Needing Something, Hitting a Wall

Sabrina Tarasoff

An island can be dreadful for someone from the outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.
—Tove Jansson, The Summer Book 1

When I first read Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson’s stories as a child, I realized one could devote an entire life to big dreams in small formats. This was not only because her tales were built from perspectives that I could identify with—those shared by the sweetly infantile, the squeezable, and the bite-sized. It was also because she was immersed—and immersed me—in the idea that the short story was the ideal form of writing, equipped  as it was with precisely and only what it needed: one had to be able “to hold the tale enclosed in one’s hand.”2 In retrospect, what I was negotiating probably belonged to something like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea of that which “is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and am not able to express) [as] the background against which whatever I could express [had] its meaning.” 3 The world did end at those shores; I understood meaning only in their wake.

Jessica Stockholder, Set Eyes On, 2015. Wooden tables, plastic, mirrors, lamps, acrylic, carpet, 157 ½ × 275 ½ × 137 ¾ in. Installation view, Palpable Glyphic Rapture, Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris, January 22–March 14, 2015. © Jessica Stockholder. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/ Brussels. Photo : Tutti Image / Bertrand Huet.

Jessica Stockholder, who was raised on the coast of Vancouver, Canada, commented: “The way the water meets an island, or another piece of land, and forms a horizon line below the one made by the tops of the mountaintops meeting the sky—that particular horizon line has something to do with the kind of space that I am interested in.”4 As on Jansson’s islands (in particular the one belonging to a little girl named Sophia, though more about that later), one can imagine ambling around Stockholder’s sculptures in casual whimsy—plastic bins woven with volumes of lime green tulle, mobiles of scallop shells, red wigs and copper wire tubing, endless lists of dangling stuff, basically—following a spatial ambition acutely in touch with its own precariousness. Such formalism is a stubborn flight of fancy that rouses the insecurity of not knowing how to tease out its meaning, let alone address its impressions. (This may be this writer’s specific angst.) Yet the idea is not to sweat the inexpressible, nor exalt its inevitable frustrations, as the post-modernists might have, but to readmit form as one aspect of meaning—which Stockholder seems to draw out of Wittgenstein’s wager that “the expression of a change of aspect is the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception’s being unchanged.”5 Something-as-this, something-as-that. That is, one can find family resemblance in mismatched experiences through changes in aspect—experiences such as visualization, model-making, practicing one’s imagination, flipping over a word in mind a million times to consider its meaning, or thinking about what meaning exists between non-sequiturs. (Think of Lewis Carroll’s riddles: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”6) What is consistent is the form that expresses the experience. An island is an island is an island.

Like so, Stockholder’s clusters of baskets become cloud castles, lamps cast kisses, and spaces themselves—the space of a gallery or the inside of a sculpture—form shorelines. She experiences space as a series of angular relationships idling where mood and façade meet in the word aspect, which literally, in collage, assemblage, papier-mâché and models, lies in how two materials touch, how they imitate one another, what they exchange. What her work solicits—what it anticipates, or fruitlessly desires—is then description: what is seen, what is experienced, what is felt. But if the goal is this (provisional) expression of the inexpressible, which is to say minor affects and subtle, seedy moods—nuances of experience, Stockholder’s task is to achieve exemption, as Roland Barthes would put it, “from meaning within a perfectly readerly discourse.”7 She recognizes the inexpressible as simply a different system of signification, which is much like haiku was for Barthes: “[A haiku] is not a rich thought reduced to form, but a brief event which finds its form.”8 That form then exempts its object—in this case sculpture—from meaning toward the purpose of seeming “simple, close, known, delectable, delicate, ‘poetic,’ [but] insignificant nonetheless.”9 The mundane objects striving to be seen as something other, even if just dressed in enamel paint for effect, can only be “described” in a series of reassuring adjectives (like Richard Serra’s rolling verbs for the quirky and cute10) which ultimately only amble in a suspension of meaning. In Jansson’s words, the sculptures make for border experiences: “The border is longing: when both have fallen in love but still haven’t said anything.”11

Tove Jansson, The Summer Book (New York: New York Review Books, 1972), 42–43. Reproduced with permission. © Tove Jansson, 1972, Moomin Characters™.

