8 May 2018

Just a short walk north up Michigan Avenue from 1000M is the Chicago Cultural Center, one of the city’s architectural and cultural jewels. We stopped by recently to see Interior and Exterior, an exhibition of paintings by Chicago-based artist Scott Stack, and had the privilege of walking the show with the artist himself.

Gesturing towards one of the pieces in his ongoing show, Stack notes that “seeing is not a passive act.” In front of him looms a colossal canvas as imposing as it is intriguing, composed entirely of light and dark lines dashing haphazardly into one another. While the tangle of perfectly-ordered lines and the shapes they attempt to form at first seems chaotic, only a moment of inspection reveals an underlying logic, inviting you to piece together the shards of the work.

Scott Stack, Ice three, 2016, 94" x 69", oil on canvas
Ice three, 2016, 94″ x 69″, oil on canvas

Standing in the second room of his ongoing show Interior and Exterior at the Chicago Cultural Center, Stack is looking at his canvas Ice three. This is one of six in the line series, each of which invites you to grapple with the shapes. The anxiety and tension induced by the line paintings is reconciled by the works on the opposite ends of the galleries. The complementary canvases form the solids series, composed of perfectly symmetrical and ordered sets of triangles. Bearing names including Cure for lines, the solids mirror the relief we feel in these rather comfortable and inviting paintings. Brightly-hued and more regularly-ordered, the solids series offers a striking luminosity that seems wholly separate from the dark line-dominated canvasses.

Scott Stack, Untitled, 2017, 78" x 66", oil on canvas
Untitled, 2017, 78″ x 66″, oil on canvas

Remarkably, despite the entirely different moods of the paintings, they are all based upon the same light pink and dark green. Blending the paint in different ways allows Stack to create different forms of light from the same materials. In this way, the very material that connects the lines and solids series compliments the conceits of the line series. The radically different set of canvasses Stack produces from the same materials speaks to the nearly infinite representational possibilities in all of the line series, and forces us to ask how we, as observers, change the material we perceive. The uniquely symbiotic relationship between representation and perception rests heavy on the mind throughout the entirety of Interior and Exterior.

The strength of the lines series stems in part from its deeply unsettling yet continually inviting nature. While traditional perspectival painting techniques work to make the top of the canvas seem distant, and evoke a sense of landscape, Stack explicitly rejects this technique in favor of evenly spaced lines throughout the entire canvas. The result, he notes pointing towards the top of the canvas, is an incredibly top-heavy piece that feels as if the weight of its own image will come crashing down at any moment. Lacking a given perspective, and faced with the variety of potential shapes and images hidden within the canvas, Stack’s Imagined Detail forces the viewer to engage with the work and the painter in actively constructing the work they see in front of them.

Scott Stack, Imagined Detail,  2016, 78" x 66", oil on canvas
Imagined Detail, 2016, 78″ x 66″, oil on canvas

Stack works in what he calls a ‘reductivist’ technique. In series such as lines and solids, Stack first establishes a set of limiting factors before proceeding to ‘construct’ his painting. He then changes one aspect of the factors, such as the way in which he mixed the paint, and completes the same painting again. In this way, Stack not only speaks through his materials, but allows his materials to speak themselves. Each new iteration emphasizes a separate component of the work and by presenting the series as a whole, these small differences become defining characteristics. The similarity and uniformity that results from this technique rests on the boundary of the uncanny, welcoming as they are from the visual density of the line series yet oddly unique in nearly undefinable ways.

The optical nature of Stack’s work is immediately evocative of the Op Art movement of 60’s and 70’s. Despite the similarity, however, there is a striking difference; Stack’s work does not trick you, but instead invites you to participate in the impossibility of visual certainty. Pointing towards the soft edges that run throughout both the lines and the solids series, Stack notes that denying hard edges turns the optical trick into a meditation on cognitive processes.

// Scott Stack’s show, Interior and Exterior, runs until August 5th at the Chicago Cultural Center, located at 78 E. Washington, and is free and open to the public. //