Critics’ Picks

Josef Strau, Angel’s Alphabet V, 2019, pencil, ballpoint pen, marker, brass, tin, and nails on wood panel, 28 x 25".

Josef Strau, Angel’s Alphabet V, 2019, pencil, ballpoint pen, marker, brass, tin, and nails on wood panel, 28 x 25".

Zurich

Josef Strau

Galerie Francesca Pia
Limmatstrasse 268
June 8–July 20, 2019

Revelation can be arduous. In the book of Genesis, Jacob wrestles an angel until the break of day, tearing his sciatic tendon in the process. For two years, Josef Strau has trampled, beat, soldered, and sutured tin sheets until they yield seraphic icons, as if they were images taken from a Byzantine fresco. Installed in the monastic rooms of the Löwenbräukunst, the two series in “How to Be an Angel Painter,” “Angel’s Alphabet” and “Angel’s Scores,” both 2019, function as an exegesis and an exorcism for this obsession.

The show was inspired by the Art Nouveau printmaker Ephraim Moses Lilien, who used angels as a framing device for biblical scenes. In Strau’s renderings, the feathery zigzag of an angel’s wing, drawn in shades of vermillion and orange in marker, shield brass-and-tin metalworks pinioned on wooden boards and blank canvases like a lepidopterist’s specimens. As with Robert Ryman’s white paintings or Agnes Martin’s grids, what appears on the surface as ascetic monotony soon gives way to a remarkable subtlety in the use of materials. Consider the variety of fastenings Strau employs: thumbtacks with rounded, corrugated surfaces, occasionally embellished with a sooty film; thin crooked nails; gold and silver pins with flat, reflective heads.

Strau’s paintings, which peel back iconography to reveal their artistic labor, demand extended contemplation. Traces of his process can be discerned in a crust of glue or a smear of ink. His usual poster-poems, photocopied and pasted on a wall, are partially or fully obscured. If the heady flicker of candlelight lends life to the delicately hatched gold and silver leaf of medieval icons, Strau’s brass and tin forms, lit only by a secular, fluorescent glow, return the viewer’s visage, refracted on the head of each pin.