Painting Back to Shore: A Conversation With Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

March 5, 2014 · Print This Article

By Kevin Blake

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung is armed and dangerous. Leary and suspicious. Soft and cuddly. She is as multiplicitous as her paintings–equally dynamic and smart. In her second solo exhibition currently on display at Corbett vs. Dempsey, Zuckerman-Hartung opens the door to her studio–to her life and work. She expands the space in the paintings while maintaining her aesthetic tendencies that are uniquely her own. Here is a glimpse at her perpetually expanding range and depth and a good indication of why she is one of seventeen artists from Chicago showing in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

Kevin Blake:  In preparing to have a conversation with you, I reread your 95 Theses on Painting. I have read it many times, and like looking at a painting, something different stands out to me each time I read them. I read them until I arrive at the one thesis that holds me–that suffices my appetite. It is a beautiful sort of happenstance, that in reading these words about painting, I’m consuming them in the same way as I might consume a painting–very selfishly, very immediately, very directly, and only until I am satisfied. Almost never, do I read them through–a testament to their individual and collective wisdom.

Today, I stopped at thesis number 79. It reads, “The painter today is a fool.” At this point, it occurred to me, that this thesis was both the end of one idea and the start of the next. The thought began at thesis 73, and evolved into the next thought. And the next. And the next. Thoughts folded atop one another. Leaving traces of its predecessor in each iteration. It is obvious that there is a harmony between the way you think about paintings, the way you write, and the way you make paintings.  Can you talk about the necessity of your commitments, and how that may or may not influence what seems to manifest as a very feverish approach to making and thinking?

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung: I do think they are “folded” processes, in the writing and the painting. This process of folding is disorienting – the top is folded under, the underside becomes the top. Yet it maintains a continuous surface, an integrity or a wholeness–even as surfaces collapse, exchange, and reverse. I think a similar movement was happening in the 95 theses at number 79, the painter today is a fool. It is a pivot-point in the text, where a thought has been charging toward something, reaches the edge, teeters, pivots, and charges in a different direction, still holding the ball. The line traveled would be a sharp angle, much like the edge of a folded paper, or a zig-zag, or lightning bolt, which was Hans Hartung’s signature. He believed the lightning bolt was especially for him. A flash of lightning is often used to symbolize dramatic, “flashes” or revelations. I think these are becoming commonplace in our culture, having to do with the internet, and speed of connections. As for “feverish” I used to look for a certain mood in writing, and I called it torpor. Chris Kraus called a novel Torpor recently. The ultimate torpor novel is “The Immoralist” by Gide. Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” is also written in a strange, heat-soaked languor. It is sexy and dangerous. Paul Bowles wrote this mood too. It has something to do with sex. Necessity is more about belief. So maybe I am working out a sex-belief dialectic.

“iio,” 2004-13, oil, latex, enamel, and wax on folded canvas 24″ x 24″. Image courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey.

KB: In your most recent show, “Violent Fogs Azure Snot,” at Corbett vs. Dempsey in Chicago, there seems to be a material economy in the paintings, at least in comparison to some of your earlier work. Can you talk about the reductive quality of this grouping, and how the work may or may not be a response to the contemporary deluge of imagery that you seem to reference  in the catalog for the show?

MZH:In Violet Fogs Azure Snot I am thinking about the poem by Arthur Rimbaud, Le Bateau Ivre, or The Drunken Boat. The poem is a 100 line  journey by a boat that has lost its haulers. The title of the show is pulled from this poem, and since it is already in translation, I allowed the words to unravel further, as homonyms multiply and collapse the original title. In the poem, the boat is the subject, but without a crew, the subject is absent. This is not reductive, but there are many absences in the show, many spaces charged with what is not there, in the catalog, the work and the installation. I was not thinking of the photographs in the catalog as a contemporary deluge of imagery. They are almost all photographs I took, with an iPhone, plus a few details of art historical work, and photos of me. I am thinking of them as a narrative collage of modes of vision operating in the paintings. How I look, what I choose to look at, from what angle.

