back to something that existed in a past present that is now significant for its ABSENCE.”
—Colin Gardner

An artist of my acquaintance recently offered up as a virtue of paint that it permits covering up one’s mistakes. “So does starting over with a fresh surface,” I replied. But what of the cover up which draws attention precisely to what’s been obscured? The making of every painting is accretive; that is, a painter in the studio conveys each successive loaded brush to the surface prepared to receive its cargo. This way of thinking about the act is true but misleading; while every stoke of the brush adds materially to what’s being made, not every stroke closes the gap between the artist’s plans for the work and the thing being fashioned at hand. An expedient coating of surface is rarely the point of a painting; whether through the mimetic facility of representation or the formal distillation of abstraction, artists aspire to transmogrify their imaginings into substance. In this sense, then, painters of a certain bent behave a lot like writers.

As long as I’ve known Anne Stagg, she has explored the ways in which abstract art bears with it traces of writing. In the late 1990s, when I was her thesis advisor in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I admired the drawing installations she then made by arranging on her studio walls many separate drawings in pencil, chalk or ink on crumpled, torn, and/or soaked sheets of paper, each inscribed with various inscrutable markings evocative of, say, flow charts, progress reports, maps, and other forms of ideogrammatic data. All such references brought with them a proposal that viewers consider the graphic effects in view as dutiful, as distinct from virtuosic. Lines with a role to play are essential in mapmaking, for example, where their responsibility is to bring the map reader from one place to a specific other. Drafting inventiveness is a bad trait on a map, but the consistency of affect in cartographic lines is like maintaining a tone of textual “voice” in a written narrative. Stagg’s drawing as such gave every appearance of being artless, but other material and spatial aspects in her arrays of fragmentary elements acted to “rewrite” the viewer’s awareness of this inscriptive tonality.

Stagg’s current series of small-scale paintings and drawings are placed within a titular armature, “edits and omissions,” that commonly describes the process of writing. No measure of any work in the series comprised of acrylic or oil on canvas or paper is larger than 48 inches. The artist’s choice of scale is meant to keep the marks she makes within the scope of her wrist and hand rather than at the full extension of her arms. Handwriting comes from the wrist more than the shoulder, and the writer, with pen or pencil in hand, leans toward the text during the act. Stagg acknowledges her fraught relationship to language, but the works in “edits and omissions” aren’t forms of linguistic communication. Instead, what’s embodied here is a process of making in which the finished object bears within it the traces of what was unmade as well as made while it was taking form. Stagg literally makes a painting and then virtually erases it by overpainting with white. Here and there brightly colored vestiges of what came before emerge from the white surface, but the overall texture of the prior stages can still be seen, a “survival,” as the artist puts it, of “past explorations.” If the underlying palette of the work is (mostly) absent, its material armature remains present.

The epigram under which this writing appears calls attention to the relationship between artistic abstraction and time; of the thing in the world which must exist in order for it to be abstracted. That “ABSENCE” in all caps is a typographic shout to call attention to itself. Here I come to a distinction worth keeping in mind for contemplation of Stagg’s art; in crafting this very paragraph I’ve “erased” a hundred other words and phrases in the course of its writing. As I’ve noted in another context, “such wounds of writing are healed without a trace.” My subsequent edits act to conceal all those times I stumbled, so to speak, off the path of the expression I want to share. Stagg’s erasures, on the other hand, fail to disappear. Indeed, the point of her exercise is to negotiate the terms by which her previous gestures will still contribute to the understanding of the work. Were this not so, a broad brush and a bucket of whitewash would accomplish another order of disappearance. Stagg describes what she does as a “process of covering over,” but the whites of these paintings are less so many shrouds than they are bed linens with living limbs beneath. This is the work of survival, in which the failed erasure reminds us of the resilience of living, of a hopefulness that endures.

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