In May, a stain appeared on the wooden floor of Clearing. It came from one of three olive oil bottles hanging from the ceiling via a dispenser-cum-quasi-chandelier. There were three of these devices – titled Twirl World, Spin Cycle and Rewind (all works 2015) – in Zak Kitnick’s exhibition ‘Peace’. Inserting pungent, ingestible fluids into a system of mechanically induced leakage, the scene recalled dadaist and surrealist methods of showing how pathos can eddy beneath placid experience. I thought of Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23), which abstracts copulation as a frenzied assembly line. ‘Peace’ triggered flashbacks like this with such regularity that the show seemed to hum with a creative neurosis – an attachment to retrograde movement, mildly depressing but deftly executed.
Just around the corner from the stained floor, Maybe echoed Jasper Johns’s Target with Four Faces (1955) but, whereas Johns’s piece has half-concealed faces compartmentalized above a target motif, Kitnick’s installation has two mannequin heads suspended in steel shelving units, wearing pinwheel umbrellas as hats. An analogous scene – two silhouetted men chatting beneath umbrellas – was repeated twice in two large pictures made with UV-cured ink on steel shelving panels, in silver and sepia. Enter the ghost of René Magritte, whose paintings Hegel's Holiday (1958) and Golconda (1953), respectively, show a glass of water sitting precariously atop a black umbrella, and a troupe of suited men floating over apartments like raindrops.
A motif traceable to antiquity, the olive branch appeared in several pictures, including Train Operator of the Year and Friendship, in which Kitnick drastically enlarged small images, making the half-tone pattern of the original print akin to a Byzantine mosaic. Upstairs, in Water for Chocolat, two dozen closed umbrellas lay on grey plastic tables like evidentiary specimens. On the gallery’s downstairs mantelpiece sat two miniatures of Brussels’s famed statue, the Manneken Pis (1618–19), a small boy urinating into a public fountain. Kitnick’s miniature versions are, in fact, plastic souvenir alcohol dispensers, placed to face one another and linked by a tiny golden arch.
Kitnick insinuates affinities between objects and icons through superficial associations: the olive branch denotes ‘peace’, and both word and symbol sync conveniently with the repeated image of pairs of human beings. There was a dry joke at play, with so many allusions to history and fraternity sitting in counterpoint to humans rendered with all the dimension of cardboard cutouts. But what is Kitnick’s motivation for resurrecting familiar surrealist methods for disturbing the surface of reality? The press release was no help. Featuring lyrics from the children’s entertainer Raffi, it’s a bratty red herring. Given that consumer and artistic culture promote a relentless chasing of newness that is synonymous with buzzing anxiety, the return of surrealist methods, which are rooted in psychoanalysis, is understandable. In this light, ‘Peace’ seemed a rear-guard movement in relation to a contemporary condition of overwhelmed-ness.
Against my suspicions of cynicism, I found myself drawn to Kitnick’s darkly slapstick poetics within this downbeat purview. Repeatedly twinning the human visage, he disavowed the notion of unique subjectivity. But the uniqueness of his artistic style suffered a similar fate. It’s unlikely that this observation will sting: Kitnick knows it. That knowingness is both what allows him to play avant-garde methods like old standards, and what gives the resulting artworks their coy charm. In turn, that charm has a deeper resonance in moments that betray a faith in phenomenological processes, as in the softly hypnotic pattern within the olive branches, and the viscerally magnetic dripping oil. In those instants, Kitnick’s own investment – as a human with a body – seemed suddenly disclosed, as in the unexpected cracking of a cover singer’s voice.