In Jansson’s short story “Playing Venice,” a little girl named Sophia lives on an island with her grandmother and her largely absent father. Sophia’s mother is dead, and the limits of Sophia’s existence, contained by both island and trauma, are matched by the boundlessness of her imagination. One day, a Saturday, to be precise—and details are what truly matter here—Sophia receives a postcard from Venice in the mail. On the address side is her whole name, “with ‘Miss’ in the front”; the flipside sports an image of the slowly sinking city, all “pink,” “slim,” “shining,” “lonely,” “soft,” “slimy,” “elegant,” “doomed,” and “oozy.”12 Sophia sinks into a Venice of her mind’s making, in which she becomes a “lovely” Venetian child, and her grandmother becomes “Mama.” Together, they build a model of the city, carving canals in the soft marshland; making tiny trattorias, campaniles, and palaces of balsa wood; and constructing a Piazza San Marco from wooden plugs and smooth skipping stones. Yet as Sophia roleplays, she sees not only a city sinking into a very real canal somewhere very far away, but also realizes the precariousness of her own being, as her creation sits in its small abysses of wet moss right in front of her. The fiction becomes too hard to hold in one hand; it just keeps seeping out. The significance is too much to carry. Sophia storms off just as a heavy rain sets in over their small island, and soon enough, the balsa Venice disappears beyond the heather and sinks into the dark sea.

Jansson’s politic lies in minor affect and its ability to home in on all things pliant, soft, and bejeweled. But cuteness, like creatures so cute that you could just eat them up, swallow whole, or squeeze until they pop—cuteness that invites touch—cannot help but exalt its own “helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency.”13 The expanse of childish thought can only refer back to its very limits and thus reveals “a number of distinctions present in the larger motif… It marks a crucial absence.”14 To indulge in an affair between Jansson and Wittgenstein, the island acts as the inexpressible against which Sophia’s thought finds its form—the meaning of which must renew itself at each tide. Meaning becomes an event. This absence and its entailment in space undoubtedly accompanied Jansson as she was drafting The Summer Book. Conscious of the precarious balance between blissful oblivion and smallness wrought by violence, particularly in the wake of World War II, Jansson wrote in her diaries: “My first books were about happy childhood and the joy of being an amateur, with a little escapism. Now there’s no more material… I used to show the beautiful, abundant profusion of the world. But how do you set about showing an empty room?”15

Jessica Stockholder, Assist #4: Carved Spaces, 2016. Painted steel, 87½ × 61 × 64 in. © Jessica Stockholder. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY.

Stockholder’s work is motivated by a similar paradox: how to show the profusion of the everyday, with its conflicted or contrasting affects, yet do so with the fewest elements. Her work names, as Sianne Ngai said of Gertrude Stein, in “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” “an aesthetic encounter with an exaggerated difference in power that does something to ordinary or communicative speech.”16 (Though speech here is that odd thing of unexpected semblances, like Stein’s Tender Buttons—just think!—“GLAZED GLITTER,” “A SUBSTANCE IN A CUSHION,” “A PLATE,” “A MOUNTED UMBRELLA,”17 et cetera.) Pieces of the Assist series play with the “something-as-this, something-as-that” logic by imposing rules for their making, like a thought experiment. Each piece must contain two bases, two top parts, and nothing more, to be assembled as desired, upside down or sideways, or strapped to other things. The elements of Assist #4, Carved Spaces (2016)—a teal gate, metal netting, a cutout of aluminum—which looks like wobbly legs—and a Formica-looking panel are respectively tied to a plushy chair in too-tight an embrace. It’s uncomfortably cute, the Assist a pseudo-sociopathic teen lover squealing I’ll never let you go! as the chair chokes. (Jansson: “You can’t ever be really free if you admire somebody too much,” 18 and vice versa.) The hard edges of formalism are softened with a smart-alecky qua cute sense of humor, and imbued with a childish immediacy that, à la Barthes, “reproduces the designating gesture of the child pointing at whatever it is… [and] merely saying: that! ”19 Stockholder points to a profusion extant in minimal gestures, like Beckett’s ascetic use of props, although hers are arguably happier ones.

