Joe Zucker

An artist with an eccentric trajectory plots a more stable course? A painter intent on finding conceptual connections between artifact and content constructs a manifesto? Whatever Joe Zucker’s motivation, his two most recent series represent an attempt to synthesize previous concerns and, under a pretense of dumbness, to make serious statements about his predicament, and about the flaws and strengths of his medium. Zucker is a ventriloquist whose habit of inventing artist surrogates—scientists or magicians—has reached a paradoxical stage: a choice is offered between ritual combat and religious ecstasy, between the formalized fighting stances in the “Kung Fu: Tiger vs Crane” series and the cavorting marionettes in the “Portrait of Joseph Smith.” Hovering between exertion and contemplation, the expenditure of physical power and a renunciation of that power, painting demonstrates an urge to make space, though the nature of that space is problematic. Punched or embraced, thin air stays thin. If territoriality is one problem, expression and authenticity are others. Providing evidence of a creator only by indirection, painting cannot be deprived of that phantom revelation; portraits are always self-portraits. Fighting may look more aggressive than dancing or jumping, but both area kind of semaphore in which sincerity or detachable meaning are of little account. They speak of a condition in which the brain is put on automatic pilot, in which mind and body connect and shut out external stimuli, whether challenges or inspirations, casting doubt on their existence.

In the “Joseph Smith” series—five vertical and five horizontal rectangles, two squares, and two sets of one large and one small triangular painting—the nature of Zucker’s solutions is determined by the devices he permits himself. Glutinous black paint poured onto a white surface is pushed into position with wooden tools which remain embedded after the paint has dried. Blue-tipped, these trowels protrude beyond the frame and have woolen ski masks, gloves, and socks attached, turning them into the heads, arms, and legs of figures that appear to be jumping free of the pictures from which they are composed. This semisculptural approach gives rise to a string of verbal and visual puns. Tools, the secondary limbs of the artist, become the actual limbs of his subject—a subject neither completely free nor totally in the thrall of its creator, both inside and outside the picture that encircles and depicts it. Doubts exist about whether a figure is in or on a landscape, read “into” a painting or presented on top of it. Drawing and modeling, flatness and depth, figure and ground, process and finish, metaphor and literalness, the container and the contained, the abstract and the figurative—all are marshaled into an endless, self-devouring structure, and painting is presented as a medium that can both portray an event and be one.

Tristan Tzara called Cubist collages “proverbs of painting,” and this is no doubt the status Zucker desires for his “Joseph Smith” series. Yet a proverb summarizes received wisdom rather than announcing a new truth. The battles to establish a painting that can do equal, simultaneous justice to abstraction and figuration have been going on so long that new definitions of an ideal state of affairs may not be necessary. Painting theory has moved on, assuming that former opposites can be combined at will. If the “Joseph Smith” paintings succeed, they do so for less doctrinaire reasons, like the shudder of recognition involved in creating dummies, and the hard fact that any creator remains fascinated and repelled by a dependence on such puppets, both more and less than human.

Stuart Morgan