Upon entering Boston artist Joe Zane’s exhibition at Carroll and Sons, viewers were greeted by their reflections in a small mirror engraved with the show’s title question, “Who should a person be?” The question riffs on Sheila Heti’s 2012 novel, How Should a Person Be? The plot of Heti’s novel includes an “ugly painting competition,” in which two characters compete to make the worst painting possible, and ultimately discover the extent to which their artistic identities, for better or worse, are caught up in whatever images they create. Zane explored this theme—the intersection of art and identity—throughout the show, employing his trademark brand of self-deprecating humor in a selection of new sculptures, paintings and mixed-medium works (all 2014).
In the main gallery space was a sculpture of a white owl titled Till Eulenspiegel, after a trickster character from German folklore, whose name in English literature is Owlglass and who uses pranks to expose human folly, hypocrisy and vice. Standing on a white perch attached to a gallery column, the wise-guy owl served as a stand-in of sorts for Zane, who, in neighboring works, seemed to poke fun at his own quest for an artistic identity and perhaps for fame and recognition. (The desire for fame is also a theme in Heti’s novel. In fact, the main character, who shares the author’s name, answers the book’s overarching question of how a person should be with this response: “a celebrity.”) The owl’s gaze was directed at Zjaonee, a multicolored lenticular wood piece that hung on the wall and that features the artist’s signature carved into its angled surfaces. When one views the piece from the left, “Joe” is visible against a field of warm-colored stripes; from the right, “Zane” appears against cool-colored stripes. Head-on, however, the names appear combined into the title’s mishmash of letters against a field of clashing colors.
Also on view were several arrangements of wilted copper tulips on rickety plywood tables. (Good) Till the Last Drop is a masterful rendition of two red and three yellow tulips placed in a rusty blue coffee can. Evoking Jasper Johns’s iconic bronze Savarin Can (1960), the dying tulips not only suggest worn-out paintbrushes but also convey a humorous image of an artist struggling with ideas that, ultimately, are no longer fresh. Another flower work, Agnosia, is named for neurological conditions in which those afflicted lose the ability to recognize previously familiar objects, people or stimuli. The piece consists of a single red tulip whose stem is bent so that it bears the profile of Zane’s face.
Hung around the room were 16 acrylic-on-canvas self-portraits—all titled This one and all measuring 24 inches square. These are painted re-creations of cubistic digital compositions Zane made by applying a Photoshop filter to a photograph of himself, reducing his features to basic, angular forms—another instance in which he has placed his identity somewhere between the generic and the singular to deadpan effect.