Anne Zahalka

City Gallery

Anne Zahalka’s portrait series “Artists, 1989–90,” records members of the upmarket avant-garde posed within fabricated three-dimensional studio reconstructions, which evoke the artistic sensibilities of the sitters. The resulting large, glossy color prints, are loaded with telling detail to the point that they virtually burst at the seams with hidden significance, and the visual plenitude obfuscates their legibility. Artist #12 (David O’Halloran) is the bohemian in his garret: he sits in bed writing. The accessories are suitably spartan: a telephone on a red plastic milk crate, and a book by Sigmund Freud. Bare light bulbs, a hammer, and a simulacrum of a Constructivist painting stand in for this artist’s idea of art. The use of artists as models is a constant in Zahalka’s work. In her earlier series, “Resemblance I,” 1987, she arranged her friends in 18th-century authentic Dutch genre costumes and settings. This was undermined by small details from the present—on the hand of a burgher a watch, on the cleaner’s head a Walkman. Zahalka prefaces this show with a series of epigrams reminiscent of Jenny Holzer’s texts, for example, “The artist’s primary occupation is to make himself known. His work is still considered necessary, even though it has become secondary.” Irony is the first form of humor lost in translation, and the portraits are so flattering and seductive that straight-faced irony backfires.

Zahalka’s intention here may have been to parody a genre—to present a tongue-in-cheek survey of bohemian life—but I do not think the starving poet, the mad scientist, the revolutionary, or the suicide are her real targets. Rather, Zahalka creates advertisements of a glamorous world in which artists’ dreams and desires are interchangeable with their works. This is realized, but the achievement is cynical. She gives in so entirely to the subject’s point of view that her photographs take on an aura of amorality. Zahalka is able to slip something past her audience here and that is the absence of any discernible authorial opinion. Awareness of the relativity of the “author’s voice” is not the same as its concealment. This is the source of both the curiosity and the flaw of “Artists.” Zahalka is able to contrive convincing relationships between sitter and tableau when faced with a parodist like Stephen Bush; in front of a model, Rosie Weiss, an artist who works outside specifically ironic, avant-gardist modes, the effect is less certain. Such subjects often cultivate an uncertainty in their works that is very different from the personae by which they would wish to be represented. The result of Zahalka’s method of portrayal is an imaging of self-congratulation, and it ultimately constitutes a peculiarly contemporary, if involuntary, accomplishment.

Charles Green