Purple heart, candy heart, listen to your heart, bleeding heart, mi corazón. Hearts float in and flow from the eyes of lovers, hearts break and weep and race and pound, hearts are always at the center of the matter. From text emojis to valentines, military honors to playing cards, emblems of causes and souvenirs, pumping anatomical essentials, and the mother of all graphic-design ideograms, the image/icon of the heart is one of the most ubiquitous, multi-functional glyphs in the world. Being so fraught with narrative potential and so instantly recognizable and evocative, hearts are also a fine choice for a more purely formal and material set of explorations in, for example, painting. And Linda Stark is the perfect painter for the task.
Stark’s work operates a little like Pop, in that she favors vibrant colors and crisp, pared-down shapes; her lexicon of triangle variations referencing female sex parts with ovarian flourishes is pretty legendary. An expanded set of imagery — such as eyes, hands, belly buttons, and cats — elicits a tensile ferocity from within purportedly soft-energy, feminine signifiers. They’re bright, witty, rather unsettling, and often quite funny. But her paintings are profoundly complexified in important material ways that differentiate them from Pop’s streamlined flatness. Her command of a range of textures, depths of surface, and qualities of line speaks to a diligent mastery of her expanded medium. And her open-mindedness when it comes to the inclusion of found objects and unconventional materials signals a willingness to experiment.
Hearts, Stark’s current exhibition of new and recent works on the theme at David Kordansky Gallery, gathers all of these ideas and practices and many more besides, in a suite of small but mighty paintings that combine personal stories with social commentary and material exploration. Many, though dated 2020, have been in process for months and even years. Stark spoke with the Weekly about these and other matters of the heart.
“Hearts have been on my radar for a while,” Stark says. Her first heart painting was back in the ‘90s, and in 2015 she started the paintings for what became this show. Several works make direct reference to military-style symbolism, in camouflage textile, a likeness of a Purple Heart medal, and a piece dedicated to the Suffragette movement. “I’d been wanting to do a Suffragette painting for years,” she says, “but it didn’t coalesce until I researched Suffragette medals and found Elizabeth Ann Anderson’s hunger strike medal, with heart-shaped petals.”
Although long the subject of her consideration, the particular iconography of hearts was speaking to her more and more directly during this time, and since. “My exploration of hearts has always presented an interesting problem, retooling what might be the most popular symbol on the planet, and that challenge is artistically stimulating,” she says. “When I investigate a popular symbol, there is always a personal experience attached to it, accompanied by an urge to alter or change it, in order to bring in other meanings.”
In this case, personal experiences included not only disastrous political and environmental concerns, but also the advent of Covid, and an earlier, but still recent, personal loss. “The rest of the paintings in the exhibition were underway when my husband died suddenly in 2019,” she says, “yet this series seems strangely relevant to that event.”
And in that several of the works were finished this year, to certain extent, the work deals inevitably with longing and solitude. “The pandemic and politics are concerning, of course. I miss seeing friends,” she says. “But my everyday routine hasn’t changed much. I love working at home alone in the studio in (relative) solitude. Being a shut-in is kind of second nature to me.” And her walks in Griffith Park yield not only fresh air and beauty, but some of the materials from nature which physically end up embedded in certain paintings. “Some of the elements I incorporate are searched for and carefully considered, some are from personal sources, and others are found in my environment or on walks,” she says, “occasionally by accident.”
Purple Heart incorporates clover flowers, which Stark collected in Griffith Park, overpainting the flowers in oil, to encapsulate them, creating a “painter’s amber” in the purple background. “The flowers are a sincere offering to the soldier’s sacrifice,” Stark explains. “They also suggest fireworks, might be funereal, and importantly, bestow Flower Power too. In Burr Heart II, the burrs were collected from L.A. River reeds in my backyard. I applied several layers of transparent red oil paint in glazes over the burrs to produce the look of a cherry amber heart, filled with life force. In Fly Paper Heart, I repurposed the flypaper strips from my husband’s studio during gnat season. I was appalled by the flypaper but drawn to use it because it was like readymade amber. It stands for a heart that is attractive and sweetly fragrant, but also sticky and poisonous.”
In fact, Stark has been working with this “painter’s amber” since 2005, when she first embedded botanical and insectoid matter into dripping pigment. “From time to time,” she says, “it seems appropriate to work with actual things. The incorporation of unusual elements also allows another avenue to infuse a painting with substance that veers from traditional painting. It can set up a palpable presence, not illusionistic, but direct and actual. The amber paintings are a celebration of natural presences, memorialized.” Living forever, in other words, in our hearts.
The exhibition is on view at David Kordansky Gallery, by appointment through October 24; davidkordanskygallery.com.