Athena LaTocha: ‘Sturm und Drang’

Melvile Library Gallery, Stony Brook University, November 3-11, 2006

‘Sturm und Drang’ (Storm and Stress), for those who may be unfamiliar with the term, was a cultural movement in the late eighteenth century, built around the desire for freedom of expression and the primacy of instinct and impulse. Members of the group, including Goethe and Lavater, were hostile to rules and reason, and contemptuous of cultural norms, polite manners and social refinements. The movement stressed the importance of inspiration, inner vision and unconscious drives. Given this limited understanding of the movement, LaTocha’s style and intent become clearer. A sense of storm and stress pervades these works. From the extreme variance in scale (some as small as 2 3/4 by 3 3/4 inches, others as large as 12 by 8 feet), to the seemingly violent manipulation of surface and materials, viewers find echoes of Sturm und Drang.

Though apparently violent, LaTocha’s technique betrays a sense of calculation and care. Far from merely throwing paint against the surface, the images have been carefully worked out to ensure a sense of depth and placement. Some appear to depict a landscape as seen from the window of a car, speeding through the American southwest along some lonely stretch of road. Others appear more fixed, as if we are looking into a canyon from a high, windswept plateau. The landscapes seem drawn from memory, if they exist at all, or perhaps the views depict LaTocha’s inner landscape, echoing her feelings about life and her work. LaTocha achieves this strange dichotomy between real and imaginary partly through working on the floor, a technique that adds to her works a strange sense of perspective that seems to contain both longing and belonging.

Working on the floor allows LaTocha to become part of the landscapes she creates. In a sense, as she works, she is there in the landscape, crawling around, moving mountains and sky to make the place more to her liking. She scrapes and gouges, building up layers of earth, peeling them back to reveal the sky or uncover fossilized remains, turning unconscious and preconscious desires and doubts into a place where she can feel at home, or at least find something she can live with. As viewers, we may read the landscapes in many different ways. To me, surface, texture and color combine to suggest what I would call a sense of ‘placelessness’, as if we are unsure of where we are and whether we should go forward or backward. We are positive that we will never return, that we can never return, though we would be happy to do so, as there is some comfort to be found here. In this place of indeterminacy, this place that leaves us feeling unsure of direction, purpose and action, somehow we find hope, as if, in this nowhere, we somehow belong.

What do these works have to do with Sturm und Drang? For one, there is a strong sense of instinct and impulse in the works. The method of execution and end result betray a sense of directness and individuality that would not be possible if LaTocha worked from some preconceived notion of the finished product. The works also clearly stem from her unconscious, and receive inspiration from an inner vision of the world as both threatening and inviting. Some inner turmoil is involved in the works, from the scraping and gouging of the surface, to the building up of gnarled, crystalline textures. The vivid though slightly muddy colors also help express a sense of inner turmoil and confusion. LaTocha’s landscapes remind us that everyone has moments of doubt and uncertainty; the world seems filled with indeterminacy. Where are we going? Where have we been? What is this place? Perhaps answers to these questions will be found as LaTocha continues her work. I certainly hope so.

 

For more about Athena Latocha, and to view images of her current works, please visit her website.

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