KB: The first painting I spent time with at your current show, titled au in 2013, is the last color plate in the accompanying catalog. If my memory serves me well, this painting sits alone on a partition wall at the east end of the gallery space.  For me, this painting set the stage for the show. Turning my back to it, I could see both walls on either side of me, lined with canvases. Standing in that spot, I could sense an intentional juxtaposition of painting varieties. Some contemporary painters undermine the idea of consistent authorship by showing a mixed bag of painting types within the same installation as you have in this show. However, the question of authorial consistency doesn’t seem to be at play here. The variety seems to stem from a set of intuitive responses to the material demands within the work process, and the hand is ever present throughout the show. Are you consistently arriving at dilemmas in painting–dilemmas that create opportunities for intuitive response? How important are impulse and intuition to your outcomes?

“au,” 2013, oil, latex, and enamel on drop cloth, 80″ x 60″. Image courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey.

MZH: I think the word “dilemmas” is more useful than impulse or intuition. As you said, there are a number of different paintings that serve as touchstones for these paintings, the large blue painting “Calif.” is reminiscent of Matisse’ blue paintings, in color, but also in his way of making space, and distributing objects through the picture plane. The phases of Matisse’ work are also very important to me – he was able, over time, to balance color, line, space, but in particular moments he seems very out of balance, as he brings in too much pattern, color and complexity into his paintings. The blue paintings, like the red studio, propose a color field as a space, a blue space. The objects in that space then have to be compared in terms of scale, to determine distance from the viewer.

Henri Matisse, “View of Notre Dame. Paris, quai Saint-Michel,” 1914 Oil on canvas. 58 x 37 1/8″ (147.3 x 94.3 cm)

By “dilemma” I think you mean a kind of crisis, and I think the crisis for me is the flatness of the surface of the painting. With these paintings, I am finding ways to make the painting sculptural, to introduce space, but I don’t want to do that with illusionistic depth. Instead, I am thinking about the spaces between the paintings, the way they respond to one another across the room, and the differing historical references as producing space. So Matisse with the blue one, Malevich with the smaller black painting, Barnett Newman in the painting with three broad vertical bands. The paintings made up of tick marks are actually made as continuous lines, while folded. Then, when unfolded, the effect is that of small marks. This would be another moment of crisis in the show. I think of that kind of painting – methodical mark-making, as a form of transparency in painting – each mark is made in time, and the viewer is able to follow the mark making of the maker in turn. As with, for example, Hanne Darboven, Michelle Grabner or Agnes Martin. In my paintings, the mark is not transparent. The folds, unfolded, produce a kind of schism in the communication, the “reading” of the painting. How I made the marks is not the same as how you read the marks. There is a breakdown in that kind of direct, frontal address. This produces, I think, a kind of space. Also, in Calif. the cloth was folded, then I drew the lines with bleach, then unfolded, then sewn, then stretched, and then paint was poured on the back of the painting. The seam blocks the paint from its natural desire to pool, to spread into soft puddles. Round puddles. Instead, the paint is held in columns. This series of steps, all quite deliberate, might produce an experience of accident or intuition for the viewer, but for me, these paintings are quite systematic. At least more so than in the past.

“Calif,” 2013, oil, bleach, and latex on stained, folded, and sewn linen, 84″ x 60″. Image courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey.

I will add that yes, I am also a very impulsive painter, I do what I want in the studio, and often this leads to messes, things I don’t know how to handle, paintings that are too full, chaotic, unresolved, inept, ugly, awkward. I am comfortable with this, and increasingly I think of it as a strength. I have many unresolved or odd objects and paintings in my studio, which allows me to revisit again and again, finding new ideas, new ways of dealing with paint and surface, texture, color, space, line. I choose to learn from everything I do, accept it all as process. But I will say that this body of work is a very distinct and important show for me in terms of my ability to cull, control and limit that tumult. I am increasingly able to think in terms of bodies of work, phases, moments. I am developing a kind of poetics in my work – the poetics of this show is folding, a word I like. I like the softness of the word, of the feeling. I think of folding clothes or sheets, the drape, the crease, the seam – a language of sewing. The weight and drape of textiles is so important. I don’t consider the textiles I use to be “found,” because they are so specific to me. This might be what you mean by intuition. A lifetime of touching cloth, which we all do, we all wear clothing, makes for a deep material sense about textiles. This is a kind of intuition built from long experience. I hope that the viewer’s experience of the paintings is informed by their memory of what it feels like to touch cloth.

