New York

Thomas Zipp

Harris Lieberman

Thomas Zipp could never be called unambitious: The Berlin-based artist’s first major solo gallery show in New York, at Harris Lieberman, not only coincided with his second solo exhibition in Los Angeles and with a room-size installation at the Berlin Biennale but also tackled some complex subject matter. Zipp frequently interweaves aspects of art history, philosophy, and science. Here, in a show that comprised paintings, works on paper, and a sculptural installation, he sought out the residual value of early-twentieth-century utopian thought in a nuclear age (nuclear war being the “Uranlicht” [“Uranium Light”] of the exhibition’s title). Given the scope and gravity of these concerns, Zipp sensibly, and adroitly, dispensed with didactic literalism in favor of suggestive indirectness.

All alone high up on a large wall near the gallery entrance, Harris (all works 2006), a letter-size mixed-media drawing depicting Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, who orchestrated the Allied saturation bombing of Germany during WWII (and who is the great-uncle of one of the gallery’s owners), served as the historical anchor for Zipp’s imaginative multimedia explorations. Other small drawings feature formal portraits of a rogues’ gallery of anonymous, well-heeled men and skeletons, all of whose eyes are variously punctured by nails and tacks (like victims of a voodoo ritual) or covered with coins (as if in preparation for the afterlife). Some also spout empty speech bubbles. Several large paintings, two propped up on leglike wooden poles, depict imaginary plants sprouting out of denuded, postapocalyptic landscapes. In the gallery’s main room, a handmade organ—featuring on-off switches and volume dimmers in place of keys—stood sentinel with a small army of boxy black speakers. Those adventurous enough to play the instrument were treated to a grating mixture of synthesized sounds that, given the context, evoked air-raid sirens. (In fact, one of the speakers houses a repurposed GDR siren.) The late-Rothko palette—sooty grays, earthy browns, burnt ocher, eggplant, claret, and black—connected these otherwise disparate works and contributed to the exhibition’s doleful atmosphere.

Zipp’s syncretic approach to history, in which seemingly incompatible figures and events are brought together in the service of a romantic vision, evokes the work of Anselm Kiefer, though the younger artist generates meaning through constellations of objects rather than through the hubristic appropriation of real, cosmic constellations. The exhibition checklist demonstrated this accumulative strategy, as seemingly random groupings of objects—two mixed-media drawings and a painting; the organ sculpture, a drawing, and a wall text—constituted individual artworks; in Uranlicht, drawn lines escaping one man’s mouth stretch onto a nearby canvas. Some might consider this interdependence a weakness, an indicator of discrete works’ inability to stand alone, but here it seemed a smart way to acknowledge that no single work could tell the whole story.

Despite the variety of media deployed in this exhibition, Zipp is primarily a painter, with a wan aesthetic that calls to mind the dour imaginings of Luc Tuymans. The netlike grids that arc across several of the canvases might be metaphorical representations of the way in which the artist’s reverence for modernist aesthetics undergirds his weighty archival investigations. (This is sometimes literally the case, as in an installation, presented last year at Art Basel Miami Beach, comprising small canvases and framed drawings hung atop a blown-up black-and-white reproduction of a Jackson Pollock painting.) In this show, Zipp put forth a strong case for this holistic approach, deftly blending formalist concerns and the lessons of history while avoiding the bombast that often characterizes proponents of only one or the other.

Brian Sholis