Chicago

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

Julius Caesar

At the bottom of the checklist for Molly Zuckerman-Hartung’s exhibition at Julius Caesar was a Shakespeare (mis)quote: “Macbeth: If we should fail? Lady Macbeth: We fail. But screw your courage to the sticking point and we shall not fail.” This might be a motto or abridged artist statement for Zuckerman-Hartung, who has gathered up her courage and screwed it to the continued project of rethinking abstraction.

The artist seems to imagine abstraction as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari do, as an infinite field of potentials; contrary to any conception of abstraction as an endgame of absences and negations, her work affirms a hysterical, endless rallying of imaginative combinations and assemblages. Deleuze and Guattari’s “immanentist” and “experimental” means of expanding abstraction in philosophy are the same principles shaping Zuckerman-Hartung’s painting practice. While prodigiousness in abstraction is not an uncommon aim of con- temporary painters or cultural aggregators, Zuckerman-Hartung’s work is noteworthy in that it is based on carefully considered principles, not just attitude or cool disinterest. As a result, her engagement with the medium’s mercurial language is anxiously and seriously dialectical.

Sternutatory, 2008, titled after the agent that causes sneezing, was sheepishly hung at the entrance so that the gallery door, when open, concealed it. A washy landscape broken up by three impasto diagonals, the composition is inelegantly proportioned. But by cultivating a secret theater behind the door and assigning it a surreptitious title, Zuckerman-Hartung extended what might otherwise be merely an ironical postmodern painting, made with two incongruent mark-making systems, into a Deleuze-Guattarian “and . . . and . . . and . . .” conjunction. That the artist exhibited her mother’s mosaic Pozzuoli, 2007, alongside her own paintings had the same mixing-it-up effect. The mosaic, its tesserae arranged in a loose pattern of primary and neutral colors, embodies an abstract logic distinct from that of the exhibition as a whole. The lurid blue that Zuckerman-Hartung painted the floor also worked in this way, as a bold external interference with her expressive oil and acrylic works apportioned throughout the gallery.

Meanwhile, x cannot know what x is, even though x be ever so well aware of what x is not, 2008, is a melodramatic and nearly overworked abstract painting, a central rectangle of which the artist has cut, rotated, and reinserted—a dispassionate recomposing of an impassioned little abstraction. Channeling tactics of Lucio Fontana and Photoshop, the artist improves an aggressively scumbled composition by upending its center and giving it a hard-edged figure-ground relationship. Yet in cutting a rectangular core from a stirring gestural painting, she also condemns the work’s modern ontology and its allover field of expressive marks.

In the assemblage Over the sea, that I loved as though it were to cleanse me of a stain, 2008, a geometric painting utilizing a primary color scheme abuts a found metal-framed photograph of a tropical beach. Dangling over the photograph are two necklaces, one strung with seashells and the other with blue plastic beads. The painting seems plastic and lifeless, reducing color, geometry, and composition to mere signifiers. Functioning as an exercise in semiotics, the assemblage evokes appropriation strategies and representational critique instead of passionate abstract painting. But it is when Zuckerman-Hartung summons the courage to fold both formal and dialectical explorations into her painting that she bestows feverish largesse on the rhetoric of abstraction.

Michelle Grabner