Her spaces fill with forms that are as improbable as they are inventive and as lacking of purpose as they are laden with small wisdoms. (The Assist sculptures are cases in point: a chair, as Hyperallergic’s John Yau commented, is not only a place to sit but also a clothing rack, diving board, and claustrophobic lover.20) This makes the leap from grandeur, big dreams, and giant leaps for mankind to what Ngai described as “a lighthearted aesthetic, an aesthetic of ineffectuality par excellence,” which she adds is “not only easily grasped or fondled physically but…easily grasped or fondled mentally.”21 It is noteworthy that Stockholder’s ideas invite a following of descriptors: adorable, animated, artificial, available, bland, boring, charming, childlike, cloying, comfy, comic, consumable, cuddly, dainty, dilettantish, dippy, embarrassed, flirtatious, frolicking, girlish, guileless, helpless, infantile, innocent, itsy-bitsy, maudlin, miniature, nostalgic, pastel, pathetic, petite, pink, precocious, quaint, quiet, round, saccharine, sappy, saucy, sexy, shy, simple, soft, squashable, tiny, touching, vulnerable, waiflike.22 (What a
blessing lists are.) The objects collected in her work fill rooms with a profusion of affects: ones that are embodied, exist at human scale, and reinforce the conditions of their own making. It is a willful imposition of cuteness, bearing in mind that “cute” is one letter short of the “acute”; its first meaning is that of a sharp wit, the foreshortening of which softens the threat of its message and renders it approachable. I can only imagine this is the result of stewing in that paradox between profusion and empty space, obstinacy and whimsy—the result of sauntering in one’s studio feeling both frustrated and desirous, feeling that all things, as Jansson wrote in her diaries, “are so very uncertain, [yet] that’s exactly what makes [one] feel reassured.”23 Reassured and, as a particularly Jansson-esque friend recently added to my list of descriptors, pleased with oneself.

No pleasure, though, without a hint of violence: Stockholder’s series Kissing the Wall (1988–98) is a blushing rendezvous of form and affects, in which sculpture is staged like a lover’s discourse (albeit an adolescently awkward one). The pieces hinge on a teetering uncertainty, which is inevitable when relying on affects, particularly small ones, due to the fickle and slippery substance of feeling. (Just think how quickly the discourteous can be calmed down as just a joke [jk! jk!] or how the joke, when vamped, can be precocious enough to count as flirtation. The same flirt, when filled with self-doubt, becomes suspicious to the other; what is suspect is then swallowed as fear and teased out as impudence.) Side tables and chairs are stacked and wrapped with sweaters, swollen with papier-mâché, dressed up in pillows like pre-emptive Rei Kawakubo clothes, or covered in yellow-painted spools like clusters of Rice Krispies. Each is coated in enamel paint as though to bind the objects together, which bids attention to a precariousness enacted through small yet encumbered forms; they incite murky emotions, vulnerability, shyness, social awkwardness, first forays into infatuation. Placed against walls at arm’s length, the lights shining a spotlit “kiss,” things stacked on top of things make for delicate medleys, like the objects in Tender Buttons—especially those slightly disaffected, perturbed by minor affects. I can’t think about Stockholder’s Kissing the Wall without myself feeling what Stein’s objects also feel: “little,” “tender,” “hurt,” “shuddering,” “surrendering.”24 The sculptures always seem at the risk of collapsing in parts, either literally or with a little imagination, because the “kiss” the sculpture is going for will inevitably remain unattained. Perhaps due to the scale or placement, the social awkwardness nevertheless elicits empathy, endearment, embarrassment, vulnerability, even some giggles. The wall is always just out of the work’s reach; the object’s caustic whimsy lampoons its own endeavor. (We’ve all been there, sometimes a kiss is more like hitting a wall.) It’s cute. As Frances Richard writes in “Fifteen Theses on the Cute”: “If beauty is symmetrical, proportionate, and shades toward perfection, while sublimity is awe-inspiring, jagged, and larger than life, then organic cute is disproportionate, asymmetrical, and smaller—lighter, more humorous, and less ironic—than life.”25 (And apropos trespasses on high modernism’s eloquence, Stockholder’s amorphously cute sculptures also bid to a certain melodrama; think Shakespeare: “Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged! / Give me my sin again.”26)

Jessica Stockholder, Kissing the wall out of sequence, 1989. Small low table/cupboard, green newspaper paper cache, enamel paint, orange peels and small light fixture on the wall with a small orange light bulb. © Jessica Stockholder. Courtesy of 1301PE, Los Angeles. Photo: Jessica Stockholder.

