A Vessel Filling Slowly

March 24th, 2015  |  Published in March 2015

This past week I was in New York City and saw West of the Future, a show of oil and distemper paintings by the California and Iceland based artist John Zurier. The paintings are on display at the venerable Peter Blum Gallery in midtown Manhattan on 57th street. The show runs through April 4.

Sometimes a mundane event, such as snow blown up by the wind or the bitter ending to a cup of tea feels private. The experience that we derive from the world is relative to our own feelings. John Zurier is an artist who approaches his paintings with reverence for the possibility of something personal.

The key to Zurier’s work is the range of spatial and environmental experience he communicates while operating within a pared down painting language. Zurier refrains from using the traditional tools of space, yet insists on tangible experience for the viewer. Each work is specific to its own universe of color, shape, scale, and mark. Take for example:

Untitled (Spring), 2014, oil on linen, 25×16.

The majority of the face of the painting is covered by a dark blue rectangle.  The rectangle extends from the top to the bottom of the painting, but does not reach the left and right edges. This has the same appearance as a blue shade pulled down over a window, or a vertical sheet of dark water. The blue field also registers as air of indeterminate depth, with the white canvas edges seemingly physical and compressing. Various horizontal and vertical lines extend, brace or hover around and in the blue field. The visual elements can be identified here in reproduction, but in person the experience is physical. Zurier carves a rich space between geometry and how tenuously it actually exists as material. As you approach the painting it opens like a soft breath of wind.

Many of the paintings in West of the Future are named after seasons or times  of day. Zurier has a unique ability to be sensitive to his surroundings and the pace of change during the creation of the painting. Although painting communicates time on an immobile field, Zurier is able to create paintings that unfold like weather and remain singular and specific in their tone. There is a sense of each work being a vessel that Zurier allows to fill slowly. The fact that the paintings appear nearly empty at first glance only furthers the effect. In Zurier’s world chance and intimation are welcomed by an open heart. Although the work is intellectual, heart is the right word, as it takes great optimism and belief in the world to allow these paintings to happen.

Like in Japanese gardening, you want to allow some leaves to remain when you’re sweeping a path so it will feel natural. -John Zurier, 1999

Implicit in this statement is the notion that after you are done sweeping, no one will think about the strategic action. The swept path will feel natural but also cared for. Nature can only be temporarily organized.

The separation between a painting and the wall it hangs on, or the boundary between the painting and the air around it can feel absolute. Throughout history artists have framed two-dimensional work in different ways providing a border or context within which the work exists. In John Zurier’s paintings this boundary is softened. Many of the works feature small disturbances of color or facture that move around the field of the painting or congregate at the edges. Other times an all over field of color does not quite reach the edge as if the linen or canvas surface itself is just as powerful as the paint. This living edge causes the viewer to register the work as both singularly sculptural and also related to the changing play of light on the wall surrounding the painting. The picture plane extends into space and also wraps back behind the structure of the support.

The day before I flew back to Cincinnati I was riding the 7 train into Queens where my sister lives. Subway cars in New York can be a place of excessive stimuli. Smells, raucous noises, heat, speed, a shifting ground, and an incredible diversity of people all vie for constant attention. Between stops I noticed a man walking up the middle of the car asking for money. He carried a small sign and a Tupperware container. He was not speaking due to physical or psychological barriers. Instead he quietly whistled through his teeth like a small bird. The man stopped at every passenger and inquired in the language of a wood thrush. I observed passenger after passenger look up slowly as he approached. In an art world of giant shiny sculptures and garish images that wear their supposed importance like a neon sign, Zurier navigates at a whisper.

–Emil Robinson

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