Joan Banach: Citizenby Thomas Micchelli
Small A Projects: November 14 – December 21, 2008
I can’t remember a show that sabotaged my first impressions more thoroughly than Joan Banach’s recent solo at Small A Projects. Her work initially appears to be simplicity itself: extremely dark, virtually monochromatic hard-edged abstractions that would have been perfectly at home at MoMA circa 1959. But after a few moments of puzzlement—how exactly are these contemporary paintings?—it becomes apparent that Banach is wearing the trappings of high modernism like a ball gown to a mosh pit.
Banach paints on wood panels with reconstituted oil paint, an uncommon medium that accentuates the darkness of her pigments with a light-absorbing flatness. According to Small A Projects owner/director Laurel Gitlen, reconstituted oil was used by Hollywood matte painters to minimize the reflectivity of their scenic backdrops when composited with live action. In Banach’s hands, it solidifies the sense of her work as painted objects (emphasized by the panels’ thick, unframed edges) while seeming to evaporate the picture plane. The paintings’ geometric, allusively sci-fi forms—barely detectable at first—are densely applied to the surface while appearing to hang somewhere just behind it. If Ad Reinhardt is the first predecessor to come to mind, Banach’s illusionism can be seen as unabashedly anti-Reinhardt, even anti-modern.
The exhibition tracks a brief but intriguing evolution. Its title work, “Citizen,” a large painting from 2003-2004, depicts a fantastically elaborate tower rising against an empty night sky. Its high-contrast darks and lights are conventionally rendered, with jagged swatches of illumination seemingly radiating from the painting itself. The remaining six pictures take on the aspect of serial imagery: they are all the same size (38 by 32 inches) with similar subject matter and a near-uniform tone. In these paintings, the light seems to filter in from the outside, falling dimly on the girder-like armatures that make up most of Banach’s curiously designed objects. Instead of true abstractions, they come off as trompe-l’il depictions of floating geometric sculptures.
And yet her approach to image-making actually feels more in league with a materialist like Peter Halley, in that her architectonic structures are created as much through the varying textures of her acutely refined surfaces as they are through articulations of line and color. If Reinhardt’s patterns reveal themselves only after you’ve stared at them for a length of time—the equivalent of allowing your eyes to get used to the dark—Banach’s images emerge as you physically shift your vantage point vis-à-vis the direction of the room’s ambient light, which appears to bend around the imaginary objects.
It is intriguing to note that in this issue of the Rail, Roni Feinstein’s review of Al Held not only mentions his influence on younger abstractionists (and Banach, either directly or indirectly, can surely be counted among them) such as Franz Ackerman and Julie Mehretu, who fully embrace illusionism, but also quotes Irving Sandler’s comment that “sci-fi” interpretations of Held’s work “strike me as vulgar.”
What catapults Banach’s work into the 21st century, in fact, is her delight in the vulgar. Not that her work is crass—on the contrary, it is the last word in sleekness and serenity—but something closer to vulgaris, “of the common people.” Put another way, it is Pop without Warhol. It doesn’t entertain the viewer with hot colors and masscult signifiers, but plays a game of quiet seduction by hitting High Art marks while delivering the graphic intrigue of a Mike Mignola dark-on-dark cover for Hellboy or BPRD. While this interpretation may seem conjectural, Banach appears to encourage it—not merely by co-opting a Hollywood illusionistic technique, but also through her exhibition announcement, which features a film still from William Cameron Menzies’s ultra-camp 1936 British sci-fi flick, Things to Come. A retro-futurist paean to scientific progress, the movie’s naïve faith in humanity’s capacity to rise above barbarism may be as obsolete as matte painting in the age of CGI, but we have felt a resurgence of it lately, a twinge that the idealism of the past may just be the sole path to the future. (In this regard, Banach’s title for her exhibition, Citizen, not only harks back to the honorific of egalité from the French Revolution, but also eerily prefigures the much-remarked-upon opening of Obama’s inaugural address, “My fellow citizens” instead of the standard “My fellow Americans.”)
Banach’s peculiar mash-up of elite and populist forms can be viewed as a contemporary echo of Metaphysical Art’s cannibalization of Cubism: formalism at the service of pictorialism (and Banach’s titles, such as “Avatar” and “Metaphysician,” read like self-conscious distillations of Giorgio de Chirico). By injecting an aesthetic endgame like geometric abstraction with a shot of the vulgar, Banach slaps it awake to unconsidered possibilities and unintended interpretations. This can feel off-putting if you don’t give the paintings a chance, but I think it’s where Banach takes her most formidable leap of faith—to escape hermeticism at the risk of tackiness—and her stark, somber pictures can leave you feeling more guilty pleasure than you’d ever expect.