Take a look at Zach Koch’s paintings, and it's clear that he’s studied classical portraiture at some point in his career.
It turns out, Koch, who teaches at Mississippi State University, apprenticed with Odd Nerdrum, the controversial Norwegian painter who, regardless of what one thinks of the content of his work, is among the best figurative painters in the world.
And that training and influence can be seen across the 26 paintings in “Everything not saved will be lost,” Koch’s Iron Tail Gallery exhibition. But his complex, colorful paintings look nothing like Nerdrum’s dark pictures.
Nor are they close to traditional portraits. Instead, Koch takes faces and hands, puts them in layers with geometric shapes while drawing on anime and antiquity, pop culture, science fiction and 17th century painting.
Take, for example, a pair of works that hang next to each other in the smartly curated show. “God Exists and He’s American” depicts a pair of androids in the center of stacks of video games, with repeated images of Bart Simpson floating around the surface.
Next to it is “The World According to Marcus Aurelius” which splits a beautiful rendering of the bust of Roman Emperor in half, with anime-style portraits peering out in between.
Other pieces pile on the geometric abstractions. In “Book ‘em Danno,” a black-and-white 16th-17th century-rooted depiction of some kind of conflict is obscured by brightly colored strips and angular shapes, leaving only a raised sword visible in the background.
As that title, “Marty McFly’s Hat,” “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Sadie Hawkins Dance” demonstrate, Koch draws on movies and popular culture. But he also compiles and archives all kinds of online data, be it an image of an Ingres painting or a 21st century digital cartoon.
That imagery is combined into his meticulously crafted and planned out paintings, creating mind-jarring “narratives.”
“I’m inspired by these ostensible non sequiturs sharing a common conceptual space that relates to a memory and a dissociation of time,” Koch writes in his artist’s statement. “It all relates. In this way, I see the work being more analogous to filmmaking where scenes are edited to depend on each other to give context in a visual narrative.”
In “Trust Fall,” one of the best works in the show, that narrative comes from four easily seen faces, and a slightly hidden anime face.
The four faces move counterclockwise from the lower left, starting with a classic 17th century style face of a youth, slightly obscure by a hand that appears to be coming from another portrait subject: an older man, above whom is a face covered with a hand.
It’s followed by a more contemporary view of a youth which is next to futuristic sci-fi imagery. The story is up to the viewer, the painting just provides the outline.
Similarly, “Dark Horse” finds a movie-style hero or anti-hero, who could be from a western or a sci-fi adventure, hovering in the center of the painting amidst a box-like geometric shape. On either side are 17th century men with their white-collared outfits and in the background, more anime. Your guess is as good as mine as to what the painting’s about, but it can’t help but conjure up the narrative Koch is seeking in his work.
Regardless of the narratives, Koch’s paintings are impressive as technical works — from the clear planning and positioning of the elements to the execution of the thin layers of paint and the selection of the vibrant colors.
And by drawing on contemporary ideas and imagery — Koch also works in digital art, hence the title of the show — “Everything not saved will be lost” vividly demonstrates that painting is far from dead and that classic techniques can be used to make the medium fully alive again.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.