Saturday, February 15, 2014

Entry - 2.15.14

I work near St. Peter’s Church at the Citicorp Center located in Midtown Manhattan and often look in on art shows that the church hosts in two spaces that are reserved for exhibitions.  The church’s stated mission is to offer “gallery space to artists whose lives and work explore the many dimensions of spirituality”…luckily a restriction that would not exclude the work of any artist that I can think of.  The gallery guidelines invite both established and emerging artists to submit proposals for exhibitions, which means that the quality of work found there can vary greatly.  I find this in no way a bad thing.  In fact, I think it’s terrific that a location in Midtown that gets a ton of foot traffic is available to unestablished artists.  There are times that I pass by the church, peer through the windows and am so unimpressed with the artwork on display that I walk on by, but occasionally I see a show there that I really enjoy.

In September of last year, I noticed from the street that the church was exhibiting some competent figurative work and made a mental note to myself that I should get over to the gallery to take a look.  About a week later, I made good on my intention, visiting the show on my lunch hour.  Immediately upon entering the gallery, I recognized that the work was far better than I had anticipated.  I quickly took in the room: the paintings were medium sized, the vast majority being figurative.  Compositions were original, pared down and cropped innovatively.  The paint handling was assured and organic, the artist’s brushwork more intuitive and spontaneous than my own.  Coloristically, the paintings worked for me, the artist successfully integrating saturated, artificial colors with more subdued flesh tones.  The artist had mastered perspective and anatomy.  Most of all I was impressed with how the artist painted flesh, probably the most difficult substance to depict with all of its subtle nuances, surface variations and tonal changes.  Occasionally, I noticed, here and there, a little flattening of form which I assumed resulted from working from photographs.  But, in general, the figures had weight, occupied space and were lit by a definable light source.  Additionally, the paint never got muddy, the darks staying active, the highlights pure and bright.

I was impressed.  I glanced up at the wall to see the artist’s name: Daryl Zang.  I was pretty sure from the subject matter that the artist was a woman (which, incidentally, is the case), and beyond that I didn’t need to know much more.  I think it’s always best to go into a show “cold”, and let the work speak for itself.

The first wall I approached was hung with a series of female nudes, which I found to be very competent.  I’ve discovered since then, as I suspected at the time, that these are self-portraits:
“I’ve been asked many times why I paint self-portraits.  The truth is that it kind of happened on its own.  I’ve always loved figurative drawing and painting and when I found myself home alone with a new baby I used myself as a model out of convenience.” – Zang

Zang - Sinking

Zang - Stripped

Zang - Drained

It’s not easy to suffer the scrutiny and commentary that a nude self-portrait initiates, and I commend Zang for her courage.  The works are very attractive, my favorite being Sinking, with its complex interlacing and overlapping of form.  This painting projects a more intense emotional state than is asserted in many of her other paintings, a contained anguish, that I found very moving.  But I suspect that Zang found this work, though quite successful, lacking in personal authenticity because it represents an artistic cul-de-sac, no other work in the show exploring similar emotional states.
The remaining works in the show addressed themes of motherhood, relaxation and pleasure.  As with the nudes, the vast majority of these works testified to a technical competence and exhibited a facile ability to devise innovative compositions.  There is no doubt when looking at these paintings that Zang is presenting specifically a female perspective.
“My work tells the story of my experiences as a woman, focusing on the moments that cause an internal shift in my thoughts or emotions.  At home as a new mother I painted about pregnancy and the early stages of motherhood, exposing all the uncertainty, isolation, and exhaustion as well as the tenderness.  When it was rest I craved, my work became about restful moments and quiet relaxation.  As my children grew older I found inspiration in the joy they discovered in each day and cherished our time together.  Now I can focus on how my own personality, opinions, and relationships have developed over the years.” - Zang
I think it’s wonderful that Zang is presenting images that explore the intimate moments in the day of a stay-at-home mother, especially considering how, in recent decades, the responsibility of child rearing has been disparaged and assigned to outside help.  Zang is inviting us to walk a mile in her shoes, to experience the private pleasures, the minor setbacks, the moments of exhaustion that define her day.  Strangely enough, for Zang, it was taking on the responsibility of caregiver that provided the impetus to focus on her painting.  For most artists, the distractions and interruptions that come with caring for babies and young children would become debilitating.
“My painting career truly came into focus after the birth of my first child.  Ironically, at this time, I found it unthinkable that I would have the time or energy to take painting seriously.  I found an escape in my studio and turned to self-portraiture in order to make sense of all the emotions that had arrived with this new phase of life.  I created imagery that was honest and infused with a female perspective which I found difficult to find elsewhere in art." - Zang
When successful, these works embody a candor and intimacy that is very moving.  In paintings such as Roots, New Beginning, Pause, All That Glitters, Second Reading, Cared For and Bliss, Zang excels, finding a balance between the personal and the universal, presenting images that are innovatively elemental and emotive.  In execution and subject matter, these paintings are reminiscent of the work of Janet Fish and Philip Pearlstein.
Zang - Roots