These makeshift materials “kiss” with a clumsy amateurism. In their wily (qua crafty) interconnections, they make the mundane look almost mannerist. Though there is an element of excess, the profusion hinges on the mundane: just ordinary things, things that are messy, and always almost out of control—“jumbled,”27 as the artist puts it. By marrying discrepant shapes and forms, creating shortcuts from one visual idea to another, Stockholder points to the formal decision’s capacity to claim the attention that cuteness bids—making many mini-Venices, so to speak—and to make sense of those aspects of space. Like a game of Simple Simon, there is a deceptive easiness to it. Because meaning is presented as it. Because that! Because the visual ideas are pliant, affective; they reach out, shyly. Because Stockholder’s work, like Richard’s cute, “encompasses revealing distinctions that tend to be elided in normal conversation. [It is] defined by its excessive or self-conscious appeal to the unembarrassed core quality.”28 This is quite apparent in Kissing the Wall, where the personification of stacked furniture stuck in a vexing tryst is plainly on display. However, considering Stockholder’s overall penchant for raw materials that imply a similar starkness or “unembarrassed” quality of being as-is, this thread also carries through the whole body of work (at times literally). It has to do with nakedness, vulnerability, but also of the pleasure found in being in such states. That is, it is the very lack of safety or structure that is understood by Stockholder as being as immensely pleasurable, exciting, and titillating as it is frightful.

Jessica Stockholder, Two Frames, 2007. Pink plastic, pink children’s chair, fake fur, miscellaneous plastic parts, vinyl, halogen light and fixture, weight, bracket, cable, extension cord, black garbage bag, yarn, beads, acrylic and oil paint, wooden drawer, metal frame, 93 × 51 × 22 in. © Jessica Stockholder. Courtesy of 1301PE, Los Angeles. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

What Stockholder’s work bids is attention: it asks to be squeezed to death, carried, swallowed whole, and “ogled”—all in a violent desire for recognition. Look at me! That! Like all things cute, how it gains its audience is by acting out, by re-directing, displacing, and rendering ineffective all interactions with it. The cute compels, enchants, and ensnares like a pouty lip slightly bitten by a wanting child, or in the same gesture’s adult patois, like the porno-cute’s swollen mouth shaped in a big O, as in, Oh, boy! (The promiscuity of Stockholder’s work could also be discussed, perhaps in another essay.) Cute manipulates through a performance of its vulnerability, as Richard reminds, professing a capability to reclaim power at any minute in a crafty (pun intended) and possibly misleading promise of non-manipulation. As a colleague once commented on Vincent Fecteau’s papier-mâché sculptures, “They’re weirder than you even know.” Stockholder’s work sends out an equally affable invitation to indulge in the effervescence of piles and piles of collected objects bubbling up to heady result. (Think Stein: “A spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.”29) The sculptures amp up their own coquettishness—blushing in shy ingénue pinks and oranges and violets—and whilst it may be indulgent to animate or personify Stockholder’s sculptures, they nevertheless engage one in reflections of what it means to surrender a portion of the self for scrutiny. And that quite literally. Consider all the lamps that brazenly light up what Stockholder wants us to see, as in Set Eyes On (2014), which also makes a final plea in its title; the lines and holes and angles that force the eye through in Two Frames (2007); and Buff Ambit (2006), which is in possession of all of the aforementioned Pixar-cute, attention-seeking tools. As though hitting the wall again and again, needing something and not receiving it, Stockholder treats space as the inexpressible against which form finds meaning. (Her site-specificity, as she has humorously said, exists both at the level of address to the specific location and just because an object has to be somewhere and so is always specific.) Most importantly, she doesn’t sweat it—her work’s provisionality makes clear that a flimsy model can be enough. Her materials, like balsa wood, enamel paint, paper, found objects, yarn, and plastic, echo the flimsy shelter Sophia finds in the materials on her island; Stockholder too furnishes a setting for a fantasy, for roleplay, acknowledging all too well its practical ineffectuality. Against an art history often all too focused on overblown constructs like the sublime and the abject, Stockholder reckons with the inexpressible, with big ideas—big political ideas—simply by admitting to their real-world inefficiency.

