Visiting Artist is a new column format in Newcity in which an artist writes on a personal topic. Here, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung confronts the taboo of writing about lovers, teachers and students. Her solo exhibition opens at the MCA on May 1.
Recently I’ve been thinking about peers. In graduate school, the pressures of critique and shared confusions welded us together. It was a rare institutional moment in my life, and one that I still cherish. I felt alone and scared, but with a feeling of fellowship. Since graduating five years ago, the sense of connectedness and equality has eroded. Many classmates moved to the coasts, and those who stayed in Chicago enjoy differing opportunities and responsibilities, as well as levels of engagement.
Peer structures are figured in three recent painting exhibitions by, respectively, my former lover, my former teacher and my former student, and provide an occasion for me to think about sameness and difference, repetition, networks and individual expression as a mirror for larger societal shifts. The illusion of democratization within Facebook is a thin veneer over the complex hierarchy of institutional power, mentor relationships, and older artists being passed over as less mature makers are swept into the commercial maelstrom. A friend recently confessed to me that he secretly ranks the participants in Chicago’s art world according to their importance. Against this backdrop of private paranoia and public faux-friendliness, a new visual language of equality and interdependence is difficult and necessary.
Dana DeGiulio’s show, titled “Show,” which recently closed at Julius Caesar, contained fourteen paintings on paper of equal portrait size, hung at regular intervals around the room. The paintings are gestural, black-and-white gnarls of space and paint, carved line, clumped and broken painterly marks. The work is tender and aggressive, snarling and baring its teeth to remind the viewer how undefended it is: frail human bones caught within the rectangle. DeGiulio calls them “soldiers,” but what soldiers are allowed to touch with such vulnerability? She wields paint with gusto and aplomb, excessive and yet, in relation to the decadent painting of our time, stirringly restrained. The body thrust just beyond itself: an eerily intelligent-seeming child drooling slowly onto its chest, an old toothless person carefully gumming bits of food. DeGiulio reframes the heroism of Abstract Expressionism as every body, uniformed bodies; soldiers.
By contrast, Michelle Grabner’s recent show, “Black Swan” at Shane Campbell’s small project space in her own backyard, was a step away from repetition. Drawings in the guise of painting—improvisational yet restrained—Grabner seemed to be casting her net by thinking through new materials. A checkerboard of red and pink acrylic on a white ground; two head-sized gessoed burlap pieces, sanded back to show the weave of the fabric (selectively unwoven) in a palimpsest of support and ground; a faintly printed pink plaid gently lilting across gessoed panel; and three modest unstretched tapestries, imbued with the wholesome feeling of Black Mountain craft projects. Thick black yarn embroidered into loosely woven linen to produce a circle. The yarn piles up and protrudes in the center like a dumb black breast. Grabner asked graduate students to curate the show, and titled it “Black Swan” after her daughter’s drawing, made for the recent movie she hasn’t seen. Allowing the influence of students and children to reframe the work after it leaves the studio opens a potentially monomaniacal trajectory to other, more essayistic paths.
Antonia Gurkovska’s solo show, “Index,” at Kavi Gupta Gallery, orchestrated black and metallic colors into a fluorescent lit cocktail lounge atmosphere of post-minimal paintings. Makeshift yet sharply critical, her material resonates beyond recent “provisional” painting. Bubble wrap, with its repetitive grid and implications of transitional and temporary protection, is the texture du jour here. Gurkovska cut a grid of eye-like holes into four paintings, revealing receding layers of cut cloth or vinyl in what I want to call, oddly, the inside of the painting. The repeating pattern of cut eye shapes produces the queer experience of looking into the painting and simultaneously being looked at by the painting. The paintings mimic the sphere of social networking; the poker-faced paranoia of the vulnerable individual competing in a free market economy where peer means enemy, resources are scarce, and the field of action is the bar.
Tomatoes now typically contain fish genes, so that something as mundane as a tomato must be hybrid, mashed-up, and only a nostalgic fundamentalist would argue for a notion of a pure tomato, but this is the courage, the risk, and the work of these practices. DeGiulio, Grabner and Gurkovska are ambivalent about the critical potential of sight. They privilege thinking as highly as seeing: they move carefully, deliberately building a language, painting by painting, registering time unit by unit; holding things apart while keeping them embedded within a larger project.
Discrete difference is not the same as paranoid isolation. Think about order, of one thing after another, rather than a hodge-podge or a willy-nilly. It is the way we form words and sentences, one unit of meaning at a time, or the way we walk, step by step. Peer relationships within capitalism are difficult to maintain, requiring acknowledgement of difference and commitment to connection. Grabner, DeGiulio and Gurkovska keep that dream, if not the reality, alive.