Max Estenger Black, 2020 Oil on stainless steel and primed canvas in three parts 80 x 141 inches
Before painting became a sign, it was beholden to symbols. There are symbolic qualities found in the work made by Max Estenger, George Hofmann, Lorenza Panero, and Mike Zahn which are expressive of this awareness. The exhibition of works by these four artists is laid out in literal, gestural, and conceptual accordance. These visible arrangements bring emotion to the fore.
Painting hews to the presentation of substitutions bound by convention. Pushed to extremes, the logic of substitution might take the shape of displacement, as with readymade propositions. This matters little, much in the way not all letters represent simply one phonetic value. The difference between substitution and displacement is not a binary one. It is measured by inflection, and by belief in what form is capable of revealing about its subjects and their inner sounds.
It is belief, as it precedes interpretation, which is paramount. It makes room for what George Hofmann calls “seriousness” to operate as a regulating factor in how any artwork comes to be made. Seriousness is felt in the presence of paradox, with echoes seen rather than heard. This erodes certitude, and frees one to act. Uncertainty, and the doubt which girds it, are found at the base of any advanced art made today. It could collapse in a moment, but these feelings might be what is left of any art, and especially of painting, as it continues to face ceaseless degradation. Serious work stands as indexical evidence of deeply attuned sensibilities.
George Hofmann Ghost Fuji, 2020 Acrylic on linen mounted to board 18 x 24 inches
Hofmann evoked the quality of seriousness found in his painting as critical prescriptions slackened. Henceforth, in 1967, he began teaching at Hunter College while continuing his work. Twenty years later, he crossed paths there with Lorenza Panero. Her unease with painting reflected Hofmann’s skepticism, especially as extra-pictorial pressures were brought to bear upon the medium. Hofmann and Panero shared an interiority without a center from which their work could emerge. This recognition admitted the effects which a flood of electronic mass imagery would have on their practices.
Hofmann recently sensed a novel means of looking with an essay called “Fractured Space”, wherein he sought a break with prior avant-garde constructions of an abstract field. His subsequent paintings drew upon unconscious instinct, and synthesized style through an effacement of motif. Gesture was worked into its ground, with the peripheries of a picture integrated into the support of its whole. The mien of unity was undone, and restated from within. Hofmann’s paintings open onto place in a manner which challenges the reality of their making.
Panero likewise confronted reality with a precise intent to clarify processes of memory and imagination. Her luminography, a way of making photographic images without a camera, asks how surface might be susceptible to impressions bearing the heft of a past which mark a fleeting present. Her actions against a reproductive apparatus manufactured a semblance of painting where the hand took precedence over the privilege of the eye. This was complicated further by the position of painting itself within her practice. Panero undermines similitude by implicating a fragile instability mitigating against any picture from inside or out.
Lorenza Panero Return To The Desert, 2018 Unique cibachrome photogram 58 x 50 inches
It is here where the framing of a medium falters. When Max Estenger and Mike Zahn met in 1990, painting had turned away from private experiences which shaped it, and was passing through a linguistic turn towards generalization. While differing in opinion, Estenger and Zahn held specific tenets in common. What they each articulated in their works were explicitly social dimensions disdained by formal orthodoxies.
Estenger described certain conditions which determined the rhetorical dialectics of postmodernity. He named a divergent emerging program “supramodernism”, characterized not by endless return but by rigorous analysis. Reflecting this observation, Estenger conceived his iconoclastic practice as answering to terminal endgame claims of the last painting, and fabricated his work using a materialist syntax which engaged surface, support, and the wall against which an object was presented. Since his initial breakthrough, Estenger has been refining his concerns for thirty-odd years.
Zahn focused upon key icons of digitalization as emblematic of a significant new order. His translations of appearance passing from one visible register to another, and then back again, noted a paradigm shift which has come to inform this age. The distance of these works proposed a picture of technology wherein arrays of hardware gave way to perception managed by software. Zahn continues to develop this awareness in works which exist online and, as with Estenger, offline, in explicitly physical terms.
Mike Zahn Out of Sight Out of Mind, 2022 Acrylic on canvas 84 x 84 inches
It may be useful to recall there were not paintings prior to painting. Does this imply there was not painting prior to paintings? That which precedes all is the world, so to speak, and the place of expression within it. Serious painting engages shifting contingencies and reconciliation of values. It has no choice other than to do so. Yet the works made by Estenger, Hofmann, Panero, and Zahn hold something in reserve of their presence as mere things, and of that simply made or seen. In their falling together, they constitute a way of thinking about things insomuch as a painting may only become one as long as other paintings are kept in mind. This is how painting represents itself now, as a symbol of its means, and of the energy required for it to be brought forth as such. The space built through this effort, virtual or actual, in two dimensions or in three, is an emotional one. It is one of belonging, and it is real.