Esther Stocker, Artist

It’s funny to hear Esther Stocker talk about reading between the lines. The Vienna-based painter is known for manipulating spatial geometry using the framework of the grid — both on canvas and in her trippy 3-D installations — until the mind starts making linear connections that aren’t really there, trying to find order in the optically illusive chaos. But that’s not what Stocker’s referring to. She’s talking about Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, one of her great artistic inspirations: “Schultz’s work is so complex, but it’s also so simple,” she muses. “Sometimes it gets really philosophical, but sometimes the dog’s just looking up and down. It’s beautiful because it’s so reduced.”

Stocker’s narratives may be a bit more abstract than the comics she admires, but reduction is definitely her thing: Early in her studies, she specialized in portraiture but became so focused on the relationship between a viewer and a painting that she found all she needed to get her point across were simple black-and-white lines. She made her first grid piece while getting her MFA from Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design in 1999, and she instantly fell for its magical ability to lure people in. “When you work in a very minimal way in high contrast, maybe it’s only two-dimensional, but you see it as three because you want to know what’s the figure, what’s the foreground and background,” she explains. The viewer spends time “wandering around in” the painting, trying to make sense of it.

A less adventurous soul might have stopped there, but Stocker has a love not just for comics but also for fantasy and science fiction, where the boundaries between what’s real and what’s not are subtly erased. And so she began making immersive 3-D installations designed to confuse perspective in a way that invites actual physical exploration, most recently integrating semi-functional objects, like lights and tables with extra appendages or unexpected proportions. “There’s a beauty in things you can’t figure out,” she says. Regardless, she was more than willing to help us better understand her work by discussing eight of the inspirations behind it — cartoon dogs and all.