The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2013

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APR 2013 Issue

JOE ZUCKER Empire Descending a Staircase

For his most recent series of paintings, Joe Zucker scored gypsum board, commonly known as plaster or wallboard, into a grid of quarter inch squares. He then peeled away the upper layer and painstakingly filled in the resulting squares of porous material with watercolor to realize fractured images of fluted Doric columns. The ostensible subject matter of these works, columns, serves as an armature for larger conceptual and formal questions around the nature of visual perception in our digital age.

Joe Zucker, "Mughal Empire," 2012. Watercolor/gypsum, plywood, 48 x 48". Copyright the artist. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
On View
Mary Boone Gallery
March 1 – April 27, 2013
New York

These works are formally seductive in their curious manipulation of pictorial space. Zucker limited himself to a spectrum of black and white, with a few small coloristic digressions. By aligning this tonal spectrum with an underlying grid, Zucker eschews chiaroscuro—the traditional language of three-dimensional depiction and instead floats the shaded squares ambiguously on a ground. In our current moment, this technique can only be characterized as pixilated. The same might be said for the columns themselves, revealing a singular logic of pixilation that has been uniformly applied to the entirety of the painted field. 

The choice of columns as subject matter evokes, in a generalized way, the 18th Century vogue for the ruins of some of the empires mentioned in the titles of the individual paintings, such as the Medo-Persian or British Empires. However, none of the paintings are specifically referential. Instead, it is as if Zucker had pulverized the sublime perspectival depth of those 18th century landscapes and, via pixelated mediation, spread it evenly over the surface of the gypsum board. Most all of the expected indicators of pictorial space have been confused and reshuffled by the alien (because fully automatized and systematic) logic of pixilation. The size of one form versus another, passages of dark versus light, and shading more broadly, are, in the manic insistence of pixilation on democratizing the image, no longer always tied to the usual hierarchies that give them aesthetic meaning.

As such, pictorial space and subject matter are made fully abstract and conceptual, this being the import of these pictures. Zucker’s use of watercolor, and historically referential titles and subject matter roots these paintings in an established aesthetic language. But they are even more evocative of the present moment. Zucker’s use of disposable and ubiquitous gypsum board, with its practical applications in building construction, is one deviation from the more conventional materials of painting. Further, the formal language of pixilation, which is achieved by the time tested means of the grid no less, finally and firmly locates these paintings in the contemporary digital era.

Our contemporary digital image culture is in its infancy. We constantly find ourselves dealing with its glitches and breakdowns, which, while improving on a daily basis, are still far from ironed out—the spinning wheel that indicates a lethargic internet connection, the poor focus or inadequate flash on our smartphone’s camera, and so on. These are all signs of the uneven nature of technological “advancement,” as putative gains often come with corresponding steps back, such that we might, for example, laud the increased ease of access to visual material allowed by the internet, but be frustrated by the decrease in image quality by which it is often attended.
One regularly-encountered issue in digital image quality is, of course, pixilation, whereby, because of whatever technological glitch, the formal logic of the digital image’s underlying grid format comes through and distorts it. Zucker too uses the grid to render his image, the abstraction of which obscures the otherwise representational nature of the subject. However, Zucker’s repetitive and laborious process is precisely the opposite of computerized pixilation, which operates automatically, the human hand removed, and is meant to be the invisible substrate of a “perfect” mimesis.

With this provocative juxtaposition Zucker takes on the underlying language of the digital image, whose logic is not material, but rather informational—the aggregate of a particular gridded arrangement of ones and zeroes. Wittingly or not, Zucker taps into various inadequacies in our current digital image regime, to allow its logics to be actively staged, and then critically contemplated. In this way the viewer of these paintings is permitted, if only momentarily and fictively, to take a step back from the sea of information in which he or she is otherwise inextricably mired.

745 Fifth Ave. // NY, NY


Alex Bacon

Alex Bacon is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curated Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2013

All Issues