For the Love of Painting, Texture, Light, and Place: John Zurier

At a memorial gathering for a colleague, I met another colleague: a charismatic painting professor who said he was on leave this year and wasn't teaching.
"Sabbatical?" He said no. But when I pressed him further, he said, "I have my first museum show going on, and a book coming out."
"Oh! Where?"
He mentioned a few places, then said, "The Berkeley Art Museum."
"Wait," I said. "What's your name?"
"John Zurier."

A frequent BAM visitor and member, I had been planning to go see the recent exhibitions there anyway. (They were the last ones before the museum closes for nine months to rebuild itself anew in downtown Berkeley.) But I was curious how my meeting the artist would affect my viewing the show. These would be paintings he created while leading a student trip to Iceland.

I met up with a friend, an art history professor, who reported what a mutual friend had said about the paintings, "It's not what you think." We weren't sure what that meant since we had no preconceptions and are open to new work. I said I had looked at Zurier's website and read an interview, and what had onscreen looked like monochromatic paintings, was described as more textured and materials dependent. What I thought was that the screen wasn't going to work for his work. We had to see the paintings in person.

When can you understand the work on screen and when do you have to have it physically in front of you? With Zurier's paintings, you must go forward to see the texture, step back to see the shadows in it. 

Book artist Tim Ely once said that slide images of books aren't books; they are just light. This brings to mind seeing a postcard or this screen image of Jay DeFeo's monumental, 11-inch thick painting, The Rose, which weighs nearly one ton (my post about her here). The tiny image can be a memory jog if you've already seen it, but if you haven't, the work itself might seem baffling. (Actually, if you have walked up close to the physical work, the tiny image seems preposterous.) This is why we have museums. In the museums we can see real art, not flat and unrepresentative reproductions. You can't imagine The Rose. It is enormous, awe-inspiring, almost unreal. 

Zurier's work up close is breathtaking. My friend, who had not met him, was taken with it as well. It is quieter, smaller, meditative. It has breaths in it. It is lightly layered. The substrate in this body of work is mostly linen, sometimes coarse jute. The weave and textures matter. Occasionally, the fold marks of the cloth are purposely included or just allowed to be themselves: all intentional. Each painting is usually titled with the place where it was painted, which alerts us to the relation to landscape. And because they are so minimal, the viewer can enter these places, as far away and unfamiliar as they might be otherwise. 

One I liked, called, Icelandic Painting (12 Drops), was blue and white watercolor on linen; I suspect the linen was once stretched on smaller bars (fold marks show), but here it was laid flat and nailed from the front to a slightly larger panel, all 13 nails visible. The result is that the viewer is asked to pay close attention to the materials and accept them as part of the image: a few blue shapes in a larger expanse of white. 

You are asked to be present. It really is what you think.

The work is subtle, but that doesn't mean the colors always are: one painting appears chrome yellow Héraosdalur 12 (Lighthouse), others are indigo, such as Héraosdalur 16 (Listening to Grieg).

Many of the descriptions list "distemper" as the medium. It is a kind of paint made from chalk and glue (animal glue or casein, which is made from milk) and tinted to whatever color is desired. Shadowy and layered effects can be achieved with it. Thin layers, suggesting translucence.

The museum sensitively placed Zurier's subtly colored work before the exhibition of bright and bold Hans Hofmann paintings, and after the muted American folk paintings and calligraphic samples. The move through the galleries had a nice flow.

While this texture and visceral feeling from the distemper or oil paint and the linen or jute cannot be achieved online, you can get a better idea for his work by zooming in or looking at very large high-quality photographs. Many of Zurier's images can be seen here, and here, and at his website here. There is also an exhibition brochure pdf. Better: go see an exhibit if you can. If you can't get to San Francisco (or Berlin or New York, for examples), a few larger images are presented with the interviews here and here and here. His words help bring the landscapes into focus, gently suggesting how to see them.

And he's a nice guy, too. From our conversation I could tell that we share a similar passion and philosophy about teaching and our students and for making art. I was happy that I could connect with his painted work as well.