One Foot In The Sublime: John Zurier at Peter Blum
John Zurier: A spring a thousand years ago at Peter Blum
April 25 to June 22, 2013
20 West 57th St, between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York City, 212 244 6055
Particularity: some paintings have it, some don’t. In a painting that has it, specific material and visual attributes eclipse whatever genre, medium or aesthetic ideology that work might embody. The viewer’s experience of such a painting is rooted in the minutia of its physical constitution, rather than in its significance as a statement of purpose, an intellectual position, a conception of space, or what have you. Particularity is located somewhere in triangulation with Michael Fried’s “presentness” and John Waters’ definition of beauty as “looks you can never forget.”
And there is sometimes a fine line between particularity and its absence, as John Zurier’s current exhibition at Peter Blum’s new 57th Street space demonstrates. On view are 11 paintings dated 2012 or 2013 and one from 2007. In that earlier oil on linen, , Oblaka (for Mark), a pale bluish film of paint is methodically but imperfectly scraped over viridian green underpainting, leaving green glitches that might remind you of fingerprints on a steamy mirror, or skittering fish beneath the water’s surface. The painting measures 38 by 31 inches. What is interesting to me is that the six paintings in the exhibition that are smaller than Oblaka (for Mark) are far more memorable than the five that are larger, and the difference, I think, is owing to the smaller paintings’ particularity.
The very smallest canvas, Sorgin (21 by 15 inches), painted in a close range of pungent reds, attests to Zurier’s coloration of touch. A dense, though not particularly thick, cloud of brushstrokes — both fast and slow, fat and lean — gives way to raspy pinkish areas at top and bottom where the brush has barely swept the surface, or missed it entirely. A faint impression of the stretcher bars, which painters generally try to avoid, inflects this quizzical painting’s skin with a reminder of its rudimentary mechanical infrastructure.
Öxnadalur (oil on linen, 72 by 44 inches) is ten times the size of Sorgin, but that size does not translate into a commanding sense of scale. To be sure, it is beautifully painted—in a silvery-purplish gray broadly worked wet-into-wet over a whitish ground—but it lacks the density of Sorgin’s material factuality. The paintings do, however, have in common a faint representational suggestion: a rough trail, angling up from the bottom edge (hence into pictorial space) and into a bosky wood indicated by silhouetted treetops.
This footpath scenario is even more distinct in A spring a thousand years ago, a painting in glue tempera on cotton. Brushily painted in a watery slate blue, the image exhibits just enough variety in mark making to break down spatially into the classic foreground/middle ground/background landscape organization. The inclination to interpret sparse compositional cues as a representation of believable space is more interesting as a study in the psychology of perception than as metaphor for the act of painting as a trek into unfamiliar territory. In any case, what particularity this painting possesses emerges not from the spectral sylvan iconography but from a few slightly discordant, strictly ruled horizontal and vertical brushstrokes that echo the painting’s framing edge.
A less literal order of narrative is embedded in the odd Mosfellsbœr (distemper and oil on linen), where the fabric support itself, puckered along the right side as it meets the stretcher, contributes to the story of the work’s making. A translucent whitish wash, loosely applied, backs a constellation of five tiny black rectangles resembling bits of electrical tape which in turn align in an upward-curving sweep as if caught in a current of wind or water. Nothing about the painting feels arbitrary. The very fact that, when working small, Zurier apparently avoids standard formats supports the impression that their every detail is the more considered.
The two largest paintings, Hellnar (108 by 75 inches) and Härnevi (75 by 108 inches; both distemper on linen) are the most generalized, nearly monochrome, and placid almost to the point of dissipation. While they may well have one foot in the sublime, so to speak, they nevertheless lack the visual crackle of, for example, After Paolo Schiavo. Named for a Quattrocento Florentine painter, this compact work (17 by 21 inches) succeeds in depicting an expansive, mysterious space in a very few variations on blue-black. It is horizontally bifurcated by a surprisingly concrete horizontal stroke of the brush, which, amidst the exhibition’s abundant atmospheric effects, looks solid enough to do chin-ups on. While Zurier’s quite lovely larger paintings may be seen as contemporary examples of lyrical abstraction or color field or neo-monochrome, a painting like After Paolo Schiavo defies categorization.