Frances Stark’s paternal grandmother, Edith, once took a Polaroid of an early snapshot of herself, with the picture leaning artfully against a wall. She wrote on the back: “Me Edith.” She was a proto-Instagram-user, curating the presentation of her own image. Stark treasures that Polaroid.
The artist’s aesthetic DNA snakes right back to her grandmother’s. Much of her show at the Museum of Fine Arts, “UH-OH: Frances Stark 1991-2015,” springs from autobiography. Her sex life, her neuroses, her pedagogical passions, and motherhood are all on the table. She even invited her parents to write essays for the exhibition catalog.
That relentless self-exposure taps into a zeitgeist hatched by reality television and social media, one that exposes a nakedly narcissistic element of American culture. Stark might be an Andy Warhol of the 21st-century. Like him, she has found a rich surface vein of the American psyche that no artist before has effectively accessed.
Outside the gallery, large pictures of a peacock and of the artist as a child, bending and peering at us through her legs, set a playful if self-involved, tone. But Stark is no narcissist. Her work is too thoughtful, self-aware, and needled by doubt: Uh-oh — what has she gotten herself into?
An elegant, sweeping, occasionally sweet exhibition, it turns out, which leans as heavily on the artist’s intellectual rigor as it does on the skeletons in her open closet. Stark works across mediums: digital video, collage, painting, performance, and sculpture. She’s a social-media savant: She started making cat videos way back in the late 1990s. (Her wildly active Instagram account is @therealstarkiller; the exhibition has a selection from it in a slide show.)
Ali Subotnick, who organized “UH-OH” for the Hammer Museum (supported in Boston by Liz Munsell, the MFA’s assistant curator of contemporary art and special initiatives), has designed a show that spirals through themes and motifs. Meaning builds as you move through it.
Stark’s charming, awkwardly hilarious video “My Best Thing” is near the gallery entrance. The artist gave toy-like animated characters a script from her own online sex chats. One Italian lover asks her if she wants to see his “best thing,” and is as dear as Forrest Gump offering a chocolate. Everything is digitized; even the voices are automated. The format doesn’t sanitize the sexual content so much as spoof it.
How does technology shape the way we communicate? What does it do to our relationships? In the middle gallery, “The Inchoate Incarnate: Bespoke Costume for the Artist” depicts an earlier style of communication: The rotary phone. It pays tribute to Stark’s mother, who worked as a telephone operator. Stark has worn it in two performances. In one, she shared her online sex-chat experiences with the audience.
For Stark, reading is every bit as intimate as virtual sex, and for all her digital wizardry, she is as prolific making analog art. There are more than 100 pieces in “UH-OH,” many of them text-based. For an early work, she laboriously copied Henry Miller’s sexy novel “Sexus” using carbon paper, as if trying to make the words her own.
Stark’s collages and paintings have graphic design’s crackle, and they teem with references to Western art history and literature. She sets “Push,” “Pull After ‘Push’,” and “Push After ‘Pull After Push’ ” inside her studio, a glass-fronted store in a mall. As these paintings proceed, she covers the glass walls with mylar for privacy and self-reflection. The images draw on art history (a reclining woman — the artist) and popular culture (rappers 50 Cent and Soulja Boy) and ask: Is power in the gaze, or in the display?
That’s a whopper of a question. Stark struggles with it as a woman, an artist, and someone who crafts her life for exhibition. The mylar in those paintings says a lot: You can’t have revelation without concealment. A zesty group of mixed-media collages of chorus girls wearing dresses in dizzying op-art patterns makes just that point. Can-can dancers wore spectacular, frou-frou outfits, inviting but hiding right up until the peek-a-boo high kicks. “Chorus girl folding self in half” takes exactly the position Stark did as a girl in the picture outside the gallery’s entrance.
The MFA has positioned the final piece in “UH-OH” apart from the exhibition, downstairs in the Mabel Louise Riley Seminar Room. The work, a collaboration with her assistant, Bobby Jesus, a young man from South Central Los Angeles, has a different tone and rhythm. Less doubt, more braggadocio. She knows the studio; he knows the street.
The installation, “Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention Is Free,” features video projected over a mural of a checkerboard pattern. On the squares, images of Jay Z, George H.W. Bush, and the artists themselves show up amid art historical reproductions and more.
Music by DJ Quik pounds out of speakers as searchlights scan over the darkened grid. Text from hip-hop songs and from Stark’s interviews with Bobby Jesus scrolls above with all the import of the opening moments of “Star Wars,” but the language is rough and often confrontational, and the content more immediate — often about real lives lost.
Working with Bobby Jesus, Stark opens herself to a new framework, one outside the stuffy, albeit deep, trappings of fine art. It’s fresh and abrasive, and while there’s less self-exposure, “Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater” grapples with issues of power and display that are at the heart of hip-hop, ones that Stark has explored throughout her career.
What could be next? Is it even possible to integrate Stark’s personal, more vulnerable voice with street aesthetics? That would be something to see.
UH-OH: Frances Stark 1991-2015
At Museum of Fine Arts, through Jan. 29. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.