Dianna Molzan: Framing Paint

At LACMA’s exhibition Variations: Conversations in and Around Abstract Painting, which closed in March 2015, Dianna Molzan’s small, spare work occupied a wall towards the rear of the gallery space. In the midst of monumental works by Mark Bradford, Mark Grotjahn, and Rashid Johnson, Molzan’s initially seemed precious, unassuming. Indeed, it is impossible to ignore how exquisitely beautiful and well-made the works are, but this is not all there is to them; rather, they possess a conceptual vigor belied by their small size and relative uniformity. Throughout her career, Molzan has sought to engage with the history of art; explore the related milieus of fashion, design, and pop culture; and probe the particulars of what makes a painting a painting.
Born in Tacoma, Washington, Molzan now lives and works in Los Angeles. It is not a stretch to relate aspects of her work to the city:  many pieces are rendered in vibrant, funky colors; there is an emphasis on craftiness, on hands-on intimacy with material; the pieces are evocative, theatrical, quirky. They ignore any hierarchy or specificity of medium, straddling the line between painting and sculpture. None possess titles, and most conform to the same visual iconography. They are fresh, guileless, and possess of a life of their own.

That life is one of both painting and sculpture, for Molzan seeks to review and critique painting–to play with its most basic components to demonstrate the medium’s continued possibilities. Molzan takes the aspiration of the color field painters of the 1960s–emphasizing the flatness of the picture plane to get to the essence of the medium–and kicks it up a notch. She exposes and emphasizes the frame and stretch bars, and shreds, cuts, unravels, and twists the canvas. The wall often peeks through or is completely exposed. Most of her recent work is easel-size, rectangular, and affixed to the wall. As for the paint itself, which is applied after the canvas has been manipulated, it can at times seem almost haphazard in its splashes, drips, and sprays, or, in other instances, appear technically precise and deliberate.




The nonhierarchical quality of Molzan’s oeuvre derives from her deep love of the museum with its manifold offerings under one roof. She has spoken of marveling how an el Greco painting, a Claes Oldenburg sculpture, and a pre-Colombian pot exist under the same roof with no assertions that one’s merits surpass the others’.  Her abiding love of art, which began when she was young and sustains her in her own practice, manifests itself in her work by homages, allusions, and influences to other artists and their work.

Untitled (2012), the work shown in Variations, is a modern take on Eva Hesse’s Hang Up. There is no canvas stretched over the white frame; rather, about half of the frame is visible, and the other half is replaced with a soft, deep blue velvet tube of fabric swooping down from the top left corner and arcing up to connect to the right side of the frame. The pristine white wall, as in Hesse’s piece, is the main draw.

Two works from Molzan’s 2013 exhibition at Los Angeles’s Overduin & Co. (formerly Overduin and Kite) also utilize and emphasize the wall, as well as call attention to the basic materials of painting. Untitled is only a frame, but the wood is wrapped tightly with scrunchy fabric. Untitled is also only a frame, the wood painted in a shade of bronze. Small white canisters resembling paint cans hang from delicate strings tied to the top of the frame.  Similarly, Untitled (2009), one of the standout pieces in her 2011 Whitney solo exhibition, reveals the wall by cutting an oblong shape out of the stretched canvas. The gesture is reminiscent of Lucio Fontana, one of her clear influences, but is more playful, more charmingly piquant than mysterious or ominous. The cut-out shape is one half of an ‘X’, with the other part of the letter formed by a strip of creamy yellow paint on a white background.


Many of Molzan’s works reference the history and practice of painting more emphatically. Untitled (2009) is one of her most sumptuously painted works. Stretched canvas covers about two-thirds of a wood frame with the rest exposed, the wall visible underneath. Molzan alludes to Joan Mitchell in her tight, concentrated brushstrokes; daubs of brilliant reds, blues, yellows, and greens cluster together atop the stained canvas to create an impressionist, floral tableau. Lest we embrace allusion too much, however, Molzan allows her paint to drip onto the bottom rung of the frame, reminding us that what we are looking at is merely paint on a canvas. Untitled (2010-2014) features a beige canvas with a protruding step at the bottom, a cascade of thick paint pouring down the center of the piece like a waterfall. The colors are rich and textured like the work of Kandinsky or Franz Marc, and the vertical orientation of the brushstrokes and their move down the canvas strongly assert the physical action of painting. Similarly, the artist’s gesture is particularly evident in Untitled (2011). On the bottom right and left sides of the blank canvas Molzan paints in tiny, confetti-like brushstrokes reminiscent of Lee Krasner. Down the center of the canvas hangs a strip of paint-covered canvas, stuffed and knotted like a rope. This same rope’s imprint is in the middle of each painted section, a strip of blank canvas amid a riot of color. Like Hans Hofmann’s push and pull tension, Molzan creates drama by uniting flatness and three-dimensionality as well as absence and presence.

The most recent exhibition of Molzan’s work is at Los Angeles’s Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery. Her pieces in About Face engage with similar concerns as others in her oeuvre. One work is all about the frame, with the mint-green structure interrupted with irregular squares of ivory paint. Hanging from it are five little stuffed pouches, each with a Miro-esque design on it –a squiggle, a few eyes, a pair of bright red lips. It’s an absurd, surrealist work that alludes to painting’s ability throughout history to evoke anything from amusement to a profound sense of the uncanny. The other work conforms to the more traditional definition of a painting. Untitled is a large work that embraces elements of both cubism and impressionism with a discordant color scheme reminiscent of contemporary painters such as Laura Owens and Charline von Heyl. The dominant force on the cotton candy-colored canvas is a swath of greenish blue paint with thick black lines cutting through it to outline cubist shapes. Clustered up underneath the squares and triangles are thickly daubed strokes of paint in every hue of the rainbow.  Within this one piece Molzan manages to allude to both past and present modes of painting as well as create something fresh and visually compelling.

Despite Molzan’s self-imposed limits regarding material and her frequent adherence to uniformity in size and spatial orientation, her painting-sculpture hybrids are vibrant manifestations of a playful yet analytical mind. Molzan has deemed herself an “enthusiast” in terms of her varied art historical influences and interests, and she succeeds in rendering us similarly energized and enthusiastic.(ii)
i  Molzan, Dianna. (2011, April 6). 500 Words: Dianna Molzan. Retrieved from www.artforum.com.
ii Ibid.

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