Painting’s simultaneous appeal to both opticality and tactility is the source of the medium’s seductiveness, it might be wagered. This duality is also the most absorbing aspect of I’ll Pretend Not to Hate You, a prodigious new series of paintings from Zane Lancaster on display at Art Access beginning July 17. Inspired by election-year politics, the paintings are parodies of familiar yet not entirely recognizable figures of some power or status — as signified by the ever-present suit and tie — that have been spelled out in encaustic and egg tempera on panel.
The notion of language is quite relevant to a consideration of the series, given the artist’s fascination with codified gestures and common symbols. Still, wrestling with this system of language for viewers’ attentions are the unique material qualities of the paint itself: encaustic, lumpy and coarse, representing for Lancaster “excess and consumption;” and tempera, flat and somehow matter-of-fact, yet strangely “obscuring and revealing” at the same time. Plainly, there’s a lot going on in these paintings.
Examining the series, one cannot help but think of Byzantine icons. Lancaster makes conscious, though not consuming, references to this tradition with halos around some of the figures and the occasional patch of imitation gold leaf. Behind the figures, striking patterns of stripes and checkers take the place of the static rays of light and drapery folds that give icons their decorative effect. The very term icon, of course, lends itself well here, given the politicians and CEOs that people the paintings; these figures, though archetypes rather than specific individuals, are iconic in the colloquial sense.
Appropriately, Lancaster based the compositions of the paintings on news file photographs he found on Google by using vague search terms like “prime minister” instead of actual names. As he explains, “these paintings have no basis in religion, but are still concerned with what is sought after, what is held up, and who is followed and who is in control” — or, more simply, who is “idolized and idealized” in American culture now. The conventions registered by the series, the handshaking and toasting and hand-kissing, are performed by men and women who may as well be saints motioning to worshippers. The literacy required is the same.
Those familiar with Lancaster’s paintings will know he works in encaustic, but the interest in egg tempera is newfound. With “Soon We’ll Destroy You, for Now We Toast,” |above| the artist reached a sort of turning point with the tempera medium, and also with the simulated target behind the figures, which became the first of his patterned, rather than vacant, backgrounds. Based on an old photograph of Saddam Hussein and some American dignitary, the painting is much less a portrait of two specific figures than it is an exploration of artificiality and convoluted motives.
The painting’s surface perfectly affirms this theme: neither matte nor glossy, neither perceptibly textured nor licked smooth, it makes the painting obstinate in a way, tough to grasp. The imagery, too, resists immediate comprehension; one’s eye can manically oscillate between the linearity of the brushwork — cross-hatching, essentially — and the relative evenness of the surface, between the dimensionality of the men and the flatness of the target. Unlike encaustic, tempera can be layered repeatedly without much of a perceptible buildup, thus creating a “tension between what is on the surface and what is beneath that surface,” as Lancaster notes. Fitting, as this tension is implicit in his presentation of his subjects as well.
The artist doesn’t mean for the target behind the figures to be seen as an actual spatial background; rather, it’s an “activation” of the space, which becomes a topical but also eye-catching framework against which interfacing can take place. “Systematic deconstruction of the picture plane was always counter to my instinctual response,” Lancaster explains, “but I think it works particularly well in these paintings relative to the figures and what they are representing.” In other paintings in the series, allusions to nationalism and strategy are made by patterns resembling flags and chessboards. Taken together, the patterns are relevant to the subjects but also engaging in a purely visual sense.
Another play with pattern can be found in “Afraid to Admit Failures,” |see page 1| a sendup of overly pleasant encounters between men and women in the public eye. A fully modeled pair, an older man nearly bowing at the waist to kiss the hand of a middle-aged woman, are layered over shadows of other pairs carrying out the same action, their features marked out only by needle scratches into the paint. As a backdrop, these near-silhouettes add visual complexity to the work, but they also remind viewers that such forced gentility is as pervasive as it is two-dimensional. A circle of gold leaf floats in the center of the composition, forming a lopsided aura or halo for the man and thus making him more ridiculous.
Though the viewer is meant to understand this interaction as essentially disingenuous and antiquated, there’s a grace to the gestures, to the lines created by the woman’s raised right arm and the bend of the man’s back. A layer of varnish, necessary to prevent the gold leaf from tarnishing, adds a sheen to the tempera, enriching the subdued colors and making more evident any distinctions in texture. Even without the varnish, tempera allows Lancaster to achieve a greater vibrancy of color, which was his rationale for experimenting with it in the first place — mostly so that he could focus more on neck ties, funnily enough, which he sees as “a symbol for being a man, for having power.”
As “Afraid to Admit Failures” especially demonstrates, the tempera paintings exhibit a certain beauty, in spite of their cynical tenor. Not really a lush, easy beauty, but beauty that comes of a certain
clarity and deftness, the result of the skillful application of a fascinating medium. Lancaster himself seems smitten by tempera, primarily because it has allowed him to find “that balance between material and image.” He continues, “I think the surface of the paintings is beautiful while the imagery is ugly.” Certainly the figures and their actions are repulsive, but the nature of the tempera confounds this repulsion with its allure.
Across the series, there is an equivalence among the figures, a sameness even in the presence of obvious and expectable differences. “You know what that is, right?” Lancaster asks, when this quality is brought to his attention. “It’s the suit and tie.” To put it another way, one might say that the prevailing ethnicity of the figures populating the panels is not Anglo-Saxon or Arabic or Chinese, but rather Politician (or Executive, if you like). We recognize them by the ways they relate with each other and the faces they put on for us as viewers. We recognize them by their too-wide smiles, which reveal noticeably articulated teeth. For the artist, the resemblance between smiling and teeth-baring is significant, and strategic, for “you have to be trusted so you can take the biggest bite.” And that’s the thing about the paintings, summarily: they have teeth.
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