For painters at least, painting is something both primal and primary: the only ancient form of mark-making – even if their diligent work amounts to geometric grids a century on from Piet Mondrian or Expressionist messiness 60 years after Jackson Pollock. (Admittedly, both Mondrian and Pollock created conventions with which any painter has to inevitably contend.)
In the paintings of recent University of Southern California MFA graduate Dianna Molzan, Expressionism is represented not by heroic process but by mimicking its reduced, defanged form (as found in 1980s graphic design). Or in a messy swirl of drips which looks like bird shit on a crossbar, placed below a piece of canvas that could not quite cover its frame – as if the artist ran out of money or canvas (or both) and decided to try finishing the painting regardless. Gridded, hard-edged geometry sits next to the bland, splatter pattern of the formica I recall in the local fast food joints of my youth, down to the outmoded design element of the rakish racing stripe (perhaps one possible end-point for the grids of De Stijl).
Given the subtle sculptural quality of the works, they are still firmly grounded in the physical constructs of painting: canvas or linen, canvas bars, paint, all hanging quietly on the wall. But these constructs seem to be only a starting point for a greater investigation that moves well beyond formal concerns. Shifting the painting off the wall and towards a sculptural awareness is hardly a new strategy, but Molzan manages to revive an old gambit through her intense awareness of painting’s recent history and its vulgarized (though not unredeeming and by no means ultimate) conclusion as a mass-produced design element at a Taco Bell near you. This fourth dimension of her work isn’t just her historical awareness of painting, but a narrative play within those classic conventions.
More akin to the delicate (and silly) balancing constructions of Fischli/Weiss than to any particular painting, each of Molzan’s works tells its own strange and subtle story. This brings us to the Agatha Christie-inspired title of the exhibition, ‘The Case of the Strand’. In a flattened cultural terrain, the formal constructs of the whodunnit genre seem comparable to the perceived rules of formalist painting: certain tropes allow for audience expectations to be either indulged or ignored. Since all the works in ‘The Case of the Strand’ are called Untitled (2009), one can’t help but fill in the titles for oneself with names like those of different characters, each a distinct actor in the mute drama of the exhibition. Even the word ‘strand’ serves a multiplicity of functions, referring to the pieces of string that often repeat across the surface of the paintings, the strands of mystery novels and, metaphorically, the different strands of meaning that give complexity to Molzan’s work. Like a whodunnit, if time and energy are given to unraveling the plot, the complex weave of interactions and references, then the finale brings with it a moment of astonishment. Molzan’s expanded play on the historical conventions of painting makes for a rare renewal of potential for the medium.
First published in Issue 129