Thursday, May 5, 2011


There is something peculiarly satisfying about the recent work of Jay Zerbe,some of which is
up at Chicago's new Park Schreck Gallery. He handles paint,first of all,with an aplomb which is never glibness,and his compositional sense is one that can consider its great historical antecedents without feeling in any way academic or derivative. The work is subtle but vibrant in color,with a certain artisanal relationship to texture remindful of mid-to-late Braque. The compositions bring up a pantheon of landscape and figure-in-landscape painters from Claude Lorrain to Cezanne to Braque,sometimes all at once. It is the tension between this " all at once" and its components that accounts for Zerbe's originality. He has developed a vocabulary that allows him to riff off a lot of history without becoming its serf.
Wondering how he managed this, I reviewed his earlier work,which is impressive but not quite on this high new level. The work from the 1970's---figurative in a deliberately faux-naif woodcut-like technique,and narrative-- recalled a somewhat homoerotic Foxe's Book of Martyrs---nifty in its way,to be sure.The pieces had an early Renaissance symmetry that was (so it felt to me)unintentionally pure. It had meant to be satirical but had ended up unresistingly beautiful. A similar ambivalent purity was to be found in the abstract work which followed. These were as strict as quilts and also had-- for all their abstraction-- a folkloric quality.He then began to make his own highly individuated rhythmic permutations of the grid.He got intricate with the interplay of depths--with being able to show the action,so to speak, at various speeds in more than one room. He learned to float an after image on the surface of one then two counter-patterns. To be able to do this lucidly is unusual.
Later,someone will delicately approach with the calipers of scholarship the exact point where Zerbe's work became as (thoughtful,sensate,delicious,complex,resolved) (italics:)as indispensable as it is.I merely wish to mark that at sometime over the last decade, he became indispensable. In a quiet way ,he became a master. How do I know? Instantly,in my case, from a thumbnail on Face Book---even at that scale, I could feel its combination of clarity with rhythmic complexity. The quasi-narrative,the quilt-ishness,the permutations on grids,the implication of landscape,or studio,or window,all co-existed in a relationship which resolved as nicely as a musical cadence.It is also abstract painting with an at-there-in-the-world quality of prescence most often found in realist work.The theosophist afflatus of Kandinsky,its other worldliness,gives way in Zerbe's work to a more mature transcendent this worldliness. Something in the way he transmits the seen,secures the seen in its way.
There are several ancillary or subtextual issues to be examined regarding Zerbe's work work which would be disingenuous not to acknowledge. The first is:if he is this good,how is it that he is not better known?Bluntly, I suspect that over the next decade,as the art world becomes increasingly de-centralized,we will find others who--like Zerbe--worked quietly at their own intrinsic concerns rather than the trends dominating the market place during a given season. The emphasis on precocity will then give way to the idea of maturity. And the perennial,ever-renewing questions of perception in relationship to painting will replace the pose of iconoclasm,
which is by now become thoroughly commercial. Perhaps by then,we will come to understand that it takes decades of steadfast research to arrive at mastery.Our idea of originality will become more rooted in the problems of art,rather than novelty and its dread
sibling, publicity. And those artists who have cultivated themselves in order to grow will
provide a different model from the one to which the art market presently dooms us,which is a brief period of success following a meteoric rise followed by decades of being ignominiously passe.However, even if these much-wished changes do not happen,an artist such as Zerbe provides a counter-example of sterling worth; I look forward to new decades of work from him.