Wednesday, March 19, 2008

John Zurier: Night Paintings @ Larry Becker


March 1- April 19, 2008

Larry Becker Contemporary Art, Philadelphia


John Zurier: Night 21 & Night 26, 2008, distemper on linen, 30 x 20 inches each

Although I haven't seen, and unfortunately won't see, the show in Philadelphia , I was fortunate to see all of the paintings at John Zurier's Oakland studio during a Sunday afternoon studio viewing before all of the work was packed and shipped, a unique and generous event.


Distemper is pigment in warm glue. It is easy to spread across broad surfaces, quick-drying, and changes color and is matte when dry. Matisse used distemper a few times around 1911-13, and Vuillard used it more frequently, having learned the technique when making theater backdrops. I remember Zurier first talking about using distemper as early as May 2006, and I saw the first three or four of these in his studio in December 2006. At the time he didn't know that this motif and approach would develop into the large body of work it has become.

In this beautiful and rigorous current work Zurier applies distemper on raw linen with brushes and spatulas. Brushed and scraped, worked into the linen in layers, the paint is actually quite flat and dry looking, but the end result is enormously rich and vibrant, with surprising depth. His touch is direct yet sensitive, fast yet considered, plainly apparent and exposed, yet sensitive, daring, and more than a little mysterious.

Much more than simply a series of dark paintings, each work has its own intention and focus, its own palette, marks, and space, and its own mood and quality of light. The paint is often patchy or splotchy, exposing the linen and allowing it to function as another color and also as a background, which creates both an airy deep space to enter and an open, flat, factual material space to confront. Many of the Night paintings seem to begin with a narrow turquoise or blue stripe anchoring the left side. The stripe provides the viewer with a structural element, a stable, knowable thing we can hold onto like a handle, as we find our way into the darkness of the painting.

These two qualities, the airy darkness and the blue handle, are analogous to two characteristics of looking or walking without light. Think of what it is like to be in the dark: you wake up and open your eyes, but you don't see just darkness; instead, your eye is trying to use all the light it can access to see something, and you often see things that aren't there.

When walking in the lightless dark, when the power is out or it's the middle of the night, what do you do? You put your hands out in front of you to make sure you don't bump into something, or try to find something to hold onto to find your way. These paintings provide that experience. They aren't really abstractions but realism, much as Turner presents the viewer with the experience of a storm, and-- let's push this a bit-- how Velasquez explores the complexity of mirrors, Edvard Munch shows the way a burst blood vessel effects his vision, George Innes evokes a season and Albert Bierstadt invokes vastness, Giacometti gravitates towards compression, and Twombly spreads out a panorama.

Obvious precedents for these paintings might be the big three, Rothko, Newman, and Still, whose paintings use simple form and shallow, open, almost barren space to lead the viewer from confrontation with vast and broadly painted surfaces towards the observation and contemplation of emptiness that moves into emotion, from thought to idea, and back to the painted surface. The viewer's primary experience and self-consciousness is a central subject, a kind of looping narrative: look; internalize; recognize; explain; validate.

Of these three precedents, the Night paintings are closest to Rothko's more classical touch, surface, and space, as opposed to Newman's and Still's blunt, on-the-surface marks. But Zurier's scale is unlike the more commonly known grand, encompassing environments of these three artists; like Newman's landmark painting, Onement I, these paintings, in the vicinity of thirty by twenty inches are close, mirror-sized, immediate— intimate, reflective, personal.

What do these paintings do that other paintings haven't? What value is there in a painting that prompts a personal, visual, and physical experience of darkness? Is darkness the same as emptiness: barren, hollow, unfilled, uninhabited, unoccupied, abandoned, deserted, exhausted? Returning to the idea of being in darkness, of walking through a dark house at 3am, driving on an unlit road alone, or walking in the woods on a moonless night, we know that these are situations in which we strain to see; we see things we aren't sure are there, and we struggle to find something familiar and recognizable. In this kind of tense situation we are left to our senses, unaided, trying to find our way. It is quiet and we are with our own thoughts. Stub your toe on the leg of a chair and you know that darkness is not emptiness. Even in the company of others we are alone, unstable, trying to keenly use our senses to navigate the space we are in and our relationship to it. In Zurier's Night paintings, the left blue stripe is an anchor, something to hold onto, let go of, and return to as we see into and enter each painting's unique main body of layered, rich darkness. This is not a conceptual, language-centered experience, but one that is visual and phenomenological, about consciousness and being.

The exposed linen and varying densities of paint made by the layered, scraped, patchy paint make for an intensely visual experience. Looking into these varying densities is similar to how we try to see in the dark; our eyes use every bit of light available, and when there is little or no image to fix on we can see how our own eyes can project onto the dark screen before us images of the vitreous, the clear jelly-like substance which fills the space in the eye. At the same time the exposed linen contrasts with darker pigment, making possible a situation other than the night, as if one sees through and past darkness towards a light source, like being in a darkened room looking through heavy curtains or blinds out onto a sun-filled day, or how bits of light fade into a new day, or fade out at day's end. In this there is quiet, something internal, solitude.

This final idea— seeing past darkness towards light— may not be Zurier's intention, but it's important to acknowledge that these paintings can stand up to multiple associations. His Night paintings are interesting because they reference human experience, but also because they enable a profoundly visual experience. These beautiful yet tough paintings show us and trigger a contemporary and timeless existential experience.

See Zurier's statement about working with distemper at Larry Becker Contemporary Art.

The exhibition of JOHN ZURIER NIGHT PAINTINGS has been selected by Director Okwui Enwezor to travel in its entirety to the 7th Gwangju Biennale in Korea in September 2008.

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