Jessica Stockholder, Buff Ambit, 2006. Wood, plastic, fabric, paper mâché, lamps and other objects, oil and acrylic paint, 104 × 47 × 63 in. © Jessica Stockholder. Courtesy of 1301PE, Los Angeles. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

Let’s play Venice for a second. Not through a postcard image with a personal dedication, but through the glossy lens of Photoshopped national pavilions dating to the early twentieth century spilled out on Contemporary Art Daily and the like. The identities of each representing country are almost parodic: the hard-edged formal lines of the Swiss Pavilion, Britain’s imposing neo-colonial, neo-Palladian building; the United States’ bricked mini White House; and, on the other end of the spectrum, Finland’s funny mid-century sauna-esque hut; the toadstool-shaped book pavilion (okay, not a nation, but still); and China’s peculiarly lo-fi checkered MDF cube. The pavilions model nations, and, distributed throughout an increasingly alienated art world through endless images as they are, they have become idealized symbols of globalization. Both Massimiliano Gioni and Okwui Enwezor’s Venice Biennales made rather heavy-handed statements about art’s purpose as a “guerilla weapon against global imbalance,” as Artnet’s Andrew Goldstein put it.30 This observation was made in an interview with the biennale’s 2017 curator Christine Macel, whose exhibition, Viva Arte Viva, was a refreshing departure (at least in certain aspects). Most notably, it featured a handful of artists that would fit into Ngai’s description of a “cute” avant-garde: artists Nancy Shaver, Sheila Hicks, Judith Scott, Siri Aurdal, John Waters(!), Francis Upritchard, and Phyllida Barlow all in their own ways negotiate an interest “in ‘minor’ or non-cathartic feelings that index situations of suspended agency; in trivial aesthetic categories grounded in ambivalent or even explicitly contradictory feelings [and in] the surprising power these weak affects and aesthetic categories seem to have… To call something cute, in vivid contrast to, say, beautiful, or disgusting, is to leave it ambiguous whether one even regards it positively or negatively.”31

Though “cuteness” may not be the first word for all of these artists, each feels in touch with what Nancy Shaver referred to in her own work as the “used and abused, …purely wonderful and mesmerizing” and Phyllida Barlow described as not “beauty…because I’m so curious about other qualities, abstract qualities of time, weight, balance, rhythm; collapse and fatigue.”32 In all of their works, smallness, orientation to detail, and emotional conflict all foreground the act of making. After the two previous tech-heavy, art-as-weapon (scary?) biennales, which were focused on stating—which is to say imposing—a purpose for art, much of Macel’s roster felt like an acknowledgment that a politic of minorness, domesticity, the quotidian, and the stated has a place in contemporary art. What was readmitted was a tactile experience of art and the conditions of its making, whether born of mistakes, an interest in provisional or mundane materials, or a quest to find profusion in simplicity.

Jessica Stockholder, Vortex in the Play of Theater with Real Passion: In memory of Kay Stockholder, 2000. Duplo, theater curtain, work site containers, bench, theater light, linoleum, tables, fur, newspaper, fabric, and paint, dimensions site-specific. Installation view, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland, March 18–June 25, 2000. © Jessica Stockholder. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY.

This is where Stockholder finds her politic—in show, not tell—not an imposition, but rather a shared experience between artist, artwork, and viewer. This experience is an effect of her preoccupation with small, concrete, and everyday things (wicker chairs, clouds of plastic baskets, loofas, lamps, brooms, plates, and umbrellas, all “not resembling” for being coated in swaths of paint and muddled). It is an aesthetic approach that solicits touch, physical contact, fondling. Stockholder’s work makes literal Jansson’s bid to “hold” a story: the sculptures embracing themselves, the objects each other, and—even more plainly—the approachable scale posed against the viewer. It’s human. Her ideas are all tactile and thus reproduce with the kind of touches only nakedness can imply. Think how quickly a kiss can become a tryst, and the tryst a relationship—a small fiction, as Jansson would have it: “concentrated and unified around a single idea.”33 And that idea, whether contained inexpressibly in the kiss, the confrontation between light and wall, or the acute angle, exudes meaning that renews itself in each change of aspect. To participate in its discourse is to waken desire: “It is the other’s entire body which has been known, savored and which has displayed (to no real purpose) its own narrative, its own text.”34

