January 8 – February 7, 2016
The primary exhibition image for the two-person show Queen (featured both on the press release and the gallery website) does not depict any of the paintings shown at Lyles & King. Instead, we see the torso of a woman with paint-covered hands holding up her left boob in a position one might describe as “erect,” an image that acts as a stand-in for Chicago expats, longtime friends, and co-founders of the shuttered alternative space Julius Caesar, Dana DeGiulio and Molly Zuckerman-Hartung. Neither this photo nor the show’s title is explained in any of the exhibition materials, causing them to function as something of a mic drop—a brazen invocation of the gendered body without any over-justification thereof. With a flood of recent exhibitions using feminism as a marketing tool (and all the while patting themselves on the back for being progressive), this show’s take on the position of being a female-identified artist and the issue of feminism is sly and subtle—it’s there, but it’s not all that’s there. Instead of relying on outmoded, de-radicalized strategies, DeGiulio and Zuckerman-Hartung give us a prototype for one way that art informed by feminism can be exhibited in a provocative and productive way.
The exhibition texts, the title, and, most importantly, the works on view all center on the use of abstraction to challenge the over-determination of art objects and art history, language, and the female-identified body. How does a body’s form relate to the way we name it? Does a pair of tits equate with “she?” How does a painting’s form relate to the way we name it? Does a painting of flowers equate with a “still life?” DeGiulio and Zuckerman-Hartung are saying no; they posit both the body and the art object as a place of flux rather than a fixed form.
DeGiulio’s paintings of vessels in black voids and white roses lying on tables or placed in vases squirm against being circumscribed. “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” as Gertrude Stein famously wrote. Still, DeGiulio is taking subject matter that isn’t exactly considered avant-garde and using it to deal with the plurality of what a painting of a rose is or can be. Flowers can be containers of passing time, sites of decay—there’s something here of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida description of a photograph of a death row prisoner: “He is dead and he is going to die.” Of course the rose has also been used to symbolize love, rebirth, purity, passion, the list goes on. Additionally, there’s the flower-as-stand-in-for-vagina.
The artist plays with this history in an untitled, fourteen-by-eleven-inch work from 2015 that depicts an ethereal glass vessel overtop a black form that could be a shadow on the glass or the curve of a vulva. In small, seemingly all-black works, all from 2015, the outlines of vessels appear on the surface à la Reinhardt. A spectral vase appears again in Pilot (2015) a larger work that nods to Synthetic Cubism’s relationship with still lifes and overlapping planes. But even if DeGiulio is using Picasso’s language, her inflection, her emphasis, is remaking it. The pluralities on the canvas’ surfaces amount to an argument for slipperiness, for painting not pinned down by preexisting languages or systems. DeGiulio’s profusion of vessels—which are sometimes nearly invisible, sometimes clearly marked out—nods to an understanding of both embodiment and abstraction as spaces of multiplicity and infinite potentiality.
DeGiulio and Zuckerman-Hartung went through art school in an era deeply informed by the understanding of gender in a Butlerian sense, but they also deal with the complicated position of being people who identify as female but still feel troubled by the “automatic” assignation of that label. These are artists who are trying not to be stymied by the fraught histories (of abstract painting, of representing the body) that precede them while at the same time making work within these languages—what Helen Molesworth called “a perennial feminist dilemma” in her 2010 essay “How to Install Art as a Feminist.” In the framing of this show, “woman” is positioned as actor, but also as reenactor. In one of the two texts commissioned for the exhibition, Michaela Murphy creates a poetic narrative around an actress that also functions to illuminate the artist as reenactor: “She performs postures that someone made before her, and because of / this she can never forget history. Particular positions are painful to / endure and she practices the action repeatedly. Each time, the / emphasis shifts; this marks time.”
Zuckerman-Hartung’s pieces made from patchworks of sewn fabric confront these “postures” of the past and in doing so manage to invoke and undo the history of AbEx, women’s work, and the grid as it relates to painting. Using bleach, dye, latex, oil, ink, acrylic, enamel, and collage, the artist adds words and numbers, phallic graffiti, drips, pours, and stains to the works’ surfaces. With the use of bleach, shapes are made from the removal of pigment. The absence, therefore, becomes the form itself, a gesture that reclaims Freud’s positioning of female genitalia as lacking. In the canonized language of abstract painting (from which women have largely been excluded), Pollock’s ejaculative drips are the AbEx apogee. Here, Zuckerman-Hartung’s stains reference a woman’s absence with a sly wink. The bleached out spots and discolorations in How Much Such a Little Moon (2015) call to mind both Frankenthaler and period-stained sheets—a discharge at odds with Pollock’s machismo (a boob-wielding “fuck you,” if you will). While ’70s-era artists like Judy Chicago needed to depict tampons quite literally being pulled out, the female body is referenced more obliquely here with more room for work that is contingent and open-ended: what is a blood stain is also a moon is also a flower petal. In the text, Lisa Darms writes that Zuckerman-Hartung’s “new paintings reflect a ‘relational’ approach.” We are all bodies being formed and reformed in relation to our environment, and so these paintings, too, can be read with a profusion of potential meanings.
It’s only fitting that a show about evading over-determination is titled Queen—a brash moniker that has ties to chess, monarchical structure, Broad City aphorism, gendered insult, queer slang, and much more. Yas Queen, indeed.