By GRACE KOOK-ANDERSON
Stepping into the Hoffman Gallery from the scenic campus of Lewis & Clark College, we see sets of small paintings hanging around the spacious room of the front gallery. The intimate scale of Eric Stotik’s paintings in this gallery compel us to look closely, as if observing a medieval scroll or the delicate lines of Indian miniature paintings. Stotik’s images however bear scenes of horror, suffering, and often pain. They are surreal, perhaps familiar from our darker dreams or more horrid realities. And the small scale demands a closer look, drawing us into the distressing images more intensely.
I am reminded of Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War series of prints (1810-1820). Privately created, Goya captured his countrymen’s struggle against the French army during Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain. The illustrations captured not only the horrors of the war, but also its aftermath and famine. Though Stotik illustrates some specific scenes, much of his imagery appears timeless, non-specific, and collage-like. They are images that cumulatively capture the horrors of war through the present moment.
Often painting first in a gray scale, Stotik layers multiple transparent pigments. This adds to their drama, but it also illuminates moments, jumping to the surface, crisp forms undeniable. Stotik paints not just on more traditional canvases, panels and Arches watercolor paper, but other surfaces including a mechanic’s rag; a used, carefully unrolled, cigarette paper; and a bank bag. Though he is not interested in the objectness of materiality in his work, it is undeniable how much impact these surfaces have. In Stotik’s case, this alchemic process opens up a visual language to the viewer.
In a painting from 1999 (Stotik usually does not title his work), a soldier is bent over an enemy soldier, fallen to the ground. The horizon in the distance is lit up from fires and bombings. In this night scene, even the grass in the foreground appears to have been beaten down and flattened from the repercussions of battle.
Fixed on the standing soldier’s uniform, the seams of his durable fabric, the wrinkles from the wear of the day, and the perfectly shined boots that have bent and stretched to form to the soldier’s foot, define this painting. It is also an intimacy the enemy soldier might observe—this in contrast to his own worn uniform, bulky large boots that barely support his ankles, and fabric that covers his more skeletal form.
The next gallery holds Stotik’s large-scale paintings. They range in height from seven to nine feet tall, in looming presence. The composition, the details of the figure, and surreal quality of some of Stotik’s paintings remind me of some of the Northern Renaissance painters like Jan Van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch. All created in 2000, one painting in particular appears to be shaped as a central panel of a triptych to an altar painting. The image is of a woman, bare from the waist up, holding a naked infant on her side. Both their faces are distorted, wearing masks. It appears the mother wears the Schandmaske, or “mask of shame,” as Hoffman Gallery director Linda Tesner points out in her catalog essay, a mask that comes up in other paintings.
The Doberman Pinscher that is sitting in front of the woman adds to the menacing quality of this painting. However, the dog feels strangely contemporary in the context of the painting. With electric green eyes, its presence borders on a caricature of peril. Unlike the small paintings in the front gallery, these large works contain figures revealing some sort of disproportion. The mother’s forearm extends too far in the grasp of her child. In another painting, a woman who peers out a window has ghastly large hands; and in yet another, the torso and arms of a Holocaust prisoner about to be hung, stretch down too far. These marks of disproportion exaggerate the nightmarish imagery to these moments—as if stretched out in an unimaginable time warp.
The centerpiece of this exhibition is a continuous painting of 11 panels, connecting together seamlessly, encircling the viewer. Steps lead into the center, allowing for a 360-degree view of the 5-feet high, 45-feet long painting. It is a panoramic image of a broken and chaotic landscape. Figures, animals, machines, dead trees, and dilapidated structures lay across the continuous landscape. Even the sky is thick with impending danger—in fact, Stotik’s skies are never trite, soft-breezed fluffy atmospheres. They are almost always thick, heavy, cloudy, and gaseous.
The first figure we encounter from the central platform is an aged woman, perhaps from Central Asia. The dark, cloudy blue sky in the background accentuates the jewel-tones of her red headscarf and green coat. The leathery wrinkles on her face and hand echo the dry and burdened land surrounding her. In this way—and in much of Stotik’s figures—the body remains a central subject, reflecting its constraints and limitations, revealing its sufferings, weighed down by its temporal vessel, the body hides nothing.
In his artist talk held in conjunction with the exhibition, Stotik dashed through his presentation, discussing mostly the process of his work. But in conversation during the Q&A, he became more revealing. An audience member pointed out that he didn’t once mention the subject of human suffering in his work. Stotik replied there was no need to since it was apparent, but after some pause, he added, “I like the artists who smell the sulfur.”
Sulfur, an essential element for all life, is also the volcanic stink, a reminder of eternal damnation. In this way, Stotik’s paintings are “fire and brimstone,” waking us up to our humanity. The details in his paintings—like the intricate mapping of wrinkled, leathery skin; strands of hair; the seams in clothes—seem devotional to the tender balance of our existence.
Eric Stotik: Fugue continues through December 13, 2015, at the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art, Lewis & Clark College. Regular gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The gallery is free and open to the public; parking on campus is free on weekends.