Michael Zahn described his new solo show to me in this way: "If there was an art gallery scene in Grand Theft Auto 4, it would look like this." He's right of course, but his glibness doesn't describe the number of ideas zooming around the room in As Michael Zahn at Eleven Rivington Gallery.
It's a funny time to be an abstract painter; adherence to the old battle lines isn't especially useful anymore. Michael Zahn doesn't exactly ignore these traditional polarities (autonomus v. contextual, formal v. representational, etc.), but plays both sides with an enthusiasm that prevents the show from simply devolving into an exercise in semiotics or dialectics.
And this emphatic embrace of both sides is what's most interesting to me. When I first apprehended the show and got a general sense of the questions posed by the work, I waited for that slimy feeling I get in the presence of irony - but it never came. The work asks questions, makes comments (ok, it critiques - there, I've said it), but displays no contempt for the objects of inquiry.
Hang, is a 17' picture that uses the iconography of a crashed computer as a metaphor for the death of mid-century American abstract painting - it's no accident that the size and striped motifs are not far afield from Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimus. But there's a key difference between Hang and most of the work out there that dances on the grave of pre-1968 abstraction: Hang (along with the other pictures in the show) is a really good painting. It sounds like I'm being as glib as Michael was in the opening lines of this essay, but I'm not - the fact that Hang looks as good as it does is very real indication of a continued belief in the relevance of that type of painting even as it acknowledges its limitations and its highly devalued position at this particular juncture.
The digitized look and feel of the show acts a constant mediator between the older, more purely visual impulses, and the more contemporary focus on signs and signifiers and other linguistic/narrative concerns. My favorite picture was Power, Corruption, and Lies (Version), pictured above, which instantly referenced Fantin-Latour, 80's pop music, Photoshop, and the low-res imagery so common to the internet. But, like Hang, it was a terrific painting, not strictly an index of a century-and-a-half's worth of stratified references, and to my mind the first Photoshop mosaic-ed painting I've seen that really works. The way that Zahn depicted the color halo effects so common to coarse pixellated images very closely approximated the back-lit nature of the screen; virtually eliminating the picture's surface and evincing that elusive quality seen in certain Venetian paintings and in Bridget Riley as well: the illusion of color simply floating in the air.
In the end, I always judge art (and especially painting) on the way that it looks, and the thing that separates As Michael Zahn from the endless parade of critiques out there is that fact that it looks great, and feels no need to mask or apologize for that fact.