‘You can’t find my colors in a paint store’: Lily van der Stokker’s sugar-coated creations | Art
Fblossoms into bursts of comic book euphoria throughout Lily van der Stokker’s new exhibition, Thank You Darling. In a rectangular mural, they repeat themselves like distracted scribbles in the margins of school exercise books. The word “THANK YOU” is painted in the corner of the mural in a seemingly simple sign of gratitude for the pretty colors and shapes. This job even comes with a real red couch to relax on and a vase of flowers to smell. Could art seem easier to live with?
The Dutch artist’s light installations, where murals crawl up walls and round corners in psychedelic flourishes, annotated with words and fragments of conversations or thoughts, have garnered many fans for three decades. An early bouquet adorned a Viktor & Rolf T-shirt. John Waters, the cult director of “trash” cinema, is a vocal admirer. Van der Stokker’s public art projects include painting an entire building exterior pink for the 2000 World’s Fair in Hannover and creating an oversized chintzy teapot that sits atop a shopping mall in Utrecht. Yet despite the popular appeal of all the works, delicate questions about art and everyday life lurk under the sugar coating of nursery pastels, bubblegum pinks and dazzling fluoros.
Van der Stokker traces his style back to his time in art school in the 1970s, where monochrome abstraction dominated and debates buzzed about the death of painting. “I started to question everything: why make art? What to give? Who needs anything I do? she remembers. One response was to reduce the painting to its essentials: a frame with four angles, in which things take place. She then began to explore the simplicity and integral pattern employed by revered abstract painters, in quite a different way: “I began to fill that void with fluff and clouds and squiggles, all sorts of nonsense…to celebrate the essence of abstraction once again.
When she started painting flowers in the late 1980s, perhaps unsurprisingly, they rubbed some people the wrong way. “Flowers are a forbidden symbol in the art world. It fascinated me. Why is it forbidden?” she asks. “It’s related to children, women, home, decoration, fabric, etc.” Van der Stokker displays such taboos, often with the kind of positive message that you get in a greeting card.
She also used the text in the paintings to open the door to another forbidden territory: the mundane but comically resonant wreckage of everyday life. In her next show, the works are inspired by her experience with mundane money problems, aging, health issues and grumbling about her friends’ endless baby talk. A new installation is based on a toy kitchen, but a disgruntled whisper upsets the pretty servant: “Don’t like pandemics.” Another fresco announces: “Red rashes on the face / no itching”.
After creating murals for the exterior walls of buildings, Van der Stokker made her first mural for the interior of a gallery in 1990. “The wall is a very good facilitator with many possibilities,” she says. . “Murals can have various forms and the architecture is the framework. One of the attractions and complexities is that I like to invade space and make it my own. And after the show, I don’t bring anything home.
To illustrate how radical all this is, it is worth recalling the feminist artists she encountered in the 1990s: the confessional work of Tracey Emin or the paintings of Sue Williams dealing with domestic violence. As Van der Stokker points out, harsh media art fits perfectly with an accepted idea of what is transgressive and avant-garde; his perceived nervousness is attractive. In contrast, she pursued what is truly off limits. “If I make an artwork about family issues, administrative duties, or the common flu, it might not seem so groundbreaking,” she reflects. “But I bring in a whole range of new subjects that are normally absent from art.
“When I think, ‘This is kind of a neglected topic, why not make art about it? Is it stupid? Can it be art? Or is it possible that it is art? And in what form? It’s interesting: keep your mind open.
Bright Colours: Three Other Works in the Exhibition
Child care (1991-2019)
This large linen painting is based on a 1991 drawing and riffs on the white squares by minimalist painter Robert Ryman. It includes a yellow flower in the corner and is crowned with the word ‘CHiLDCARE’. “Childcare was totally unsexy, boring, awkward and definitely not a topic at all in the art world that I could see,” says Van der Stokker. “On the back I wrote: ‘Design for monochrome’.”
Transfer Me That Money (2010)
In this earlier work, Van der Stokker channels concerns we can all relate to. “The text is iconic, I think, in the sense that it connects to everyone’s shameful spirit,” she says of the words most people burned to shout at someone. “Not so ashamed, though, because it feels good to shout it out with a smile. And the mural does that for us.
Evening TV (2019)
This work exemplifies Van der Stokker’s extraordinary palette. “I put fluorescent in several of my colors,” she explains. “They do the [sense of] optimism has more impact. This is a special palette that I developed. You can’t get it mixed at a paint store; my colors can only be made by me.
Thank you Darling is at the Camden Arts Centre, London, to September 18.