Friday, February 6th, 2009

Zach Harris: Requiem Reversals at Max Protetch Gallery

January 10 – February 21, 2009
511 West 22nd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues
New York City, 212 633 6999

Zach Harris Option Eye 2007-2008. Acrylic and wood, 30-3/4 x 22-1/4 x 1 inches. Images courtesy of Max Protetch Gallery
Zach Harris, Option Eye 2007-2008. Acrylic and wood, 30-3/4 x 22-1/4 x 1 inches. Images courtesy of Max Protetch Gallery

Requiem Reversals, Zach Harris’s first solo show at Max Protetch Gallery, is a curious yet oddly potent collection of works. Evading strict role definitions of painting and relief, Harris has crafted hybrids of the two that combine bold, otherworldly imagery with ornate sculptural supports. These dense aggregates of geometric patterning, Utopian landscape and delicate filigree invite extended contemplation, and at their best function as powerful modern-day secular icons.

Like the Buddhist devotional paintings Harris often quotes, his works link pictorial production to specific meditative states. The landscapes he depicts are purely internal in origin, and together operate as forms of visual notation from a disembodied vantage point. Despite the dramatic spatial recession of works like Option Eye, for example, in which colorful blocks crowd row behind infinite row, the structural components of Harris’ scenes seem to inhabit a symbolic, rather than a spatial, realm. Conventional readings of “above” and “below”, of north, south, east and west are confounded in these panels by the integration of patterned motifs – diamond shapes and curlicues – that resist any such perspectival pre-conditions. The improbable worlds that Harris presents are less pictures of places than visual destinations within elaborate structures, guiding the eye ever-centerwards.

Harris establishes a very fluid relationship between the three-dimensional patterning of the framework and the seductive scenes within. The conversation that results taps the evocative nature of pattern itself: beyond the beautiful and decorative, simple geometric motifs can also be highly charged, and even emotive. In Sunrises 88, for example, layers of plywood have been built up around the periphery of the surface of the work, then cut away in lateral curves to yield a formation of luminous petal-shapes. The effect creates a sculptural counterpart to the newly radiant light evoked by the title, and to the glowing shapes centrally depicted. Conversely, the jagged external forms of Venus Flytrap physically convey the latent danger of a sharp edge before the moment of an ill-fated touch.

There is, however, a danger in this system of tactile and imagistic mix-and-match.  A couple of works, like History Painting Dream, for example, suffer from an incoherent gathering of sources, amounting to a collision of images within ill-defined parameters. Clearly, the playful maze-work and distinctive motifs that elsewhere create a strong formal presence can be cartoonish and contrived when mishandled. But it was my experience, surprisingly, that these less-powerful works strengthen the overall show: in Harris’ unusual recipe it helps to see what doesn’t work to appreciate what does. The potentially uncomfortable melding of disparate elements that his approach entails is a tricky business, and, as with an alchemist at work, there is no guarantee that a valuable substrate will result from the mix. This play of unseen stakes is, perhaps, part of what makes Harris’ concretized variations of internalized form so compelling.