Thursday, May 14th, 2009

Liz Markus: Hot Nights At The Regal Beagle at Zieher Smith Gallery

March 19 – April 18, 2009
531 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 229 1088

Liz Markus Double Nancy 2009.  Acrylic on unprimed canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy Zieher Smith Gallery
Liz Markus, Double Nancy 2009. Acrylic on unprimed canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy Zieher Smith Gallery

Liz Markus Double Nancy 2009.  Acrylic on unprimed canvas, 60 x 48 inches.  cover MAY 2009: Nancy 5 2008.  Acrylic on unprimed canvas, 60 x 48 inches.  Courtesy Zieher Smith Gallery

I had not planned on seeing the Liz Markus exhibition at Zieher Smith Gallery.  In fact I was doing the usual Saturday tear through Chelsea trying to see the shows on my list when I just happened to look up into the gallery’s first floor window.  There, staring back at me from the far wall of the gallery, hung Nancy 5, (2008).   It is not often that an artwork twenty feet behind a plate glass window can grab my attention as this painting did, so I put away my list and went into the gallery.

Markus’s paintings are a strange brew.  The technique, thin washes of acrylic on unprimed canvas, conjures up memories of some of the more flaccid poured abstractions of the 1970s, think Paul Jenkins, while the imagery harkens to the late, self-indulgent Warhol portraits of rich socialites from the same period.  An un-enticing sounding combo, to be sure, and yet the results confounds expectations.  In Markus hands, apparently, two wrongs can make a right.

The question, of course, is how.  The answer is that the artist creates a critical fission by playing the technique and imagery against each other.  There is a palpable tension evoked in watching the crystalline visage of Nancy Reagan struggle for clarity against the loosey-goosey stained canvas.   The same can be said for the images of George Plimpton and Johnny Rotten, two other icons from the 70s rapidly fading from our consciousness.  She gives art from that time the same treatment, riffing on the Target Paintings of Kenneth Noland in her own Failed Target series.  The result is a potent, shifting emotional palette that is paradoxically nostalgic for a past time while questioning its hierarchies.

This is a delicate balance.  An earlier body of work from two years ago with images of anonymous hippy types, while perhaps just as technically adept, lacks the essential edge, the urgency present in the current works.   The choice of the current imagery, in some cases working directly from past issues of Vanity Fair, reveals something else not immediately obvious in the earlier works: Markus technique only presents the illusion of chance.  No doubt she welcomes the happy accident, but overall these paintings are as tightly controlled as the frozen smiles on her subjects.

This brings me to a final thought on Markus, and her unique blend of content and paint.  To describe these works, with their drips, stains, blotches, dry brush and bleeds, it might be easy to mistakenly tag them as well as slacker and ironic.  Yet this is clearly not part of the viewing experience.  Instead we see the opposite; an artist as fully engaged and committed to her exploration of ideas as she is of her paint.  The result is a group of paintings that is ambitious conceptually as it is visually striking.  In the end, I returned a second time to a show I never intended on seeing, and days later I am still thinking about it.   What more can one ask?