Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 4, 2015
Exhibition schedule: Museum of Contemporary Art, Geffen Contemporary, University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, September 12–December 21, 2014
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John Zurier. Icelandic Painting (12 Drops) (2014). Watercolor on linen on panel. 16 1/2 x 11 in. Collection of the artist.

The surfaces of John Zurier’s spare, abstract paintings are breathtaking—thin washes of icy blue, brushy layers of deep aubergine, swathes of opaque electric orange—but the edges are where the action is. Sometimes color runs over the side of the picture plane and is folded around the back of the stretcher bars; other times it stops just short, leaving a sliver of raw jute exposed. In Votilækur (2014), for example, a few strong vertical lines lie beneath a cool aqua pigment washed over a tall canvas. The veil of color seems to cover the entire surface, but it is not a monochrome. A half-inch of bare linen is visible along the right margin and appears to stop the flow of distemper paint (animal skin glue, mixed with pigment). A triangle of faint white ground is located in the upper-left section, and—like a folded-over page in a well-read book—it begs the viewer’s attention. Why here and not there? What restrained the artist from covering that bit on the edge? What do these careful choices tell us? In probing the liminal spaces between surface and side, Zurier addresses one of painting’s fundamental problems: its split status as an object and an image. Drawing from his encounters in nature, Zurier foregrounds the materials, process, and context of each work to mine the conditionality of our perception of painting and of landscape.

The twenty-two paintings and twelve drawings that constitute the California-based artist’s first solo museum show, MATRIX 255 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, do not necessarily look like landscapes at first glance. The exhibition occupies one of the open rectangular galleries in Mario Ciampi’s Brutalist building, and the cool setting serves the paintings well. Brightly lit from above, they shimmer and float between the concrete floor and ceiling. The drawings, all watercolors on paper, are tucked into a darker corner of the gallery that overlooks the building’s central atrium. All of the works resulted from Zurier’s recent stays in Iceland. Titles often refer to places, such as the farm where he has worked (Héraðsdalur) or the glacial Snæfellsjökull National Park and volcano, yet the pieces rarely communicate specific, locatable coordinates or landmarks. Instead, these paintings and drawings offer a palpable sense of the elusiveness of our experience of the natural world. They also wrestle with our inability to truly capture and communicate the fullness of an instant in any medium.

In Héraðsdalur 5 (Across the River) and Héraðsdalur 17 (Stars Without Distance) (both 2014), Zurier articulates the shifting conditionality of location and the role of light in directing visual perception. Two spots of bright white punctuate the dark horizontal surface of Across the River; one nearly breaches the top center perimeter of the canvas and the other hovers in the bottom quarter of the composition. These two marks on the deep blue field are relational, and the title reinforces the sense of a distance to be negotiated. The bright flashes of light in the darkness catch the eye, but they are not the only incidence here. By revealing a quarter inch of white along the right edge of the canvas and sky blue along the bottom, Zurier takes viewers from revelry in the image back into the space of the museum gallery, encouraging them see the painting as an object on the wall. Stars Without Distance enacts a similar operation, this time by playing with figure/ground perception. Here an ultramarine surface gives way to five distinct white marks: two located on the far right side and three stacked in the left third of the picture. The title intimates that these marks might depict points of light in the night sky, but a representational reading is too easily grasped. The blue pigment is manipulated and rubbed in such a way that one cannot clearly determine whether the white is on top of the field or if it emanates from beneath it. Searching the picture, the viewer returns once again to the object and its making. A similar push and pull reoccurs throughout the exhibition.

Standing in front of these paintings, one cannot help but consider the series of material and compositional choices that Zurier made to arrive at the finished works. His choices are clear not only in the traditional elements—brushwork, gesture, marks—but also in the folds, creases, bumps, and nails that are part of their making. Icelandic Painting (12 Drops) (2014) could be described as a series of twelve short azure brushstrokes located near the center of a white linen ground; however, this portrayal would miss the quiet tension in the work that comes from the modest piece of linen, visibly frayed at the very top edge, having been tacked onto a just larger panel with thirteen small nails. That the wooden support is slightly larger than the linen is key, as the slim border directs our reading of the painting as a thing that has been worked upon. This edge is critical because focusing solely on the seemingly casual, even aleatory nature of the painted arrangement would conceal Zurier’s careful composition of the object as a whole. Further confirming his operational interests, four distinct horizontal creases in the linen fabric are evidence of it having been folded, and the myriad diagonal wrinkles at each corner suggest the linen may have been stretched on something else before being nailed to the board. The title points to the marks made on the surface, but a consideration of these operations of nailing, folding, stretching—subtle though they made be—pushes the viewer to see the other aspects of painting that are endemic to any artist’s work.

If Icelandic Painting reads as a terse economy of intervention, Vatnshellir (2013), hung on the same wall, could not be more of its opposite. The dark surface of Vatnshellir, one of the largest objects in the show, indicates many sessions in the studio. Layers of oil paint—scraped, scumbled, rubbed, and applied again—corroborate the feeling that hours upon hours of work occurred here. The result is a sense of atmospheric depth, a stormy blue surface punctuated by foamy streaks of white that beckons comparison to J. M. W. Turner. Indeed, it is the most brooding of all of the paintings in the exhibition. While one could read the darkness and depth in this picture as representing the eight-thousand-year-old Icelandic lava caves after which it is titled, the insistent traces of the artist’s encounter with the canvas also transport the viewer back to the effort made to create this image. Like the spare Icelandic Painting, the materiality of Vatnshellir is similarly confirmed in the way it is handled as an object. A deep vertical fold runs directly down the center of the canvas and is reinforced by a dark painted line tracing the fold in the lower half. Three horizontal folds, visible both dimensionally and by the absence of paint, dissect the painting into eight unequal rectangles. At the left and right edges, strips of the white ground come to the surface as the blues have been sanded or scraped away. In keeping with much of Zurier’s work on view in Berkeley, this painting reads simultaneously as connoting a sublime encounter in the natural world, and as documenting exertion. The traces of material transactions denote the artistic labor required to communicate the depth of such an experience.

The surfaces of these paintings record the way Zurier works, and they also speak of his person, particularly his travel from the warm light of coastal California to the cool atmosphere of northern Iceland, and back again. Zurier’s impression of Icelandic light is personal and specific to his own perceptual faculties. The term landscape implies a view that is subjective, partial, and conditional, and these abstracted landscape paintings communicate Zurier’s desire to share a view, his view. Additionally, the visible folds and intentionally “misaligned” borders of works like Héraðsdalur 23 (River) (2014) prompt the viewer to imagine the artist himself, packing up the studio at summer’s end. Perhaps the folds are a result of his working methods, or perhaps they come from preparing the works to travel from the base of the Norwegian Sea to the verge of the Pacific Ocean? The palpable tension between materiality and ethereality is precisely what makes Zurier’s paintings so appealing. His pictorial economy at times belies the intensity of the physical work that goes into the paintings, and his unswerving commitment to the object’s materiality deepens the viewer’s consideration of painting itself.

Elizabeth Mangini
Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art History, Visual Studies Program, California College of the Arts

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.