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The World Without Mark Stock
by Doniphan Blair
Mark Stock with one of his models, in front of a painting of her at Modernism Gallery, 2012. photo: D. Blair
THE LAST TIME I SAW MARK STOCK,
the well-known romantic-realist painter, he was on the street in front of my house—making a movie pitch!
"The whole show will be set up through a painting," he was saying, with an excitement more suited to a meeting in West Hollywood than on the streets of West Oakland, where we both lived.
Stock would have made a great filmmaker and, evidently, he was about to make that move. Alas, he died on March 26, age 62, from the so-called natural causes of a heart condition.
"A painter will be in his studio painting a picture of a girl walking her dog. Then that exact girl and dog will go by his window and we're off, racing into the film," Mark enthused, eyes ablaze, ruddy cheeks growing a bit more rasberrian, fingers framing the shot.
Mark could get incredibly amped up but, unlike the hot air some filmmakers spout, he was equally disciplined, as testified to by his nearly one thousand oil and other paintings and prints.
Almost thirty can be seen in the fantastic retrospective at San Francisco's
, May 1-June 15, including some large pieces from the '80s and 15 trompe l'oeils from his last series. Diminutive and humble, often of tattered postcards or sketches of bigger oils taped to a blackboard, many of the trompe l'oeils have an apparent piece of chalk—actually a painted wooden dowel—in a tray at the bottom of the painting.
"The Butler's in Love", the large painting hanging in Bix Restaurant, San Francisco, that capped Stock's style and romanticism. illo: courtesy M. Stock
After becoming interested in and hunting down Mark in the mid '80s, Martin Muller, Modernism's owner, signed him and started helping him develop collectors and his reputation, which was already established with shows in LA and NY and write-ups in their respective Times newspapers.
Painting was his metier but, in true California form, he was obsessed with film, film noir, Charlie Chaplin and Hollywood itself, where he lived for a few years. He did dozens of paintings playing with those symbols, notably involving the Hollywood sign itself.
One, of a couple enjoying a white tablecloth dinner, replete with attendant butler, in the woods next to the sign, was based on a romantic performance piece he actually enacted for an unsuspecting visiting paramour.
He also did a public art piece on the walls of the LA Center Studios, using enormous banners of his paintings, which unfolded over a few years. Essentially a storyboard for a film, it followed a woman who hears something breaking next door, drills a hole in the wall to investigate and sees the feet of a corpse.
Actually his paintings were featured in many movies, among them "Sneakers" (1992), "Final Analysis" (1992) and "What Women Want" (2000), and he loved being on set, but you can imagine his enthusiasm when he was introduced to actual film production. A movie called "Fleshtone" (1994), was written and directed by Harry Hurwittz, loosely based on his life and another of his sometimes quirky romantic relationships. It used to play LA cable late nights.
In 2007, actor/director David Arquette contacted him about his short, "
The Butler's in Love
", inspired by Mark's most famous painting, of the same name, which hangs at Bix Restaurant in San Francisco. With Mark often on set, Arquette shot the 12 minute, period piece there in 2008.
The painting itself, of a butler (obviously modeled on Mark) holding a lipstick-smeared glass (obviously in love), was commissioned while Mark was still living in LA. Although delivered still wet, in a big wooden case, it arrived in time for the restaurant's opening in 1989.
Mark was also a talented musician. For many years, he played drums four nights a week around the corner from Bix, at the Cypress Club, with the famed jazz pianist Tee Carson and bassist John Goodman. Later, the Mark Stock Trio, with David Udolf on piano and Chuck Metcalf on bass, held court at Prima in Walnut Creek every Thursday, see
. With Metcalf's passing, they brought in Mario Suraci and played at Noni's in Pleasanton for the last three years. Also a guitarist, he played and sang The Beatles and jazz standards beautifully.
Stock's Telluride poster delivers a multiple romantic metaphor: the hero not obsessed with film but the ticket girl (2008). illo: courtesy M. Stock
Jada Pinkett Smith used a dozen paintings, blown up to wall-size, in her directorial debut, “The Human Contract” (2007) and that same year Mark connected with the Telluride Film Festival. Attending and hobnobbing with alt-celebs like Werner Herzog, he also painted the poster for its 34th iteration, one of their most popular posters, according to festival director, Gary Meyer.
Mark even became the subject of a documentary, "The World of Mark Stock: A Noir Documentary", which is still being shot and assembled by director/producer Wendy Slick.
Even more cinematic than these production dabblings however is the drama denoted in many of Mark Stock's paintings, which often seemed to depict the climactic scene from a film. Take the one where a well-dressed woman is pulling a large box from a hole where she just dug it up.
Although being a people person would have given him an advantage as a director, Mark had immense ability in a couple of cinema's core qualities: romanticism and astonishment.
It was his ever-increasing determination to astound that turned Mark to magic. Unlike most practitioners who start young, Mark was 35 when he saw a friend do a slight-of-hand and then pestered him relentlessly until he revealed the trick. Mark was soon mastering many himself. Indeed, he loved to regale the crowds with magic at his music gigs, openings or just about anywhere, in fact.
After becoming obsessed with painting circuses, an archetypal romantic environment (talent, travel, tricks), he met at the Teatro Zinzanni and befriended the famed Ukrainian illusionist Yevgeniy Voronin and his wife the contortionist Svetlana.
Shooting David Arquette's "The Butler's in Love" at Bix Restaurant, 2008. illo: courtesy M. Stock
I learned a lot of this at the April 30th memorial at Oakland's Scottish Rite Temple, a monumental setting for a larger-than-life character, lovingly produced by longtime girlfriend Sharon Ding. Apparently, he was a also "scratch" golfer, whatever that means, undoubtedly something good.
