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Orderly chaos

Craig Stockwell’s objects of desire


By Christopher Millis, September 15, 2005

Maybe the most surprising aspect of Craig Stockwell’s abstract paintings of bountiful, rounded, geometric forms is how they imprint themselves on the mind’s eye. It’s hard at first to imagine why these variously sized sets of sometimes separate, sometimes interlocking shapes resembling rolling pins and squared-off horseshoes should have the power to enchant. The paintings seldom veer from repetitions of the same two shapes, and except for the “Tantric” series of 39 small paintings and one large piece from a different series, Stockwell’s colors are as muted as his forms are serial – cloudy yellows, vague lavenders, self-effacing greens. 

Yet for all their flat, almost industrial appearance as individual units, as a conglomerate his forms look alive. Forms merge and separate, crowd one another and disperse, fade or come into view. You get the feeling you’re looking through a microscope at the magnified early stages of the birth of a biological machine. Indeed, one of the tensions Stockwell exploits throughout “Perfectly Useless” at Genovese/Sullivan Gallery is between the activity we associate with the organic and the stasis we attribute to the lifeless; the works look as if they were in the act of reproducing themselves while at the same time appearing manufactured. Cellular division meets circuit board, creating the impression of matter both mindful and mindless, chaotic and preordained. Stockwell’s art becomes a meditation on the proximity and mutability of the living and the unalive. 

And that’s not the only way he dramatizes this strange melange of the life force with its opposite – movement and change mingled with stasis and mechanical repetition. Particularly in the large works, darker forms appear to lie on top of submerged, lighter forms; despite their flatness, the paintings have depth. Further, Stockwell allows us to see the faint pencil markings of perfect circles traversed by straight lines, presumably the original grid of the work’s beginning. The result is a sense of dimensionality in time as well as space. You get the impression of looking into a three-dimensional mass as well as looking through to its creation. The sharp, curvaceous black outline of a form – in most, they’re the shape of the forms lying beneath; in others they look like drunk haloes or whirling lassos – appear to lift off the panels altogether. 

Stockwell’s drawings offer, as drawings often do, an insight into the coherence and complexity of the paintings. Biomorphic shapes that could be the outlines of huge amoebae float over a thin pencil sea of the same circles and lines that are barely traceable in the paintings. The drawings lack both color and articulated shapes, but that’s not a loss. If anything, the tension becomes more pitched, less attenuated – the early life form pulsates on a plane of architectural notation. Stockwell’s is an analytic art, an effort to resolve and embody the contradictory impulses of chaos and control.