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William Stoehr’s Stigma and Survival

By Simon Zalkind -curator


Emma, I promise to paint your portrait if you promise to go to rehab


The anguished plea above is a desperate cry from the artist to his sister Emma – an opioid addict who, although she was “clean” for five years, relapsed and subsequently died of an overdose. It condenses, within the economy of a single sentence, both the hope and despair that accompany the witnessing of a loved one’s descent into the private hell of addiction as well as it alludes to the enormity of the sufferer’s predicament – the profound, compulsively intractable allure of substances which - while they provide a brief respite from inner torment will, ultimately destroy the person seeking that relief.  Stoehr’s  promise to Emma reverberates not only in his five portraits of her, but to my mind, throughout all of the remarkable images that comprise this exhibition and the larger body of work of which they are a part. 


I was introduced to William Stoehr by Sandra Firmin, Director and Chief Curator of University of Colorado Boulder Art Museum. From what I was able to discern from the images that he sent me, and in spite of the limitations inherent in looking at works of art from within the limited capacities of a computer screen, I was intrigued enough by what I saw to arrange for a studio visit.

I wasn’t prepared to be gut-punched by every painting that William showed me – simultaneously riveted and relieved to turn away. The oversized portraits – most of them 7’ x 5’ – are painfully intimate, simultaneously seductive and confrontational. They are difficult to look at and difficult to turn away from. As Susan Sontag remarked in “Regarding the Pain of Others”: “…The iconography of suffering has a long pedigree…Can you look at this? There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching.”

Visible markers of addiction are often not visible on the person’s body. Unlike the scarf covering the bald pate of a person undergoing chemotherapy or the obvious tremors that betray the one afflicted with Parkinsons, substance abuse disorder may not be so obviously seen. The sufferer’s “otherness” can be easily concealed, inviting neither the scorn and moral outrage nor - at best -  the empathy that might arise in a direct encounter. What Stoehr’s paintings do for us as well as for his subjects is thrust us into the relational model proposed by philosopher Martin Buber. They steer us, however unwillingly, away from the “I – It” model in which the “other” is simply another thing that doesn’t require or compel a response  into the “I – You”, which is relational, dynamic, and unmediated - a relationship in which the “You” is seen, known and responded to. In or out of rehab, successfully free of addiction or relapsed back into it, simply recognizing this

form of suffering without censorial complaint or shaming is a profound form of care. Human connection may be one of the most powerful antidotes to the agonies of opioid addiction.

Narratives may make us understand but pictures do something else: they haunt us. All pictures that record to any degree the inner or outer torments of the human being run the risk of being seen in a spirit of prurient allure.  Alternately, and particularly within the portrait genre, there are fresher, more piercingly introspective examples of image-makers whose work, by its nature, circumvents that possibility. Stoehr’s portraits are among the most “haunting” that I’ve encountered. The subjects’ identities, whether disclosed in symbolic gesture, facial expression, pose, or narrative are closely connected and any one painting could easily “speak” for the entire group. The ambiguous blackness of their backgrounds or foregrounds or faces is also a unifying element providing a visual hinge-point and a discursive space that exists between the subject’s world of experience and ours. Their eyes as well, rendered by Stoehr with great clarity and precision -  distinct from the manic fluency that he demonstrates in other areas of the image – are another avenue through which we are invited to step across the vast gulf which likely separates our own identity and experience from that of the painting’s anguished subject.

A number of the portraits’ subjects are “caught” reflexively placing an exaggerated skeletal hand to their mouth as if to express shock or alternately, as a gesture of attempted concealment. What you are looking at in Stoehr’s portraits are both symbolic rites of exorcism and actual representations of internal states tied to the world of opioid addiction. In turn they shape our own understanding of the person’s “difference” – a “difference” in which we too have our place.

I’m immensely grateful to William Stoehr for so open-handedly allowing me access to this poignant and powerful body of work and to Sandra Firmin for introducing us – rightfully intuiting that something good might arise from our meeting.  Many thanks to Eriq Hochuli, Curator of the Foothills Art Center in Golden, Colorado for enthusiastically embracing the idea of producing concurrent exhibitions of Stoehr’s portraits – each exhibition amplifies and informs the other.  As always I’m indebted to Dr. Tess Jones who continues to guide my efforts with great insight, intelligence and energy.

Simon Zalkind, Curator of Exhibitions

Fulginiti Art Gallery

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