Most importantly, the hundreds of attendees and their testimony revealed that Mark was a deeply devoted, attentive and gracious friend, a rarity these days. Along with stories about kindergarten coloring and learning drums from his brother, there were many more about what a loving guy he was, including a lot from Sharon's extended Chinese-American family.
Her mother spoke adoringly and a cousin called him, "the best gift Sharon ever brought us," recalling how all the young nephews and nieces would come running as soon as Mark busted out a deck of cards.
Pastor Chris Bowhay, who made the trip out from Tennessee with his wife, went so far as to draw direct parallels between god and love and Mark. Although it sounds a bit much, I knew it first hand, having met Mark around the 'hood over a decade ago and becoming fast friends.
Mark astonishing attendees at a Modernism opening in front of one of his paintings. photo: D. Blair
"I want you to design my website," he told me, at one of our chance meetings at the Yemini-run, corner liquor store halfway between our two studios. His town house, "The one 'The Bulter's in Love' bought,' as he liked to call it, was about a dozen blocks to the north.
Unlike my experiences with the many other friends who said they wanted a site, Mark and I were soon building a custom one, which he called
The World of Mark Stock
, perfectly attuned to his style and taste. That project led to numerous visits, personal notes, in his lovely calligraphy, and raucous discussions, but so much more.
Upon hearing my mother was in town and that her boyfriend, an elderly Jewish man who performed magic at children's parties, had died, Mark invited us to a private show. Ushering us into his palatial, vaulted-ceiling triplex, covered with luminous canvases and wood paneling—faux wood paneling, which he painted himself (ah, the convenience of being a trompe l'oeil master), he proceeded to deliver a command performance of astounding proportions.
After starting with a few modest tricks in the living room, it expanded into a series of elaborate set pieces, replete with sealing a page in an envelope and concluding in another room where the reveal suddenly appeared—plastered to THE CEILING!
Magic, wonderment and romance but delivered and balanced through precision and discipline, these were the foci of this multi-talented artist and—dare one use the word?—genius, as well as very loving and romantic guy.
'The Kiss' (47"x40", 1992) embodies Stock's fascination with romance, circuses and sneaking around. illo: M. Stock
Indeed, Mark's many paintings of people reading letters or butlers regarding smears of lipstick display his deep knowledge and interest in the distancing and reflection so central to the artifice of romanticism. Given that topic occupied a preponderance of Stock's oeuvre, it established him as an over-the-top romantic and a great romantic artist, in true California form.
"I'm not a reader," he claimed, when I mentioned I was into Isaiah Berlin's fascinating treatise on romanticism. Berlin calls it the only real aesthetic revolution civilization has ever had designed to revive its worn, antique and sometimes abusive classical ideas.
But Mark inhaled romanticism through every other aspect of culture—Chaplin, sad songs (which he sang beautifully, self-accompanied on guitar), his enjoyment of graveyards and more. Although not reading was an exaggeration, his sole surviving brother, Don Stock, noted that educators as early as kindergarten recognized a dyslexia alongside artistic talent.
Perhaps it was that book learning-blockage that drove him to physical mastery, learning to play the drums (left-handed, although he was a righty, because that was how his much older brother did it), sports and then high-end lithography, after he left the embrace of family in central Florida for LA in the mid '70s.
He moved on to stage design and oil paintings, all the while riding unicycles, playing competition badminton (where he met future girlfriend Sharon) and expanding his once-shy personality to fit the Hollywood scene, see an "
" by Mark from 2013.
Stock's brushwork is very disciplined, just enough strokes and paint to completely conjure the image but not enough to slip into expressionism or attention-drawing. Some may say it's Maxfield Parrish-y or romantic kitsch but, in the end, it's very Californian and eternally modern.
Sharon Ding, Mark's longtime companion, at his memorial, which she organized. illo: D. Blair
As Darwin tried to explain, coupling and sexual choice is the essence of life and leads to creating all of the arts as well as romance. Moreover, California is one of the most romantic images, as well as realities, ever embodied, an icon which requires constant tending.
Sure, Romanticism can become flabby, self-indulgent, even destructive, but all masterpieces were mere cliches until they are masterfully rendered and Mark was extremely disciplined. Indeed, his romantic realism was tempered by his subject matter of death, love lost, adventure and the tragi-comedy of the circus.
Of all the phenomenal facets of Mark, yet another amazing one was his politics, which could be surprisingly conservative in the Bay Area. Perhaps needing to vent a little contrariness after so much service, he loved mixing it up, jumping into a discussion with a criticism of a sacred liberal cow, challenging me to explain my beliefs.
Although Mark downplayed this, due to possible conflicts, I think it is worth noting now as another indicator of the immensity of his soul. The thing is: Mark would just as quickly return to gracious equanimity and respect, often with more tolerance than many of my leftist friends, who reject out-of-hand even those slightly to their right.
Riding a unicycle, as in life Mark believed in balance. photo: courtesy M. Stock
In fact, in stark contrast to my own inability to maintain friendships through difficult discussions, Mark had a pixie-like elan, belied by his rotund corporality. He would simply leap up and head forward, down the path of life and enjoyment, ever the devoted friend, enthusiastic conversationalist and vibrant dreamer.
"He was one of the most loving men I have ever known," were the words of Father Chris Bowhay. I chatted with Chris after the ceremony, complimenting him on his connecting of love, god and Mark, and laughing with him over Mark's contrary politics.
For this ability, to give love and his unbelievable discipline, Mark is my mentor.
Dying at 62 is tragically short for someone so full of life, especially for those close to him, where his absence will be even more obvious. The only consolation is his immense body of work, acts and romantic ideals, which will live on.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker, who can be reached
Posted on May 02, 2014 - 02:16 PM