Timeshare: Molly Zuckerman-Hartung
by Robert Mahoney
March 11, 2016
Thought experiment. If you are lucky enough to stop by Fiendish Plots space in west Lincoln to see Molly Zuckerman-Hartung’s dazzling one-person show, when you step in the door, don’t look at the paintings, but at the spaces between them. Then you will see that on your left one ceiling-to-floor canvas half covers a doorway, beyond that a loose canvas pulls out from the wall to drape itself before another opening. On the far wall, an accretion of fabric patches seems to not only patch up a corner of but secure the turn of the corner of a wall, inside a niche is a single tiny drawing. Then off to your right, another canvas cowering in a corner, its edges actually tucked in behind the spur wall, a skied canvas above, and then a sort of upright “work of art” to the left. Between all of these are irregular spaces. By this careful patrol of the perimeter it will become apparent that in this exhibition the artist has secured or occupied a space so that all of its in-between space is all and entirely relational, open and free, without a hard edge or a formalist device in evidence. The overall result is one of inviting warmth, let loose by a merry prankster nomadism punctuated by punkish outbursts and playful deferrals. It feels like an encampment of some sort, temporarily taking up quarter (the Timeshare title?), only to move on. In each case, it is best to think of each “work of art” as really only a membrane of proxemics, by which I mean, think of all the give-and-take and back-and-forth that happens in the space between two people when they meet, precipitate it in canvas and paint (or bleach, dye, whatever tooldip is), and there it is. While there are those who will inevitably stroll through the high and low as if it is a salon of references to other artists (I picked up early 70s Harmony Hammond and Lynda Benglis, Jonathan Meese, Karen Kliminick, Mike Kelley, Bjarne Melgaard, Anna Betbeze and Lucy Dodd), and others may seek out crafty workmanship, or some jejune commentary on “women’s work,” or even “feminism,” it’s about all of that melted into the new alchemy of relating to each other in uncharted personal space in the messy way that real people do.
I suspect that the centerpiece of the exhibition is a small drawing tacked to the sidewall of a small niche at the back of the gallery. It is not a distinctive drawing, but the careful almost chartlike arrangement of colors and forms, and the singled-out reverence of its installation, suggests it as a sort of DNA formula, the holy of holies or magic formula that makes the place a Zuckerman-Hartung art space, declaring that this particular artist is in the house (not unlike a sanctuary lamp). All the other work seems to lead in toward that space, moving from open and simple on the perimeter to busier and artier and more intricate the closer they get to the core. For this, you get the sense that in the exhibition you are literally being pulled from one work to the next, as if part of some overall ritual plan. The space is alive with push and pull effects, the passivity of the white cube is nowhere felt, you are always being lead from one thing to another.
The bright grid canvas up front, #22937 (2016), stands as if to welcome one into a world of a certain hue and touch. But then it releases, as the grid and the colors seem to move away, on into the space. There is also some raw canvas left below, as if to open its hand to introduce the work beyond, Measuring the Gait—Gilles de la Tourette #22938 (2016). This work is, flat out, a tour de force—the raw canvas, pulled apart from the wall, denies the viewer any reliance on fictive or support space, as everything fronts to engage with the viewer so that you inspect it forensically rather than look at it as art. Zuckerman-Hartung reinforces this by having walked in her bare feet doused in bleach on stained columns of color, a walking on the walls effect that is disorienting, then undermined by a canvas draped and pulled off the wall, for her putative process self to slide down, and below in a drape let out on the floor repeatedly marked by strange succession of marks as if burned by a cigarette and then circled by black paint (the space behind is also even big enough to crawl into; the drape on the floor also reminded me of the carpet roll Cleopatra was introduced in) in a manner reminiscent of notches on bedposts or other ways of counting up personal milestones. Though intellectually referring to Tourette’s gait experiments to prove that his women patients suffered from hysteria, this amazingly relational piece, in which Zuckerman-Hartung “owns” to overcome the stereotype of the hysterical female that, alas, still has currency in the culture, is a kind of gendered punk shroud of turin, an imprint of some perilous personal parcour, letting it all hang out, so there—it’s a thrilling unspooling of abstraction too, a kind of formalist nervous breakdown. Since it was by dance and body movement that devotees energized cult space, or conjure presence, it may be that by the implication of the electrified/penetrated space, at this particular juncture of the gallery, we are lead on into a deeper sanctum sanctorum.
