Billed as a midcareer retrospective, the Belger Center's Readers, Advisors, and Storefront Churches spans the career of the Washington, D.C.-based artist. It includes pieces Stout completed shortly after graduating from Carnegie-Mellon University in the early 1980s as well as works she finished this year. One painting even documents her first artistic endeavor. Stout has scratched the caption "My mother figured that I'd be an artist when I scribbled on the toes of my Buster Browns" into the surface of "Scream at 42."
Stout's early photorealist style has shifted and matured over the years into a hybrid of trompe l'oeil painting, collage and sculpture. The show begins with a glass case full of snapshots, postcards, bags and other paper knickknacks, all of them carefully labeled and stuck to black craft paper like archeological treasures in a history museum. "[It's] stuff that I see and process in my head," Stout says of the pictures of old buildings, makeshift storefront churches and root stores, grocery store ads on newsprint, and cheesy spiritualist postcards from New Orleans. It's also visual foreshadowing; the images in the case reappear throughout the show.
In "All Souls House of Prayer," the façade of a storefront church covered in peeling paint appears against a shadowy black background. A tall, white cross adorns the wooden double doors at the front of the church; shades are drawn halfway over two windows on the top floor, and the glass on a bottom-floor window is covered by a jigsaw-puzzle pattern of dull colors. It's hard to miss the fact that Stout finds these structures intriguing -- she says so right on the painting. "I like the make-do aesthetic. If you can't buy stained glass, use contact paper," she scratches into the background. Painting thin layers of gray and yellow, then adding random coffee-colored drips, Stout has created a roughly weathered surface on either side of the black background. Much of Stout's work shares this convincingly antiquated look. She pays close attention to the effects of time on objects and re-creates the wear and tear in her paintings and sculptures.
Using letters and numbers, Stout employs a visual sensibility she learned during an apprenticeship with a sign painter. More specifically, though, she uses type because she loves reading and hanging out with poets and writers. "When I read, I realize that words create images," she explains. "When I put the prose in my work, I know that the viewer is going to paint their own picture."
Stout's work is successful on both personal and political levels. At the bottom of "The All Souls House of Prayer," Stout writes in white paint of an incident that occurred during her walk to the subway. "At the corner of 6th & 'S' streets, N.W. I stoop to examine a sun-bleached chicken bone covered with ants ... A grey car pulls up to the curb. 'Hey, how 'bout it babe?' says the squat old man behind the wheel, assuming I must be looking for a lost crack ball. 'Do I look like a crackhead to you?' I snap, standing up, arms akimbo. 'Get on asshole!' He speeds off, tires squealing." Although the painting tells the story of a random personal experience in Stout's life, it also addresses the devastating drug problem in the Washington neighborhood where Stout lived for many years.
With the passing of time, Stout has grown more willing to speak out. "As I get older, I feel I have a right to say what I have to say, as a human being, as a woman. I have a right to tell my part of the story," she says. "In some ways, I am an activist. I may not always be out there with the signs. I like making artwork that does that same thing." The Federal Reserve was ready to buy one of her sculptures for its permanent collection -- until a member of the art committee recognized the political undertones of "Headstone for the Gang of 8." Shaped like a skyscraper topped by two smokestacks, the industrial gray headstone rises ominously. Stout has painted the word trust across the base, using the same all-caps serif lettering of the "in God we trust" on U.S. currency. At the top of the sculpture, underneath the cylindrical smokestacks, "G8" appears in white paint. The "8" is crossed off and replaced by a "7" scrawled in thin white chalk. Stout created this work in response to economic "world" summits attended only by the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Canada, Russia and Japan; its foreboding shape and dreary coloring convey her opinion of the proceedings.
The political side of Stout's work may have garnered some negative responses, but viewers tend to be engaged by its personal aspects. "The more personal my work becomes, the more people come up to me and say, 'You know what? I was thinking that same way,'" she says. Her desire to create more personal work, based on both introspection and her reactions to the world around her, resulted in her movement away from photorealism to the richer, more complex style of her later work. "Just painting something to look like something didn't express anything about me or my feelings or what I was thinking about," Stout says.
In fact, the installations in Readers, Advisors and Storefront Churches are some of Stout's most personal pieces. To create them, Stout worked through one of her two alter egos, Madame Ching. (The other is called Fatima.) Stout says she envisioned the alternative personas as a way to examine herself and her ambition. "The alter egos have all those attributes I wish I had," she says. "They are a goal to work toward." Still, Stout doesn't take herself too seriously when it comes to the alter egos. "Somebody said to me, 'You know what -- there's a name for that.' I said, 'Yeah, like schizophrenia.'"
Stout's models for Madame Ching were the Haitian deity Erzulie (the goddess of love and wealth) and a mysterious conjurer from her hometown of Pittsburgh. Intrigued by the fact that architectural and home-decorating magazines show pictures of the insides of people's homes -- but never the people who live there -- Stout decided to create an interior for Madame Ching, arranging a room in the Belger Center to look like Madame Ching's parlor. Inside we find the madame's desk, her clothing, her many bottles of love potions, her faded black-and-white family photographs on the wall. The three-dimensional work "Madame Ching's Love Products" is a collection of wine-colored glass bottles arranged on a table. Stout paints playing cards (the ace of hearts and the joker), love letters and a realistic feminine hand on the tabletop.
One day, though, Madame Ching stopped showing up in Stout's work. "I didn't need her anymore," Stout says. "I grew into what it was that Madame Ching was." The disappearance of this particular muse becomes a reminder that there's more to come from Renée Stout. If Madame Ching could predict the future for this artist, she would see good things.