Portrait Lily van der Stokker

I am an artwork and I am 3 years old, 2004, acrylic paint on wall and box
Courtesy die Künstlerin und kaufmann repetto, Milan/New York

Lily van der Stokker's wall paintings and installations play on the decorative, the “nice” and the “girly”. Gossip, celebrity friends, and the always-dirty home find a place on the museum's walls, which become a diary full of colourful flowers and clouds. In this way, the artist has developed not only her own approach to image and text but also a feminist strategy: “Nonshouting Feminism” as she calls it.

“I love the decorative – the flowers, the curls, and the nothingness. I love it because I am a girl, but then I’m also an artist, and I love everything that I learned, such as Minimalism and Conceptualism.”
Lily van der Stokker in conversation with John Waters, 2010

A pink gel pen on a folder during study hall begins to loop and dance and whorl across the surface of a notebook cover. A magician’s wand, a magic flute, Harold’s purple crayon, a whole world swirls out in a rosy puff. Or maybe it’s one of those ballpoints where you click the back and get a new colour: fluorescent oranges and neon yellows, cool blues and pastel greens. Unselfconscious pictures and patterns appear in these loopy, shapeless shapes.

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A doodle is drawing made while distracted, finding itself in the margins. Some (arty surrealists and psychic doctors) might say that doodles dream all the things you aren’t allowed for whatever reason; suppressed desire.

What perhaps began as a bored squiggle gets more and more elaborate as minutes clock on. This standard sheet of paper, so plainly multipurpose, easily holding a lawyer’s briefs or a mathematician’s postulates, a modular, mass-produced thing with its hard lines and solid planes, isn’t that anymore. It’s not even a thing anymore, it’s a bouncing body, the words not just idle thoughts and gossip but also the quiet susurrus of life like a heartbeat mistaken for the trivial.

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These doodles dance from the pen and brush of Lily van der Stokker. Born in 1954 in Den Bosch, Netherlands, she decamped to New York in 1983 to open an unnamed gallery (though it later became Stokker Stikker) with Carolien Stikker and Jack Jaeger, her lifelong partner till his death in 2013. The gallery closed in 1986 and she has worked as an artist since, her studio life split between Amsterdam and New York. She’s exhibited in over 60 solo exhibitions, including “No Big Deal Thing” at the Tate St. Ives; “Sorry, Same Wall Painting” at the New Museum, New York; and “Terrible” at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam. The titles are important, another space for language that’s chatty, smart, and vulnerable. Using language that is informal, she creates a kind of intimacy.

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These doodles name friends alongside hurriedly jotted lecture excerpts from history, high-brow movements and canonical grandees headline next to beloved pop idols and porn stars: Sylvie Fleury, Bob Nickas, John Armleder, Ru Paul, Annie Sprinkle, La Cicciolina, Dolly Parton. Crushes, both celeb and across the room, get named in curling letters. Gossip gets marquee’d with glow and pop: “Jack $3700 in the bank, but not for long” or “Katerina was a nice person (last year, now I can’t stand her anymore)”.

The teenager’s script talks about the quotidian travailles and expansive thoughts of a grown-up artist.

They began with simple, sunbright declarations like “Wonderful” or “Friendly”, but come to enumerate and reveal a reflected life. Simple to-do lists erupt into spring bouquets: “the apartment needs to be painted”. A running commentary colors them throughout, a diary both vulnerable and funny: “Sorry same wallpainting on that → side of wall, I know it’s kind of dumb”.

Beginning as drawings, van der Stokker’s work expands into massive, room-defining wall paintings with a pastel palette, cartoony line, a penchant for flowers and repeating patterns, and diaristic words written with a distinctively loopy-handwriting. The patterns in early drawings and wall paintings felt like those from textiles found in interior design. By the 90s, patterned sofas and rugs easily flowed out of her wall paintings, the objects becoming space inhabited, coated, and covered by the decorative patterns that began on the wall and then spread. Here the possibility of playful imaginative space leaves the two-dimensional for the third.

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Van der Stokker reveals the doodle to possess a special kind of power. Hers is an easy, gentle, and funny mixing of art and life. The openness, vulnerability, and pleasure in her work moves out of the picture plane and into reality. The doodle, like the decorative, like craft, has been (and still is) considered as less than, yet van der Stokker uses traditional feminine imagery, colors, and symbols in an assertive way. Taking something once denigrated and owning it as an asset rather than a liability, she redefines what femininity means for herself, rather than letting others define it for her.

In her recent exhibition at the Hammer Museum, in their huge lobby and grand staircase entrance, van der Stokker has done a wall-painting that free-floats the complaints of everyday domestic life. The piece shares the same pale pastels as much of the rest of her work, soft blue and pale green writing on a sundrop yellow or baby pink. The doodle hasn’t disappeared; its loops, weighted by responsibilities, have become lists and grievances. The words “Washing and Cleaning” dominate one wall, “Organised & Tidy” the other.

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Domestic labor is pretty physical, sometimes gross, and intimate as hell. Just to pull a few things from her walls: pulling hairs from the drain, cleaning toilets, a dirty sock in a corner, bread crumbs on the floor, mildew on the shower curtain. All of it the creeping disorder that only diligent scrubbing can contain. Rather than tearjerking over heartthrobs these doodles now tearjerk from the frustration and loneliness of demeaned domestic labor.

This list of duties does not limit itself to the sheet of notebook paper, but covers a corporate lobby that has been transformed into the atrium of a grand museum. One kind of institutional power for another, both known to alienate. Writ large, these tasks do not take on the empty largeness of institutions, but handwritten, they maintain their human scale.

The first powerful pen we began with remains in hand. With the quick wrist and quicker wit of Lily van der Stokker, the sparkle of joy remains undimmed in these loopy lines, that girlish lilt, this lady’s labors; weighty in its lightness, necessary in its sweet joy.

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Lily van der Stokker, born 1954 in Den Bosch, Netherlands. Lives in Amsterdam and New York.

EXHIBITIONS : Fertility, 33 Orchard, New York; Hammer Projects, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (solo); Looking Back, White Columns, New York (2015); Huh, Koenig & Clinton, New York (solo) Hello Chair, Air de Paris, Paris (solo) (2014); NYC 1993, New Museum, New York (2013); Living Room, kaufmann repetto, Milan (solo) (2012); The Air We Breathe, SFMOMA, San Francisco (2011); No Big Deal Thing, Tate St Ives, St. Ives/ Cornwall (solo); Terrible, Museum Boijmans, Rotterdam (solo) (2010).

REPRESENTED BY Air de Paris, Paris; Koenig & Clinton, New York; kaufmann repetto, Milan/New York; Galerie van Gelder, Amsterdam 

Andrew Berardini is a critic, writer, and curator based in Los Angeles.