And sure enough in #22936 (2016), on the far wall, the raw canvas and cloth begins to accrete with deeper meaning. Like layers added as revetments to icons, or repairs to valued paintings, like purchased offerings of gems or badges resurfacing reliquaries, this piece has a whole host of sequentially intensifying additions added on and on until Zuckerman-Hartung felt just right about it. The key for me here is a small pink drawing pinned to the lower left corner, to “even it all out” (meaning that these works build up like doodles) and also to allow the eye to “jump” from Tourette onto this one, and move on in. That there is a somewhat Matissey drawing up in the center of this, and then layers of fabric laid over each other, framing it, then, too, astonishingly (in an installational device I have never seen in 35 years of looking at art), it is all pulled tight and flush around the corner, to make the work a device to help you to look around the corner (at the same time you pull back, fearing that the work actually goes around the corner), all of this ads a cult charge to the work, intensifying as you get in closer. There are all sorts of micro effects, too, folds, pulls, overlaps, tucks, one cutout canvas circle is attached, a kind pa pink painterly blob appendage, a banner fringe on the bottom, wildly different fabric textures, it feels like a hippie lightshow in print form, or a rummaging in a vintage closet, all to get the blood up. From the other side, #22940 (2016) also, in my reading, converges on the cult drawing, and this amazing little patchwork of simpler stained motifs, possibly of a preexisting painting that was then cut into squares, and rearranged, with a strange inset of shredding leopard skin, this work is (another device I have never seen before) actually tucked in behind the spur wall as it presses flush to the main wall in the corner (an effect that also exudes comfort and security—had I attended the opening, I suspect I might have stood in that corner all night). Another canvas accretion of patches floats overhead, #22941 (2016) like a skied salon painting, its piecemeal uniformity for me lending it the additive energy of an array of votive offerings at some special place (at such places, like where strips of cloth are hung on sacred trees, first a few offerings are made, then more, and then—way too many, until it degenerates into junk, Zuckerman-Hartung seems to know exactly where to leave off, the energy worked well, but not depleted). And, again, as beautiful as the works are, the spaces between them float with a throwaway negative space beauty too.
Since I have projected a kind of zeroing-in effect in the whole space, to that small drawing, this leaves Lurch (2009-2014) as the guardian of the gateway. And, sure enough, he not only flies flags (made out of t-shirts punkishly sewn together), wields a circular shield form, has “shoulders,” and a kind of pulled-apart suit feel above, but has a solid canvas body with some recognizable “expressionist” devices, a touch of geometry, some Rauschenbergian add-ons, even the name LURCH on one bath tub product packaging stitched in below references (for me) the gruesome forever-groaning square-shouldered acromegalic butler from the 1960s Addams Family with, therefore, inarticulateness and pop imagery both seeming to allow Zuckerman-Hartung a moment to mutter “if you want painting, I can do painting too” (for, yes, I am sure, her work is always talking back at you).
It hardly matters if the trajectory I read when I went through reads that way for others, the point is that in all cases each work exists entirely in the “fronted” relational space between it and the viewer, where so much of the very best contemporary art is happening today, and that the spaces between the pieces are so carefully measured for effect, so that all of it comes off as warm and welcoming, personal and passionate, so much so it all hardly feels like “art” (another good thing!). None of the sewing and assemblage is done for craft value, none of the symbolism is ersatz filler behind formalist arrays: all seem to have the intense personal meaning of graffiti, with an “I was here” colonizing of personal space, to secure, to populate, to cultivate, to get the conversation going. Another interesting thing is that the aura of tenting, hippies, Merry Pranksters and nomadism, all evoked by the casualness of the stain and mark-making, reminds one that Zuckerman-Hartung came of age in Washington (state) during the Smells Like Teen Spirit years, then matured as an artist in Chicago (she was included in the amazing Rocket Run exhibition of Chicago painters at Nebraska Wesleyan’s Elder Gallery two years ago), but has also been in a Whitney Biennial (selected by Chicago’s Michelle Grabner), and there is indeed a vibe of panamerican punkishness here too, that is, a nationwide wide-gage-grid reach in her psychogeographic sense (in keeping too with the overall aesthetic of this gallery) that is both itinerant and temporary, and here and there UFOy spacey, taking into it the languages of all sorts of pop and other influences, come what may, all of it only to go poof when you walk away. While not a Nebraska artist, having caravaned on the flyover conning trails, Zuckerman-Hartung also speaks the language of the road, her polyglossia resounds in the echo chamber of middle America, and therefore has a lot to offer locals too.