It’s funny how the better art is, the harder it is to talk about. Especially when it shapeshifts… All these pieces I’ve been writing lately – the idea is they’re cold-reads, but with Zach Reini, I’m really winging it, because there’s so much to say, but… what, exactly?
I walk into Leisure Gallery, in its studio-space form between shows, and Zach is painting the back edges of some canvases black, to give them a faux-deep-shadow behind their frames. All in the details. The smoke and mirrors of making something nicer than it is. A weird idea, but I love it. Because that’s basically art-making in a nutshell, right? There’s a small table off to the side, overflowing with samplers and drum machines. He’s working on a side project he calls ‘deathno’ – electronic music made with death metal samples.
Looking around at the paintings on the walls, this makes perfect sense. Zach is a hardcore sampler regardless of the media he’s using. There are two series hanging up. One was made via a science-museum-ish process of paint dripped from some pendulum contraption. A sort of passive action painting where gravity made the gestures, and then, weirdly, overlain with bullet- hole decals. Because they needed something else. Shoot ‘em up.
It’s so straightforward, the connection between this work and its maker, a tattoo of a blood-dripping scimitar across Reini’s throat peeking out of his T-shirt. We both admire tattoos, decals for the skin, as a high-stakes craft where the artist needs to get something right, the first time, every time. And love them because of the way they allow you to treat your body in a painterly way. Reini’s painterly sensibility is to blast solo riffs into the negative space, whether that space is skin, a stage, the high-art-world, or abstraction itself.
But I’m way more interested in Reini’s other series, which is striking as all-hell, maybe my favorite to date. Layers upon layers of brightly-colored plotter-machine line-drawings: pristine, automated copies of stuff like comic-book action scenes, printed blown-up onto large canvases then painted on in ways that hardly alter the images while somehow changing their character entirely. So many contradictions… Pendulum-like in their own right. The honesty of tricky processes: startling simple, yet disorientingly layered; doodley, with machine-precision; innocently childish content situated in an eerily violent way. Telescoping shifts-of-context. He’s sampling himself.
One large canvas leaning in the corner has paint dripping from large overlapping text blocks popping out of gratuitous whitespace: “GIVE ‘EM HELL”, “KEEP EM FIRING,” and an upside down “peace”. There’s a strange set of black shapes that, in the preliminary plotter drawing (about 5 times smaller), was a breaking chain, twisting around even more sayings of comical violence. There’s a pale yellow bumper-sticker-type frog giving a peace sign in the background, ironically cute, and it turns out “peace” was part of “It’s your choice: peace or annihilation!”
In a lot of ways, these new works of Zach’s are like tattoo sleeves – filled with symbol after symbol, until they’re full, until they become one. What’s the content? All kinds of stuff. All of it together. When’re they done? Good question.
But, really. That’s not rhetorical. I wanted to know. Because unlike so many artists who work with similar themes, Zach’s works always look very definitively, decisively, cleanly finished.
Every time I ask Zach to describe his own work, maybe on purpose, maybe not, he uses cartoons. Neon Genesis Evangelion, Dragon Ball Z, or in this case…it’s like Sid from Toy Story. He’s got all these toys, but it’s the juvenile, fucked ways of putting them together that gives them The Thing…
Okay, I like it, but the work, itself – when’s it done? I persisted. l made Zach try to name The Thing. The Thing his work does – that most work he co-curates at Leisure does – that is sort of the hallmark of all contemporary art of my generation that I like – but that I just can’t put my finger on.
Well, he can’t place it either. And he doesn’t want to because he believes firmly that as soon as you name something you kill it. It’s all about the chase, after all. What does it matter to put a name on your type? It’s like Black Sabbath, he explains, when they first came out no one knew what to call what they were doing. Now it’s just metal or stoner rock or whatever but back then, all you knew was whether you liked it or not.
Zach always wants his new work to be ‘at the front of the plow’, not even knowing whether he’s gonna keep it, viewing it like: along the search you learn things and then you get to where the sidewalk ends and you can say this and this about the work but none of it means anything if you don’t jump off the cliff and start all over again.
When I got to Denver a couple years ago, he was at the height of making his Mickey Mouse cutout paintings. One of my first offsite jobs with the art-handling company I moved out here to work for was actually to help him crate a massive one. But in all honesty, I wasn’t very interested in those. They were superbly crafted which I always appreciate, but they read so fast and were standoffish but only kind of cutely so. But they had really singular, distinct identity, and he made a lot of them. And from what I understand, they sold like crazy. So I was curious, what was it like to jump off that cliff?
Turns out he was bored with them too, and needed to get really Sid with it. So the work that came next was especially fucked up. A lot of black and white paintings of Looney Toons committing suicide. They’re pretty dark, and like, playful too, pretty funny, but like, really, they’re dark. There’s a lot in them, psychologically speaking.
We live in violent times, as you know, reading this on the internet, and Zach wanted to start digging into that. So it’s been a major theme ever since the jump.
Playing with the aesthetic of violence is tricky. You don’t want to glorify pain and trauma, which are serious, awful things, so Reini understands he needs to tread lightly on this ground…while walking all over it. There’s something so hard to take your eyes off about the contemporary manifestation of The Death Drive – a cultural force with generations of momentum that harbors a lot of subconscious symbolic power. It’s such a missed opportunity to avoid the topic. The topic of the topic.
Why would you want it to look like your car got shot up? No one does, really. In reality, they’re not bullet holes, they’re icons of the idea of danger. What is a painting full of bullet holes? It’s different than the car, but not that different.
And that’s where the the pop colors and the silliness and the references to childhood cartoons come in handy. They provide this sort of forcedly ironic distance from the things they are dealing with. Which is very honest to the smoke-n-mirrors way that art behaves, in general. As a sort of battleground for ideas where consequences have a different weight, as someone once said, probably.
Whether it’s all some sort of straightforward statement, which it’s not, or a series of provocations, which is much more likely, I still don’t feel like I have Zach Reini’s work pinned down. But I feel much less determined to now. I’m mainly just excited to see where this latest complex series goes before it hits the edge of the cliff.