KB: There is a tension in this space and I keep thinking of a Mexican standoff–the first to shoot is at a tactical disadvantage, so nobody shoots, but everybody has their hands on their guns–at the ready.There is a tension between these paintings. The paintings have a gendered quality–like the men and women are separated in the space. The men are against the brick wall, the ladies opposite, and the painting, “au,” the antithesis, stands alone on the third wall–the tip of the triangle.

Installation view of “Violet Fogs Azure Snot.” Image courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey.

MZH: That is really rewarding to me to hear–that a tension was produced in the space. Mutual hostilities being produced among such gentle materials. It’s odd. I cried a lot over the past year while making this work. It is really really sad work for me. And the studio wasn’t big enough to hold them, so they sat on either side of the studio, like big thick padded walls, holding me. I felt really held by these paintings. They just absorbed all the grief. And then installing them they started to change, to pull apart, into each wall, which is now such a dominant design – the verticals on one wall, the horizontals on the other, with “au,” the blown out diagonal grid on the third wall, operating, perhaps, as the first gun firing in the standoff…

KB: Humans are made of gentle material–such gentle material that we cannot last forever. We age. We erode. We die. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy either, and the timetable–or limits of our individual materials–are very different. The sad part is that so much of our inevitable lives are spent in conflict, in one form or another. Conflict seems to be the elephant in the room. The paintings are the only ones who really know what they are about, and they remain stoic and silent. That tension builds from the vantage point of the third wall and radiates across the room.  Are the walls intended to have a gendered specificity? Is the Mexican standoff an accurate metaphor for this silent conflict–this elephant in the room?

MZH: Regarding gender, I have been thinking about affective labor a lot. Affective labor is a recent term for service industry, or service economy, which is the turn our global economy has been taking for quite some time. Affective labor is the kind of labor more and more of us are being asked to do, and there is a slippery slope between that term, and the feminization of labor. I would like to be clear that I think gender is different from sex, and also different from a more Jungian notion of archetypes, as I think you are using them – the “masculine” and the “feminine.” I am interested in all forms of discussion around gender, sex, and archetypes, but it’s important to keep them separate.

Installation view of “Violet Fogs Azure Snot.” Image courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey.

I chose to frame the show Violet Fogs Azure Snot with the work of nine female painters – John [Corbett] and Jim [Dempsey] were kind enough to allow me to do this. The show is called “Sensitive Instruments” and I was trying to frame a conversation about the strain placed on women to be both highly sensitive – as caregivers, nurturers, and then the ways that care is instrumentalized. But also synesthesia – the musical instruments, and the long history of music and painting sharing a language of movement, color, and line. If possible, I am thinking about a charge, a tension, of gender politics, of economic demands, of painting that takes a hardline position, a stand. And simultaneously is fluid, is able to recover from damage, to absorb shock, to recover. As in Adrienne Rich’s poem, Power, about Marie Curie. The poem ends with these lines,

“It seems she denied to the end

the source of the cataracts on her eyes

the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends

till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

 

She died a famous woman denying

her wounds

denying

her wounds came from the same source as her power”

It serves as a warning to pay attention to our wounds. None of this is simple or easy, and in saying anything I fear reducing the paintings to rhetoric which they definitely are not. But the standoff you describe– the conflict–is deep in the work, and hopefully only at first glance are the men on one side and the women on the other. Hopefully all the paintings are very transgendered.

KB: As the Whitney Biennial opens this month, will you look to rest? What’s next in the studio and beyond?

MZH: I just spent the past 18 hours lying in bed in silence. I definitely need some rest. But we all do. It’s been a rough winter. Everyone, on the bus, in the classroom, is overextended, parched, raw. We need some gentleness. As for my studio, I just moved down the hall in my building, to a bigger space, and I am still adjusting to the change. I realize I was deeply adapted to the old space, so this space causes lots of new questions, as does the increase in attention and “success.” I am very slow to adapt to a change in audience, and the ways it changes my understanding of my own work, so I am just trying to stay low, and stay in touch with myself, by writing and drawing and reading, and avoiding studio visits. I have no shows planned, but I will be teaching in Knoxville, Tennessee for Fall semester.

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