Zach Reini’s solo show For the Fun Of It All opened at Bill Brady Gallery this May. Perhaps the exhibition is “fun” at a cursory glance. The candy-coated color, pop culture imagery, holographic shininess, and hard-edged painting draw your eye, giving the impression of a light-hearted space. However, nothing could be further from the truth. With additional viewing, the subject matter smacks you in the face with its dark irony.
Innocence seems to abound in Crazy But Not Insane’s color palette that brings to mind a nursery with its playful baby pink and blue tones. This sentiment is further endorsed by the winking face of Disney’s Mickey Mouse peering through a window flap cut out of the canvas’s outermost layer. And yet, this beloved symbol of Americana turns sinister as you realize he is trapped behind a perfectly symmetrical latex spider web—a deadly skin stretched across the cartoon illustration. Mickey is caged, his yellow outline visually tangled and obscured by the rosy-hued filaments. On an adjacent wall, Reini repeats the identical scene in Crazy But Not Insane (Definitely Crazy) but with darker colors. Gone are the child-like shades replaced with a blood red background and ominous black web. Mickey now seems to be waiting for his imminent fate as doomed prey. The artist cleverly limits the viewing of the mousey figure—his green body becomes secondary to the red background. Only the grey and white face seen through the window strongly contrasts the rest of the painting. It focuses your eye immediately on his mischievous expression and you are left questioning, why does Mickey readily and even happily accept his fate? We are only given a portion of the story and forced to fill in our own blanks.
In the next gallery, the narrative of capture resurfaces in Caught in a Mosh. The assemblage painting abounds with contemporary cultural references such as a white Smiley face, the Playboy rabbit logo, wallet chains adorned with silver bullets, the simultaneously lucky and unlucky rabbit’s foot and emblematic 8 ball. Most of these symbols relay multiple meanings. Many demonstrate an allusion to rock/punk music culture (as noted in the piece’s title)—the Smiley was used in a variety of ways for band paraphilia, particularly Nirvana’s corrupted version of the face; the annual Rock the Rabbit feature of Playboy magazine that included music news; and the looping silver chains, archetypal accoutrement of punk enthusiasts. But some of these elements speak to a different history involving copyright and reproduction.
The Smiley alone has a much debated history as to its original author. Was it graphic artist Harvey Ross Ball, Hallmark, or French journalist Franklin Loufrani (who was the first to register for commercial use)? Copyright facts aside, the Smiley is now seen everywhere: as emojis on cell phones, on t-shirts, on buttons, on mugs, etc., endlessly reproduced for free and thus deteriorated in the general public’s visual lexicon. This plays into Reini’s focus on repetition of mass-produced imagery. Chelsea Thomas’s exhibition press release refers to Hito Steyerl’s essay entitled In Defense of a Poor Image. Steyerl claims “It [the poor image] transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult value…The image is liberated from the vaults of cinemas and archives and thrust into digital uncertainty, at the expense of its own substance.” Pulling from historic popular TV, Reini appropriates depictions of Warner Bros.’ Loony Toons—Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck, and Pepe Le Pew as well as Disney’s Daisy Duck—to exemplify disturbing themes. The canvases are filled with over-used and pixelated, black-and-white stills of the animation and Reini is very specific about the moments he chooses to depict. They all reveal violence and some mental anguish. Paired with brief recognizable statements, the paintings are recontextualized from once-thought humorous episodes to shocking contemplations of suicide and death.
In Untitled 6 Bullets (Better Off), American hero Bugs Bunny and his archenemy Yosemite Sam pass a revolver between one another. First, Sam presses the barrel to his temple, which Bugs removes. Second, the rabbit places the weapon against his own head, but the tricky bunny ultimately bends down, raises the gun above his ears, and shoots Yosemite Sam squarely in the face. Sam’s hat flies off and his singed hair emits puffs of smoke. When truly examined, it is not difficult to look beyond the character’s impish facial expressions and realize the full atrocity played out scene by scene. Reini further pushes the envelope by including the phrase “We’ll be better off without you” in the lower right corner. Six faux bullet holes cover the canvas and the viewer is faced with cartoony killing, knowing full well this imagery was often viewed by children. In another work, Daffy raises a rifle between his eyes and fires, Reini’s text reading “You Can’t know my pain.” Daisy Duck sits at a table on which rests a knife and bottle of poison, she holds a gun and a noose hangs in the background. Particularly distressing, Reini has added the phrase “I’ll never forgive myself.” These same visual incidents are repeated over and over in the exhibition, heightening the sense of desperation and despair.
Death is again on display in the works representing the 1990s popular game of Pogs: the children’s pastime involving small circular disks of cardboard, one side blank, the other with an image. These collected pictures could range from The Simpsons characters, to yin-yangs, to MLB stars. Reini chooses to offer a bird’s eye perspective of a fictitious Pogs game, the circles jumbled and concealing parts of one another. Some of them are face down, their blank or “made in” side on view. Others are face up, the neon colors and graphic portrayals glaring at you. A high percentage of Pogs included renderings of skulls, so it is fitting that the creepy Mr. No Drugs makes an appearance here. Do his holographic eyes and teeth, red faced skull, and flaming yellow hair represent the attitude of America during that time?
Returning to Steyerl’s essay, Reini’s exhibition reveals numerous sides to the poor image, “its inability to focus or make up its mind, its constant readiness for transgression and simultaneous submission.” The wide variety of cultural references and biting subject matter seems to jump around quickly from Pogs to drug culture to Mickey to widely circulated cartoon gun violence. In terms of the more “fun,” color shifts between pastel, primary/secondary, and black and white. Canvases range from shaped to flatly handled to assemblage. The exhibition becomes a very fragmented experience, and yet that speaks to our contemporary moment. Steyerl states “it is about its own real condition of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities. It is about defiance and appropriation just as it is about conformism and exploitation. In short: it is about reality.” Reini creates his own reality in order to reform the viewer’s relationship to his utilized pop-culture symbology—in essence, he makes you think deeper.
Originally published on New American Painting’s blog: https://newamericanpaintings.com/blog/zach-reini-ferocious-fun-bill-brady-gallery