Jason Stopa: In Some Novel Way

Looking at Jason Stopa’s exhibition “Joy Labyrinth” at Morgan Lehman Gallery, one gets the impression that in keeping with post-Modernist norms here is another artist embracing the decorative and imagistic aspects of abstract painting. Like the short-lived Zombie Formalists from a few years ago, this move is premised on the belief that abstract painting's viability can only be sustained by recycling those art-historical models most familiar to all. What comes with this is also the certainty there is no need to do anything more than to comment on or combine in some novel manner the selected prototype.

Stopa’s strengths lies in his use of high-key and pastel colors, whose intuitive logic makes his formulaic formalism appear to be soft, humorous, and lyrical. In addition, he can mix sophistication, naiveté, sensibility, and the unpretentious. Though his models for each of these qualities are predetermined rather than invented, Stopa does succeed in holding each in check. This is how he avoids producing a caricature. But, because he tends to render everything in the same matter-of-fact mode, his paintings come across as mannered and inauthentic, which in itself is not a bad thing.

While there are no obvious or direct quotes in Stopa’s work, the vocabulary and pictorial strategies for many of the paintings in this show seemingly are a mash-up of references to Matisse’s late works (1940–50s), the American expatriate painter Shirley Jaffe (1960s), late Lee Krasner (1970s), Jonathan Lasker (1980s) among others. Like these painters, Stopa’s paintings consist of arrangements of discrete, eccentric forms ordered by the most basic of pictorial strategies — the grid. Some paintings employ figure/ground relationships, others consist of multiple shapes, which fill the painting’s surface. Despite the apparent ease with which they are made, one gets the sense there is no room in Stopa’s work for spontaneity or mistakes.

Given his pictorial strategies, Stopa’s images initially, appear to be a type of picture puzzle rather than a formal exercise. Yet, the works’ enigmatic nature breaks down — where at first the shapes and color relations may be thought to be quirky, one becomes distracted by the actual painting of these elements, which runs from the indifferent to the hackney. While this may be an attempt on the artist’s part to undermine the role skill and taste plays in his work — he instead comes across as a stylist. Stopa lacks the authority and ability of a painter such as Kimber Smith, who in the 1950s, made slacker paintings to counter the machismo of AbEx. Stopa is not painting against any dominant model instead, he has chosen to work within a fairly conventional framework. What results is the overall effect of Stopa’s works is decorative.

Referencing the decorative (which is not to be confused with the notion of decoration — applied enhancement), should not be taken as a negative in itself. The value of the decorative has long been debated and is thought to be a fundamental aspect of cognition and understanding. As a central principle of the feminist aesthetics of the 1970s, it was used as a symbol of resistance and stood in opposition to masculine norms. When it comes to Stopa’s paintings, the question to be asked is, where does it lead in this case? One suspects (or hopes) that Stopa is using the decorative as a vehicle for some deeper aesthetic and critical concerns. When trying to determine if this is the case, a problem arises. Such an evaluation originates with the viewer’s comprehension of the inherent criteria which accompany Stopa’s appropriated models. From such a perspective, Stopa offers an indifferent simulation of the role of decorative in abstract painting and contributes nothing to this chosen idiom. This in itself, may be taken as constituting a serious commentary on painting’s present state of affairs.

Stopa’s indifferent paint handling, faux naivete, and eclecticism may be a cynical commentary on abstract paintings, yet more than twenty years ago such bad boy artists as Gunther Forg stated this in a much more challenging and indexical manner. Of course, this redundancy might just be the trap Stopa intended to spring on us all along. If so, the weakness of his paintings, may be his way of stating the existential dilemma summed up by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s lament, “I can’t go on. I must go on.” Meanwhile, some may say it is enough to enjoy what Stopa does; after all what more might one want from abstract art?

-Saul Ostrow

Images courtesy of Morgan Lehman Gallery