Molly Zuckerman-Hartung – “Jennifer Jason Leigh” at Corbett vs. Dempsey by Bruce Thorn

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Corbett vs. Dempsey
1120 N Ashland Ave
Chicago, IL 60622
Exhibition ran from March 18 – April 15, 2017

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung has been taking painting to new places since earning her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007. The looseness and sense of freedom one gets from viewing her works have brought boatloads of success, fans and imitators. Her third solo exhibition at Corbett vs. Dempsey combined healthy doses of ambition with tactile, formal, abstract mayhem and bona fide visceral pictorial amusement.

Zuckerman-Hartung grew up in Olympia, Washington, where she immersed herself in the Punk scene and associated with Riot Grrrl. She earned a BA in French (language, literature and philosophy) from Evergreen University in 1998. This background does seem pertinent to her artistic voice and message. She moved on to earn BFA and MFA (2007) degrees from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and subsequently taught there as well. In 2015 she was appointed Critic of Painting and Printmaking at the Yale University School of Art. Molly Zuckerman-Hartung is also a writer and has published essays on Susan Sontag, Michelle Grabner, Carrie Schneider and Magalie Guerin. Of interest to this reader is her freewheeling The 95 Theses on Painting.

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

Melanie Klein’s Part Object (detail), dye, oil, acrylic and enamel on sewn fabric and leather, 2017

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung’s works have already received several important gallery and museum exhibitions. She was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and almost every important art critic in America has written enthusiastically about her work. There is no need to go through the lengthy resume. Forget all the hype and forget all the art speak manifestos. Let’s just look at the art and trust our own responses, shall we?

A first glance through the open gallery door towards the exhibition offered a breath taking “wow” moment. In the main gallery space, there were five large paintings, one smaller painting and a number of drawings and collages. This is a gallery where the art on display must compete with outstanding urban panoramas visible through several third floor windows. Corbett vs. Dempsey is a cognoscenti’s eye-candy store with a view and John Corbett and Jim Dempsey are quite knowledgeable about art history, more than many others in the game. They know how to present a smart exhibition without overcrowding the space. Corbett vs. Dempsey could present just about anything and make it look great.

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

Georgia, or Take Me back, Way Way Way Back, dye, oil and acrylic on sewn fabric, 2017

Zuckerman-Hartung’s paintings use more than paint. There’s a lot of mixed media collage going on, utilizing a range of materials including printed reproductions and photos, corrugated cardboard, wood scraps, sticks, cords, glitter, screws, staples, various hardware items and a stuffed toy turtle wearing a red beret. Canvas and cloth surfaces get cut up and sewn back together, holes are rhythmically punctured through the picture plane and anything goes. Paint gets dripped, poured, splashed or applied loosely with brushes. Careful craftsmanship and tight painting aren’t on display, which is fine, considering that Zuckerman-Hartung’s adventures involve stream of consciousness reflections, a personal visual poetry.

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

Georgia, or Take Me back, Way Way Way Back (detail), dye, oil and acrylic on sewn fabric, 2017

I spent some time trying to match the work on display with the exhibition title Jennifer Jason Leigh but concluded that it wasn’t worth the trouble to ponder beyond what met the eye. Perhaps it’s enough to say that the famous actress from The Hateful Eight and Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a celebrity with whom Zuckerman-Hartung is inspired and fascinated by for whatever reasons. Though the exhibition title implies a harmless, girlish fetish for a popular actress, the cynic in me always recoils at name-dropping routines. Tagging celebrity names and images seems like a populist or folk art thing, something that you might expect from the likes of Howard Finster, Stephan Warde Anderson or Ed Paschke. Warhol also prospered using stock images of iconic celebrities.

Contemporary art has become a petri dish of ambiguity. It can be risky to take a stance or commit to any idea or message. Fashions in art change quickly. Zuckerman-Hartung has undoubtedly influenced many younger artists throughout her illustrious decade long professorial presence on the international art stage; however, as in politics, previous commitments and statements can often make or break an artist’s career. Is it fair to blame the messengers for resounding cultural ambiguity and lack of commitment to ideas?

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

Jennifer Jason Leigh as the Damsels of Avignon, oil, acrylic, enamel, wood, fabric, found objects, glitter and mixed media on canvas, 2017

The strength of Zuckerman-Hartung’s work is in its conceptual and material freedoms, studied carelessness and immediacy, all achieved through casual process. The beauty is in the details, though there is an overall prettiness and cuteness. The paintings become generally pleasant and accessible by exiling specificity and clarity. With the larger paintings on display, I found myself ignoring the whole picture while being seduced by unlimited, spectacular close-up details. Zuckerman-Hartung’s mastery of composition is not strong enough to pull the plethora of interesting tidbits and tickles together into one big knockout punch. The works are educated, calculated, adventurous, hip and highbrow, but Zuckerman-Hartung still chooses to hobble things together like a schoolgirl making a scrapbook or decorations for her room.