The that Stockholder’s sculptures point to is an affective politic within their composition and making, which is all too easily overlooked due to the common perception of the cute, soft, small, and quotidian as meaningless or empty. Ineffective, if nothing else. Think cuteness co-opted by pink hair and knitted hats at women’s marches or Mattel-branded Bernie t-shirts, and that following five years of Instagram-famous girls, such as Petra Collins, reenacting their own powerlessness in cutesy photographs of sparkly dildos and coy nudity in order to draw attention to capital’s abstraction of the female body. These types of cute are gobbled up and squished by capitalism by taking pink or knitting as insignia (for women! In 2017!) or supposing that the male gaze will return with an apology because you posted a photograph of your cute butt online. Such cuteness fails to address how quickly such easily swallowed strategies are regurgitated into the status quo. Politics is collapsed with the cutesy without much context as to what that cuteness is or what it means. But, just as Ngai bids to acknowledge the difference between cuteness per se and the cuteness of the avant-garde, Stockholder’s work stabs at a convincing answer to Ngai’s question of what it means to be aesthetically overpowered.35 Stockholder’s sculptures literally overwhelm, though they also point out how formalism, particularly her own frivolous kind, has been dismissed as empty or all about surface. Yet tactile specificity carries affect like a surrogate, which in itself encompasses a desire to readmit emotion into the arsenale (that’s right) of art.

Jessica Stockholder, Sex in the Office, 2007. Plywood, plastic floor liner, acrylic, oil and spray paint, glass, 2 pieces of stucco-finished table base, book shelf, 4 metal table legs, frame and plexiglass, yarn, plasticine, zip ties, thread, shells, spray paint, rubber car mat, tape, canvas from oil painting, 103 × 44½ × 47 in. Courtesy of 1301PE, Los Angeles. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

The fatuous possibilities of escape Jansson found in the profusions of childhood motivate Stockholder’s spaces. The escape is still from the austerity of adulthood but also from the emptying tendencies of the market and political expressions that are little more than performative language. Stockholder understands that art does something life does not. Art imitates life, another childish form of learning, but it can also transcend life, as Adorno writes in his Aesthetic Theory, “by subordinating itself to it.”36 Perhaps Stockholder’s work is then best considered as a model for new types of spaces and arrangements of images and materials that impart an affective politic on contemporary values and economies. This isn’t only implied nor left unexpressed, even if its affect stands against the inexpressible. Stockholder’s work clearly references friends and family (she has commemorated her deceased mother), and she has titled things Sailcloth Tears (2009), Angled Tangle (2014), and Sex in the Office (the ultimate hush-hush, 2007). This may be the most conflicting part, the thing that makes Sophia run off in tears, the drive to keep producing: the desire for connection and reciprocity is often denied. You see this at base, in the predicament of sculptures that try to kiss walls but can’t or won’t, and in the big picture, in art’s slow uptake on formalism’s ability to impart meaning, even if it ties the tongues of certain critics. The small, the dilettantish, the inexperienced, the unstable, the whimsical, and the ambulatory in Stockholder’s work furnish a free-for-all setting for flirtation, shyness, debate, laughter, and quiet moments, all placing an emphasis on an incompleteness experienced at the level of installation. So, she stages a shrugging resignation to art’s practical ineffectuality in the face of political address—an address that nonetheless keeps on going, albeit in Stockholder’s idiosyncratic way. Because of pleasure. Because social reproduction ultimately hinges on insistence. “It’s funny about love,” Sophia says in The Summer Book, “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.” Her grandmother says, “Yes, but what can you do about it?” “You go on loving,’ said Sophia threateningly. ‘You love harder and harder.’”37

Sabrina Tarasoff is a Finnish writer currently based in Los Angeles. Together with Naoki Sutter-Shudo, she runs the independent exhibition space Bel Ami.


