Lily van der Stokker’s Radical Flowers & Relentless Good Cheer

Dutch artist Lily van der Stokker’s cartoon-aesthetic, pastel pleasantries are not at all what they seem. On the surface, they function to reify longstanding assertions that there is a feminine style of art as well as feminine subject matter (and a corresponding feminine audience). The cheerful orange, yellow, pink, and green daisies of her mural Thank You Darling (Dec. 2023-Nov. 2024) at 22nd Street adjacent to the High Line in New York City may as well grace the cover of your fifth grade ring binder. 

It’s “girlie.” It’s “feminine.” We say that like it’s a bad thing. 

Not according to Lily van der Stokker, whose art incorporates common stereotypes related to concepts of femininity and life as a woman and as an artist. Often, quotidian complaints, concerns, and responsibilities take center stage as subject matter in her work, highlighting by their presence the fact that they are trivialized in art and life. For example, domestic tasks, financial woes, health struggles, interpersonal dramas large and small, and so forth inform works via text. 

Brevity is key: “THANK YOU DARLING.” “YEAH.” “GOOD.YES. 1990.” “Lily is 41. Jack is 57.” “WHAT IS LOVE. WHAT IS LIFE. WHAT IS DEATH.” “All day problems. In the evening TV.” “warm apple crumble & whipped cream.” Isolated, the snippets of text are cryptic. Compiled, they describe a day in the life of , we surmise, a woman. 

I visited Lily’s exhibition, I Am Here, at FRAC Normandie in Caen (France) in late May. Perhaps it goes without saying that there is no substitute for an in-person viewing experience, but it feels essential with her large multimedia installations. Their three dimensionality feels magical, as if the next stage in the development of these adolescent visual musings is animation.

Household furniture and everyday objects appear like cartoon-style outcroppings of the colorful wall imagery. In The Plumber (2023), a light-blue and white, child-size chair is dwarfed by a colossal pile of laundry with anthropomorphic features that threaten to turn monstrous. Scrawled in the same light blue in lower case are the words “the plumber is coming.” 

Click image to enlarge.

In a reprise from an earlier installation, on/in front of an adjacent wall, Untitled with 3 chairs (2008), augments this scene of domestic distress. Here, three equally colorful, vacant plastic chairs have been positioned, seemingly strategically, beneath a mural of a huge pool of water. Two gooey pink fireballs are crashing into the water with an anticlimactic effect. 

Taken together, these scenes of mock domestic horror harken back to 1960s Pop Art, particularly to Richard Hamilton’s collages like Interior (1964-5) featuring domestic imagery that leveled ruthless criticism of capitalism, mass marketing and consumption, and sexism. In his images, women are both sex objects and sleek appliances–accessories. 

Lily van der Stokker’s works suggest there is a bright side to the darker side of domestic mundanity.

And yet, Lily’s works suggest there is a bright side to the darker side of domestic mundanity, which highlights one of the major conundrums of contemporary feminism (or post-feminism): what if our hard-won (relative) liberty to build lives beyond the domestic sphere present us with too many or untenable choices? Indeed, what can seem on the surface like an abundance of choices can easily feel like a trap or at least a test that is impossible to pass. What if we don’t want to have it all? Or, what if we want a little bit of a lot of things? And so on.

Lily’s art, which art critic Roberta Smith once referred to as “terminally cheerful” with “a double edge,” goes there, to that site of impossible or at least tenacious dilemmas. For instance, she frequently reflects on the difficulty of balancing her artistic career with other forms of labor required of her and, traditionally, of women: largely unpaid, historically and persistently undervalued or even unacknowledged domestic and emotional labor. 

When she was in art school in the 1970s, explicitly feminist art was in its nascence and the art world was dominated by men–artists and critics, for the most part–and minimalist abstraction ruled. Then and for centuries prior, there was a hierarchy of media and genres as well as a visual vocabulary that referred to certain styles, subjects, and formal features as masculine and feminine. 

By the 1980s, when she’d begun her artistic career in New York City, Lily had already charted a course that defied and even flaunted the rules.