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

Jennifer Jason Leigh as the Damsels of Avignon (detail), oil, acrylic, enamel, wood, fabric, found objects, glitter and mixed media on canvas, 2017

There is an implication of innocence and insouciance concerning lack of craftsmanship and permanence, as if proclaiming that life is to be lived in the moment. Our days belong to a hedonistic time. Not in the sense of orgies and bacchanalian feasts, but in that yesterday and tomorrow don’t matter much, only the now is of concern. I’m no philosopher, but I can’t see the moment as having value if past and future don’t matter. The present is gone as soon as it gets here.

Zuckerman-Hartung is very knowledgeable about art history and well read, no doubt about it. Fragility is an important part of her aesthetic, but one might beware of heuristic success. Tomorrow always comes around to judge yesterday and rewrite our brief lives. To quote from The 95 Theses on Painting: “13. I believe in painting as a desperate, stupid, time-wasting act involving huge, crippling ambition and necessary and near-constant failure. This too is meaningful.”

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

History Painting for the New Queer Subject (detail), dye, acrylic, enamel, paper, ink, rope, wood, mixed media on canvas, 2017

The drawings included in this exhibition were interesting but superfluous footnotes. The six large paintings were enough for contemplation; they were the show. These paintings are in a sense drawings and sketches, in that they search their way into existence without a roadmap or dependence upon painterly process. They bring to mind the work of Elizabeth Murray.

Consider another quote from The 95 Theses of Painting: “3. Becoming a painter is my way of deciphering the codes of visual information and experience that structure capitalism in our time.” I’m very skeptical of statements like this. These artworks say absolutely nothing about the structure of capitalism; they feed the monster with candies already to its own liking. The Academy has long ago conquered meaning with art speak. In spite of all the sweet talk, the arts are used over and over again by the lords of capitalism for the benefit of themselves.

I enjoy the compulsive, shamanistic, flying like a kite on a sunny day aspects of Zuckerman-Hartung’s art practice. The Achilles heal of her work is the lack of cohesive composition and commitment which leads one to seek refuge in lush but non-consequential details. Compulsiveness is not enough to pull it off. The eclecticism, the borrowing of ideas and devices from all over could use some focus. That this very enjoyable artwork is quite successful might say volumes about the ethos of our times, except for the little gnawing fact that most people do not give a rat’s paintbrush about the ethereal profession of contemporary art. So much for any critique of capitalism, this game gets played in ivory towers and private studios.

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

Never Forget (detail), acrylic and oil on canvas, 2015

There is one work in Jennifer Jason Leigh that is a straight-up painting, just paint without any mixed media: Never Forget. The top of the composition features a figure lifted from Fritz Scholder (1937-2005). Near the center of the picture, a beautiful image of hands on a drawing board reminds one of Cubism and Picasso. The overall impact of Never Forget suffers because this Picasso-like section is so complete that it just doesn’t need any more.

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

Never Forget (detail), acrylic and oil on canvas, 2015

The artist pays homage to Alfred Jensen (1903-1981) with Mrs. Parker’s desk in anticipation of Alfred Jensen. Mr. Jensen, who had studied with Hans Hoffman, was interested in color theory, light, mathematics, metaphor and pattern. He was a symbolist and numerologist who explored the deconstruction of solar light through the prism. His pictorial compositions were simple and specific. Jensen wrote that his frequent use of numbers referred to ancient Mayan and Chinese calendars. There is really no ambiguity in Jensen’s works; everything is referential. By comparison, Zuckerman-Hartung appropriates motifs and pictorial devices from Jensen, divests them of symbolism and specificity, and then arranges them into a more slapdash, lively, light-hearted and equally beautiful manic dance.

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

Mrs. Parker’s desk in anticipation of Alfred Jensen (detail), cut construction paper, wood, enamel, paper pulp, oil, glitter, and plexi model on panel, 2017

There is so much to like about this show. The Jennifer Jason Leigh exhibition presented by Zuckerman-Hartung is upbeat, colorful, tactile, wild and attractive and has lots of bright, shiny, fun toys to play with; however, she lacks mystery. Is the educated practice of collecting and rearranging various art-historical references enough to create a significant and unique artistic voice? Molly Zuckerman-Hartung is definitely an artist to watch.

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

Jennifer Jason Leigh Handcuffed to Kurt Russell (detail), Enamel, oil, rope and found objects on panel, ND

Top Image: Melanie Klein’s Part Object, dye, oil, acrylic and enamel on sewn fabric and leather, 2017

More on Molly Zuckerman-Hartung here.

All photos of artwork by Bruce Thorn.


Bruce Thorn earned a B.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1975 and an M.F.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1987. He has maintained a vibrant art practice throughout his life. His works have been exhibited in the United States, Czechoslovakia, Canada and the Netherlands.