  1. Tove Jansson, “Berenice,” The Summer Book, trans. Thomas Teal, illus. Kathryn Davis (New York: New York Review Books, 2008), 30.
  2. Tove Jansson, quoted on the Sort of Books website: sortof.co.uk/books/letters-from-klara/. See also Letters from Klara, trans. Thomas Teal (London: Sort of Books, 2017).
  3. Ludwig Wittgenstein and Georg Henrik von Wright, “Culture and Value,” Culture and Value (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006), 16.
  4. Rice Gallery, “Jessica Stockholder: Sam Ran Over Sand or Sand Ran Over Sam,” press release, September 2004, www.ricegallery.org/jessica-stockholder/.
  5. Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology,” Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 65.
  6. Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (London: Macmillan, 1899), 97.
  7. Roland Barthes, “So,” Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009), 81.
  8. Barthes, “Exemption from Meaning,” Empire of Signs, 75.
  9. Barthes, “So,” Empire of Signs, 82.
  10. See Samantha Friedman, “To Collect,” Inside/Out: A MoMA/PS1 Blog, October 20, 2011, https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2011/10/20/to-collect/.
  11. Boel Westin, “Ingen Bok Är Den Andra Lik. Mumins Mamma Fyller Åttio,” [No book is like another: The mother of the Moomins turns eighty], Dagens Nyheter (August 9, 1994).
  12. Jansson, “Playing Venice,” The Summer Book, 40–41.
  13. Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (2005): 819.
  14. Frances Richard, “Fifteen Theses on the Cute,” Cabinet 4 (Fall 2001), www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/4/cute.php.
  15. Madeleine Larue, “A Little Piece of Life: Tove Jansson’s Fiction for Adults,” Los Angeles Review of Books (December 21, 2014).
  16. Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” 828.
  17. Gertrude Stein, “Objects,” in Tender Buttons (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1997), 3, 7, 10.
  18. Tove Jansson, Tales from Moominvalley, trans. Thomas Warburton (London: Puffin, 2011), 16.
  19. Barthes, “So,” Empire of Signs, 83.
  20. John Yau, “The Party We Are All Invited To,” Hyperallergic, September 4, 2016, https://hyperallergic.com/320775/Jessica-Stockholder-the-guests-all-crowded-into-the-dining-room-Mitchell-Innes-and-Nash/.
  21. Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” 84.
  22. My list is adapted from Richard’s “Fifteen Theses on the Cute,” Cabinet 4.
  23. Tove Jansson, Moominland Midwinter, trans. Thomas Warburton (London: Puffin, 2012), 28.
  24. Stein, Tender Buttons, 3.
  25. Richard, “Fifteen Theses on the Cute,” Cabinet 4.
  26. William Shakespeare, A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009), 21.
  27. Artspace Editors, “The Phaidon Folio: ‘My Work Isn’t About Junk’: Jessica Stockholder on Debunking Common (Mis)Understandings of Her Work,” Artspace, July 7, 2017, www.artspace.com/magazine/art_101/book_report/jessica-stockholder-phaidon-54880; Lynne Tillman and Jessica Stockholder interview excerpted from “Lynne Tillman in Conversation with Jessica Stockholder,” in Jessica Stockholder, Lynne Cooke, Barry Schwabsky, and Lynne Tillman, Jessica Stockholder (London: Phaidon Press, 1995).
  28. Richard, “Fifteen Theses on the Cute,” Cabinet 4.
  29. Stein, Tender Buttons, 3.
  30. Andrew Goldstein, “‘Art Is the Place Where You Can Reinvent the World’: Christine Macel on How to Understand Her Venice Biennale,” Artnet (May 1, 2017), news.artnet.com/art-world/venice-biennale-curator-christine-macel-interview-942749.
  31. Adam Jasper and Sianne Ngai, “Our Aesthetic Categories: An Interview with Sianne Ngai,” Cabinet 43 (Fall 2011), www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/43/jasper_ngai.php
  32. Mark Brown, “Phyllida Barlow: An Artistic Outsider Who Has Finally Come Inside,” The Guardian (April 28, 2016), www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/apr/28/phyllida-barlow-artist-success-2017-venice-biennale.
  33. Jansson, quoted on the Sort of Books website, sortof.co.uk/books/letters-from-klara/. See also Letters from Klara.
  34. Barthes, “Without Words,” The Empire of Signs, 10.
  35. See Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
  36. Theodor Adorno, “Aesthetic Theory,” Aesthetic Theory (London: Athlone Press, 1999), 124.
  37. Jansson, “The Cat,” The Summer Book, 54.
Further Reading