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  • Hard Feelings:Stephanie Brooks
  • Lauren Berlant

Minimalism, Feminism, Sentiment

This essay on Stephanie Brooks's art is also a meditation on affect, emotion, formalism, and feminism, all of which her art makes you wonder about. Brooks's work often takes the shape of a series, a series not shaped by genre, exactly, but by form, form being a kind of repetition that induces the double take of recognition because events become predictable during the stretched-out absorption of aesthetic time (oh, that sound again, that line, that shape, that feeling). Her work takes up book shapes, poem shapes, forms from ordinary life that usually induce inattention because of their reliable intelligibility.

But here they call out from their cool stability toward something else: the kinds of sharp outrage that can tip over pleasure at the edge of a joke. But it would be easy not to catch this critical drift, this angry floating mote, because the works' practice of formal reenactment often convolutes feeling as it extends form. It recalls artwork like Jenny Holzer's or Barbara Kruger's without being much like that work, which is very noisy. Brooks's practice of formalism opens up unusual questions about how engaged art works: it reenacts ordinary sights on behalf of interfering with ordinary affects and feelings without manifesting those scenes explicitly. If implicitation weren't already a word, it would be invented to describe the activity of Brooks's body of work. But Brooks's process is a paradox, since the work is so formal and so verbal, so out there and yet so mild, in the way it juts out into and interferes with space. What hails your attention often points to retention. I proceed with some examples of her art of extroverted withdrawal, of giving as withholding, of providing formal comforts while detaching the comforting affects from their very anchors.

Art history–literate viewers of Brooks's work will immediately read its formalism in the context of two traditions. On one side, one sees the mark of Dadaesque deployments of clichéd word and image, outrage and iconoclasm, and anti-bourgeois counter-conventionalism; on the other, the minimalist tradition in sculpture and painting, with its emphasis on affirmation in negation, erasure, pure [End Page 407] color, sound, gesture. One looks at her work and can draw a simple line to Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Ann Truitt. For example, form and formalism, there, represent an anti-sentimental, anti-absorptive refusal of mimetic affective identification, or at least demand the quieting down of the noise of emotion in the aesthetic encounter. This mode of artwork tries not to produce an echo in the viewer, but makes an environment where something else resonates. The aesthetic exchange is therefore never in imitative scale: a large work can induce a small, off-center impact; a cool piece can provoke something hot. At the same time, both of these traditions emphasize something kinetic and intuitive in the aesthetic event, even when the aesthetic event is purely conceptual. Something happens in the viewer's bodily response, which then has to be shaped using whatever skills of ordering and eloquence—cognitive, emotive—the viewer has.

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Happy Halloween, 2007, digital print, 20" x 20". Courtesy: Stephanie Brooks, Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago and Peter Blum Gallery, New York.

These two lineages, one hotter and one cooler, each transform when they meet in Brooks's work, which uses cool form and hot text to interfere with emotion in the service of a critical anti-sentimentality.

How to create apertures in normative affect and emotion without representing them, to create a space of suspended reflection without overtelling how to do it, to produce affective release without promising anything about feeling good, [End Page 408] feeling right, feeling well, or feeling superior? It is queasy-making, paradox-producing work that engineers both an unanxious attachment to the object (you usually know what it is) and affective instability in the penumbra around it.

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Love poem for you, 2007, wood, painted shelf. Courtesy: Stephanie Brooks, Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago and Peter Blum Gallery, New York.



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pp. 407-419
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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