By the 1980s, when she’d begun her artistic career in New York City, Lily had already charted a course that defied and even flaunted the rules. With nervy deliberateness, she employed a palette and themes that had long been regarded as feminine and frivolous. “Flowers,” she once explained in an interview, “are a forbidden symbol in the art world,” which fascinated her. Their association with femininity and the domestic sphere had long since relegated them to the lower echelons of subject matter.

In response to the Minimalist clarion call, Lily did the opposite: “I started to fill this void up with fluff, clouds and doodles, all kinds of nothing-y nonsense,” but it wasn’t nothing, it just wasn’t manly, except in the context of prescriptive minimalist precision, which held exactitude in the highest regard. In that respect, her exacting processes remain beyond reproach if anyone’s keeping score.

Click image to enlarge.

Lily, who now lives and works in Amsterdam and New York City, refers to her style as “feminist conceptual pop art.” Text plays a crucial role in her work, although it isn’t always centered. For instance, in the work at FRAC Normandie titled, Real Estate Taxes from 2008, the text is relatively small. A huge scale dripping with rainbow-colored polka-dotted glop weighs “Real Estate Tax Maintenance” on one arm against “Saving accounts” on the other. The weight of those words is made clear.

The process by which a painting, large or small, comes to fruition is as exacting as her technique. Even the murals have their genesis in notebook-sized sketches and preparatory drawings. With the precision of an engineer, the artworks and their interrelationships within a given gallery space are carefully attended to. 

Aside from small, portable paintings and three-dimensional components, Lily executes the works directly onto the gallery walls, where they are temporary denizens of the space like nomads moving from house to house. In one piece, Brown wall painting with artist catalogues (2022), a brown and harvest gold heap of who-knows-what sprouting blue lines like hairs or cartoon indicators of an unpleasant scent wafting off of the pile is the backdrop for a tidy dollhouse arrangement: a schoolchild-size chair and desk sit empty beside a small bookshelf arranged with identical catalogs of Lily’s art. If text had been incorporated, it might well have said, “read between the lines.”

In addition to the mural installations, a few small, framed works were included in I Am Here at FRAC Normandie. One such piece, titled Breast? (2022), features the same 1970s pattern harvest gold and brown swirling pattern as well as a conical form and a wooden chair: more women’s themes, yes?

I Am Here, Lily’s exhibition at FRAC Normandie closes on December 22, 2024. However, it’s possible to see one of the Netherlands’ most celebrated contemporary artist’s work in New York City right now. As mentioned above, her mural, Thank You Darling at 22nd Street and the High Line in Manhattan, features her signature ice-cream-colors palette and all of the refreshing,  tongue-in-cheek satire one large-scale painting can deliver.

© Debra Thimmesch (6/12/24) – Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Learn more about I Am Here, currently on display at FRAC Normandie.

Local to NYC? Check out Lily van der Stokker’s work Thank You Darling on the High Line.

Read more about Lily van der Stokker from the Kaufmann Repetto Gallery.

From more information on Richard Hamilton’s Interior (1964-5), check out the Tate Modern.

Follow Lily van der Stokker on Instagram.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: Lily van der Stokker stands in front of her exhibit. Photo credit: Martin Argyroglo. All Rights Reserved.

Bottom Photo: Thank You Darling mural by Lily van der Stokker located on the High Line in New York City. Photo credit: Rowa Lee. All Rights Reserved.

A special thank you to Davide at Kaufmann Repetto in New York City for the help in securing these two photos. Note that these two photos are NOT owned by FF2 Media, therefore we CANNOT authorize their use. User will need permission from Martin Argyroglo, Rowa Lee &/or Davide at Kaufmann Repetto.

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First Middle Photo: Brown wall painting with artist catalogues by Lily van der Stokker on display in I Am Here at FRAC Normandie.

Second Middle Photo: Real Estate Taxes by Lily van der Stokker on display in I Am Here at FRAC Normandie.

Both middle photos, provided by Debra Thimmesch, were taken for FF2 Media on 5/26/24. Therefore, they are both authorized for responsible use as long as user includes link to THIS post in photo credits.

Tags: Debra Thimmesch, Dutch Women Artists, FRAC Normandie, France, High Line, I Am Here, Kaufmann Repetto Gallery, Lily van der Stokker, New York City, NYC, The High Line, Women painters

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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