by David M. Roth
John Zurier is hardly the first artist to devote himself non-objective painting, but he is surely among the wiliest. Attempts to assign meaning to his work are akin to describing the color of air. His current cycle, Dust and Troubled Air, while readily graspable, continues to sidestep that most familiar hallmark of abstract painting, self-revelation via autographic mark making. Like Robert Ryman, Zurier manipulates paint to evoke light. But unlike Ryman, who, of a different generation, was clearly more enamored of paint’s more tactile properties, Zurier spends the bulk of his energies in a vastly more reductive mode, transforming what he sees in nature back into its most basic perceptible elements: shadow, shape and light.
Zurier’s spoken volubly about his process, but key aspects of it remain (at least to me) opaque. One thing we do know is that he travels regularly to Iceland and Finland and that he returns without having made anything remotely resembling a landscape. What he renders are atmospherics, visible in scratchy monochromatic works that are often titled for places he visits (although in this show only two works are so named). Several key pieces call to mind tracts of distressed denim, while others hark to earlier works, in particular those done in a blue-and-white palette reminiscent of cloudscapes. At close range they give off hints of Alberto Burri for having been executed on a burlap-like fabric. Their exposed warp and woof in Sólheimar, to take but one example, reads as pinpoints of light arrayed in a tight grid. More significantly, close-up views of other works draw the eye to yawning gaps – spaces between layers of colliding brush strokes out of which spill light, the quality of which ranges from barely visible (Nightlong) to near blinding in Winter (Dust), a painting whose surface is so heavily abraded you may think of islands carved from sky or a flooded delta.
This sensation of looking at dense fields and then being drawn into irregularly shaped pools of light is unexpected, shocking even, because nothing in the quick-read indicates that possibility. I was also struck by the sheer variety of brushstrokes Zurier uses to achieve these effects. Nowhere are they duplicative; each work appears to have required fresh techniques, invented in the moment of its making. Some, like those in To the Wind, don’t even look like strokes at all; they’re more like gentle exhalations whose cast shadows come into view only at certain angles and then fade as you move from side-to-side.
In an age where painters create with an eye toward how their works appear in digital reproduction, Zurier stands out for wrestling with paint the old-fashioned way, both as an intellectual construct and as a literal (albeit vaporous) accretion of highly mutable facts.
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John Zurier: “Dust and Troubled Air” @ Anglim Gilbert Gallery through June 10, 2017.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.