In Liz Markus’s second solo exhibition at ZieherSmith, she moves beyond the hippie era subjects of her last show to an unexpected side of American culture. Instead of portraits of long-haired drop-outs, the artist now approaches emblematic subjects of opposite persuasions.

Too young for a first hand experience of the 60s, I was 13 when Reagan took office as president. My knowledge of Nancy Reagan was limited to her penchant for red Bob Mackey dresses, the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, and the obvious power she held in the White House. My parents ingrained in me a distaste for the Reagan administration but I didn’t think much more about Nancy until I came across a classic photo of her in Vanity Fair several years ago. There was something about her face that was compelling. Initially, I had hoped that she wouldn’t immediately read as Nancy but as a generic WASP matriarch of that era. Nope. Everyone knew she was Nancy. I think she must be very tightly wound up inside and I still absolutely dislike her politics. However, I can see that she was a strong and powerful woman in a time when there weren’t a lot of examples like Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama around. -Liz Markus

The exhibition is not limited to images of the former first lady, but Markus freely associates imagery from her and Ronald Reagan’s era. Taxidermy obliquely refers to WASP interiors, while Kenneth Noland inspired targets pay homage to the mid century idols that inform her techniques. Further subjects in the series range from punk rocker, John Lydon to journalist editor and writer, George Plimpton; while motorcycles speak as much to mid-life crises, as to the Easy Rider protagonists of her past work. Somehow the spectrum of a distant life pokes its spectral countenance through smeared lenses. Through these ghosts— both icon and iconoclast suffer and shine under her caustic, reverent brush.

In all, the works are united by her practice with saturated washes of acrylic on unprimed canvas. Though she has a remarkable degree of control, Markus also surrenders to chance as she pushes and pulls the paint with both brushes and gravity. Often the technical aspects of fresh paint mixing erratically convey both a sense of urgency and unlikely surprises of color, gesture and a chemical vibrancy.