New York

Urban Zellweger, Everything You Need for Smalltalk, 2015, oil on canvas, 31 1/2 × 39 3/8".

Urban Zellweger, Everything You Need for Smalltalk, 2015, oil on canvas, 31 1/2 × 39 3/8".

Urban Zellweger

Urban Zellweger, Everything You Need for Smalltalk, 2015, oil on canvas, 31 1/2 × 39 3/8".

For “Tables and Landscapes” at Shoot the Lobster, Urban Zellweger’s sprightly first New York solo show, the young Zurich-based artist presented six paintings from 2015 that mined art-historical conventions, and while at first this might sound familiar—yet another tiresome, “critical” recapitulation of painting’s heroic, bygone forms—Zellweger did something different. The paintings he displayed were positively alive, teeming with a playful surrealism that is at once inventive and unstable.

The most striking works were the “Tables” of the show’s title, thanks largely to Zellweger’s introduction of a disarmingly odd figure: a dog’s body with a human torso in place of a head. This grotesque, stitched-together beast recalls, on the one hand, a modern take on a mythic hybrid—a griffin or chimera concocted from domestic pets and stylish menswear—and, on the other, the Surrealist collage of, say, Max Ernst. It also aligns with the artist’s ongoing preoccupation with wildlife: His paintings in an exhibition at Karma International in Zurich last year were abuzz with insects, snails, and butterflies. At Shoot the Lobster, the dog-creature was mysteriously missing its fur in two of the paintings, and the rippling folds of exposed skin conveyed an eerily repellent corporeality. Depth was out of whack and space felt provisional and dreamlike. The whole scene seemed liable to slide apart.

But if the paintings risked coming undone, they also held together, owing to the artist’s preoccupation with cladding and surfaces—surfaces that cover things or don’t cover things, that are sometimes solid and other times not, that figure instability. Examples ranged from tabletops and window curtains to the knit sweaters and T-shirts worn by the torso-heads to the canines’ on-again, off-again coats of fur. In two works each titled Couples—the “Landscapes” of the show’s title—we found conventional alpine scenes; but in one the ground was snow-covered, and in the other it was not. The focus on surface is also embedded in the paintings’ own facture: Across the works, Zellweger knowingly brought our attention to the varying thicknesses of his paint. Some applications were thin enough to reveal extensive underpainting (as in Chip on My Shoulder, where a ghostlike human head surfaces from beneath a skein of white), while others were thick and opaque (as in the same painting’s glacial accumulation of bluish-white beneath a dog’s foot).

The exhibition’s largest work, Everything You Need for Smalltalk, conflated the show’s main tropes—the dog-creature and the Teutonic mountain landscape—setting one inside the other beneath a cataclysmic sky. On the picture’s left side, the ground is blanketed with snow; on the right side, rain falls, water puddles on the ground, and grass and daisies sprout and bloom. As if by some act of God, winter and summer are one. And while I doubt Zellweger means for us to take this image literally, for viewers in New York, where the warm weather this past winter has been alarming, to say the least, it seemed timely indeed. This End-Times nonsense-land, with its mythic, doomsday impossibilities, is not so much a fairy-tale fantasy but our place, and our time. As such, Zellweger shows us that the dream logic of surrealism can be a very apt, very effective means by which to picture the grim absurdities and freakish uncertainties of our present, post-climate age.

Lloyd Wise