The narratives in my work are about the search for some semblance of truth in the face of uncertainty. This sentiment seems especially apt considering the hubris of our current socio-political climate where so many claim to have answers while asking almost no questions.
Fred Stonehouse borrows techniques from Renaissance and medieval art, Magic Realism, Folk Art and Surrealism to explore the human condition in Certainty of Doubt, his first exhibition at Robischon Gallery. Hybrid creatures, demons, and homunculi are proxies for those in contemporary society who find themselves aware of their own fragility and imperfections. The artist’s figures, often fanciful, absurd, or even startling, maintain a sense of dogged determination and nobility even as they struggle to navigate the world around them.
Stonehouse’s paintings and works on paper stem from a variety of personal sources and narratives to inform his imagery - his Catholic school upbringing, his Sicilian ancestry, and living with a deaf mother are just a few of the many important experiences in his work that merge with art historical iconography to explore contemporary concerns. In Anima Sola, for example, Latin for Lonely Soul, Stonehouse uses the common Italian allegory, which refers to a soul trapped in purgatory. In Stonehouse’s version, a disembodied head sweats above flames; this figure is poised perhaps on the precipice of hell, eternally caught in-between. Many of the creatures in Certainty of Doubt find themselves walking that thin line: neither human nor animal, neither saved nor doomed.
Catholic iconography figures broadly in Stonehouse’s exhibition, with text often bridging the gap between such imagery and the seemingly secular 21st-century. Human faces drip with blood, tears or perspiration, evoking devotional images of the Weeping Madonna or Christ on a Cross. Combined with language, however, the artist’s compositions reveal commonplace and contemporary anxieties, such as a kind of imposter syndrome. In Unknown, the text above a sweating man clutching an animal companion, reads: “He found himself in a situation where he was constantly being asked to do things for which he was not qualified.”
References to the Devil, too, figure prominently. In works such as Lies of Language and Who Gives a Shit, human heads sprout horns. Ears often grow long and pointed, as in the two small drawings, Killer Shrimp and Cannoli, effectively transforming human into demon, though their actual power may be questionable. Art writer Debra Brehmer notes that “Stonehouse’s Devils function broadly as symbols of things that get in our way, fall in our paths, and cause detours.” To the artist himself, the devil is “the paragon of mundane human fallibility."
Stonehouse is not interested in perfect images; rather, he focuses on “the moment when things sort of look three-dimensional but… (are) still fucked up -- the beautifully awkward in art history is what I like.” His affinity for the language of Folk Art and Magic Realism is evident in his painting. An intentional avoidance of perspective and proportion, as well as a preference for flat backgrounds and text refer to language of Folk Art. His use of allegory and symbolism, bizarre juxtapositions, and social satire conjure Magic Realism, especially that of Frida Kahlo. Kahlo often painted self-portraits with her body tangled in or growing vines, symbolizing her human connection to the earth or her tangled relationships and lost progeny. Stonehouse follows this trope in works such as The First Step, Cured, and Blood Riot. Vines grow from mouths or ventricles, wrap and spread around the figure to the edges of the panels.
In Stonehouse’s Cured, vines and leaves clog the mouth and effectively mute his subject. Often in his paintings, mouths are open but rendered silent by flora, snakes, exaggerated and unwieldy tongues, or liquids. Growing up with a deaf parent, the artist was careful with language, and relied on methods other than speech to communicate. Written phrases often accompany his silenced figures, which according to Brehmer, “set(s) his paintings spinning into zones of association,” and for his audience, allowing them to find their own personal way-in.
A number of the figures in Stonehouse’s paintings are self-portraits. In Illusion of Emotion, for example, the artist presents himself as he is, an artist working on a canvas, as well as a child flying a kite. In between the two versions of self, a human-animal hybrid wearing a ghostly dress, suggestive of memory, occupies the space of caregiver. While the self-portraits are specific, they also represent a kind of everyman - the experiences, the choices, and ultimately, the perplexity that every human soul must face.
In Fred Stonehouse’s work, both image and text function as a kind unanswerable puzzle. The artist states, “I used to say that the work is half joke, half prayer. I’m poking fun, but it’s also very serious.” For Stonehouse, that doubt is at the crux of the human condition, and, as conveyed through his imagery, those who acknowledge it are infused with an imperfect nobility and humor. These works are not necessarily intended as warning signs or to prompt activism, but rather as insight into a shared process of human revelation - a way to view the confusion, self-doubt, and conflict in contemporary society.
Fred Stonehouse received his BFA from University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. He has exhibited his work throughout the United States, as well as in Mexico, The Netherlands, Italy, and Germany. He has received the National Endowment of the Arts Midwest Fellowship, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Individual Artists Grant, and the Milwaukee Artist’s Foundation Fellowship, among other esteemed awards. Stonehouse’s artwork is included in public collections such as the Block Museum at Northwestern University; the Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, WI; the Madison Art Center; the San Jose Museum of Art; the Spencer Art Museum, University of Kansas. Stonehouse is currently an Associate Professor of Painting and Drawing at the University of Wisconsin.