Zang - New Beginning

Zang - Pause

Zang - All That Glitters

Zang - Cared For
I would suggest that better judgment could have been exercised in naming some of the paintings.  I think Roots is too specific and strips the image of some of its mystery, while Drained and All That Glitters are cute and a bit precious.  In Bliss and Cared For Zang successfully tackles challenging subject matter: reflective surfaces, moving water and transparent mediums which distort imagery.
There are also a vast number of images that document the small pleasures that Zang indulges in during her day, pleasures that sustain and buoy her spirits: an afternoon nap, a good book, a cup of coffee, a hot bath, a glass of wine.

Zang - Centerpiece

Zang - Appreciation

Zang - Time Out

Zang - Cupcake

Zang - Indulgence
I guess this is all well and fine.  After all, Zang is telling a story of sorts, presenting a narrative constructed of moments in her day.  Most of these works are expertly executed.  I can’t help but admire the hand depicted in Appreciation or the glass of wine in Cupcake.  But as I was looking at many of these works, an uneasy feeling was welling up in me that the subject matter would be better suited for a facebook cellphone snapshot posting than serious art.  You know, “Tortellini al Forno at Olive Garden last night” or “Celebrated anniversary with bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape…Awesome!”  Of course, it could be said that my gender precludes my fully appreciating the subject matter, but I would be equally unreceptive to images painted by a male artist of the gung-ho gang gathered to watch the Sunday football game or documenting workout equipment at the local gym.  At the show, I found myself studying many of the paintings seeking within the agreeable imagery a greater depth, something more profound.

Zang - The Gift

Zang - Bliss
For instance, looking at The Gift, I wondered if the unusual cropping, the low perspective offering a generous glimpse of leg and thigh, the manner in which the frilly hem of the dress echoes the tissue paper packaging of the present suggest a slightly sinister interpretation involving a quid pro quo relationship.  Or when I look at Bliss, I can’t help but recall the long tradition of bubble imagery in art which goes back to the Renaissance, referencing the Latin expression, homo bulla, which translates roughly as “man the bubble” and serves as a metaphor for the transitory nature of human existence.(1)  In Bliss, is Zang bringing to our attention the brevity of pure happiness in our ever-changing lives and, taking this a step further, commenting on the fragility of life itself?  I’m not sure.
I hope this entry doesn’t read as too critical of Zang’s work.  From reading through passages on her site, I really got to like Zang.  She seems to be a great parent, a sincere chronicler of her creative process and motivations, a diligent artist struggling to produce high quality work.  Hopefully, if she were to read this entry, she would follow her own advice regarding criticism:
“As an artist’s circle of peers, galleries and collectors expands so does the noise of other’s suggestions and opinions.  You have to see through your own lens though.  This is true no matter what you do.  It takes strength to filter a lot of that away, but it is the only way to find your inner voice.  Only in believing in yourself does the true magic happen.” – Zang
I don’t believe that criticism is a bad thing.  I’m always pleased when my work elicits a strong response, good or bad.  My favorite comment I received when last I showed was: “Depressing, Almost evil, reflection of today’s world”.  Ultimately, the role of all art is to draw attention, to communicate, to move one’s audience to respond.  Zang should be pleased that her work motivated me to write this entry a full five months after seeing her show.  Her paintings testify to her technical abilities; it seems likely that, with continued dedication to her craft, Zang, who’s already exposing a rich and rarely explored perspective, will find themes and subject matter that more aptly convey the depth of emotion which her personal experiences inspire.  And, who knows, someday in the future, I might be wandering through the galleries of a major museum and come across a Zang hanging right along with Caravaggio’s The Foot Massage of St. Paul, Cassatt’s My Most Excellent Vibrator and Picasso’s Double Latte.
To see more of Zang’s work and read her own writings about art and process, please visit her site at: www.zangstudios,com.
All comments are welcome here.  If you prefer to comment privately, you can email me at:
(1) Erika Langmuir, Imagining Childhood

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