first published in Zio Ziegler, Bernard Gwilliam and the Quantum Modernism (SF: Jules Maeght Gallery, 2016)
Zio Ziegler, The Three Modes of Paintings, oil, acrylic, and gouache on canvas, 96 x 72 inches, 2016.
ZIO ZIEGLER: (self) Portrait of the Artist
By Tamsin Smith & Matt Gonzalez
“To speak of these things and to try to understand their nature and, having understood it, to try slowly and humbly and constantly to express, to press out again, from the gross earth or what it brings forth, from sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of our soul, an image of the beauty we have come to understand—that is art.” – Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
It seems fitting to begin an essay on Zio Ziegler with a literary reference. Conversations with Ziegler display his broad interest in contemporary and classical fiction, with samples from philosophy, social theory, biography, and even poetry. He speaks much like he paints, weaving patterns of seemingly disparate strands into unexpected compositions. He is an artist who not only contains but also communicates multitudes.
Ziegler’s hunger to process his environment is palpable. Although he has always painted, Ziegler rose to prominence as a muralist of large scale scenes, often depicting figures with mostly skeletal, sometimes mechanized features hovering over the urban landscape. These renditions, unmistakably anthropomorphic with distinctive eyes and hands, capture both the fragility and durability of man’s place in contemporary life. The effect of seeing these primal selves struggle for a sense of place amid the city canopy is something we can all oddly relate to; it references our own shared awkwardness with modernity.
Ziegler now returns to the Jules Maeght Gallery, where he previously showed in 2015, exhibiting a cohesive body of work, which brings forth new possibilities only hinted at to those familiar his outdoor painting. In Bernard Gwilliam & The Quantum Modernism we see art of a more private nature, as the iconography moves from fictitious to deeply personal. Ziegler himself and those with whom he is most close are painted, sculpted, or printed into the story, as are his own written words. In redirecting motifs that have become signature elements of his style, Ziegler turns the mirror he has been shining on a world, to place himself — and us — firmly within its scope. Ziegler channels the previous energy of his mural work but the concentration is now on the intimate life of the artist. The result is richer and offers a more contemplative experience.
In these paintings, Ziegler uses a kaleidoscope of geometric patterns, as if they are visual building blocks of form and interior structure. The shaped elements he renders are like the shards that comprise a mosaic, simple and inconsistent puzzle pieces collaged to render recognizable forms in the composition. The figures themselves are made of interior winding patterns akin to the repetition within a bolt of fabric. The colors feel at once vibrant and calming, with warmth that is also dream-like. The figures, though compositionally correct in perspective, float untethered between the real and the ethereal, heightening the tension between the known and imagined settings, into which Ziegler places the primary characters of his life.
Most of the paintings are narrative, with nods to surrealism. Narrative art has its roots in genre painting of the seventeenth century, which began to capture the scenes of everyday life, once thought to be unsuitable subjects for high art. Paintings about mythology or those directly illustrating scenes from literature or religion are also related to this style. The key difference between this tradition and Ziegler’s evolution of its elements is that his visual stories are neither depictions of the everyday nor of recognizable parables. Instead, like surrealist canvases, his paintings are full of symbols and references (even text quotations) that sample from daily experience (e.g. taking a bath) and classical motifs (e.g. the Roman god Janus) which causes a sensory response. Ziegler remixes these, infusing them with personal stories and conflicts, thus giving space to the viewer, and inviting him or her to extrapolate and mirror the work with their own emotions. The paintings come to serve as allegories of universal man, but ones in which each individual’s story is brought forth rather than assimilated.
Ziegler captures a snapshot of the artist’s life, while working through his own psychological issues on the canvas, simultaneously creating historic chapters in an unfolding tale of conscious introspection. Ziegler’s narrative is concerned with personal questions and relationships. He ponders his placement in the world and his relationship with the people that populate his life. Even the expectation that he paint, the struggle to define his own identity, and the desire to see and be seen authentically, are rendered on his canvas.
Many of the pieces are self-portraits. Some capture Ziegler as a central figure, while others feature his visage as a disruptive element or a ghostly interstice. The practice of artists depicting themselves in their work emerged in the Early Renaissance. Of course, in the era of social media, self-portraiture has become a mass-market phenomena. At 28, this is Ziegler’s generation. He has lived the tension between the benefits and burdens that social media exposure can provide to artists. Commercial success and popularity place demands that can sit at odds with an evolving artist’s need to go deeper and excavate more. Ziegler’s use of self-study represents a glance back to classical influences as he seemingly pauses to reconcile his own aspirations, while measuring the sacrifices both made and still expected.
Personalizing his paintings pauses and reorients the viewer, not only to center him or herself in self-reflection, but also to take in other elements from a different angle. For instance, brightly colored textile patterning often gains greater hierarchy of foreground. These are by no means decorative elements. On the contrary, Zeigler’s interweaving harkens back to a period when cultures told their stories through pattern and images woven into cloth or carved and painted into wood, stone, and ceramics. From pre-classical Greeks and Romans, to African, Andean, Asian, Persian, Scottish, and Native American peoples, diverse societies have employed cloth and clay as narrative materials. Modern life across the globe is largely disconnected from the symbols of our ancestors. Ziegler’s return to repeating icons and design marks is another mode that seems to bring the viewer back in touch with the thread of where we’ve come from.
Ziegler expands his use of materials to push the importance of symbols further, specifically with sculptures cast in bronze. Bernard Gwilliam & the Quantum Modernism integrates Ziegler’s sculptures with the paintings and print work to form a fantastical forest. Looming 9-feet high, cast in gleaning gold and white, totemic sculpture stand throughout the gallery space, giving three-dimensional form to Ziegler’s biomorphic imagery. The effect is one of characters coming alive to connect physically to some mysterious end. The sculpted icons also provide critical elements for and insight into the painted work. The interplay between the sculpture and their cameos in the two-dimensional work is fluid and effective. The Janus sculpture and another avatar of the self, a golem-like crouched creature, recur in the canvases as indeterminate angels or demons – certainly not as static witnesses.
In The Three Modes of Paintings Ziegler sets three life-like depictions of his visage within a brilliantly colored and patterned landscape of ascending stairs and ladders. One version places him on a platform, holding a light bulb. In another, he is kneeling with his head bent to rest against what looks to be a bicycle seat, an object of solace to Ziegler. The third and central portrait places his face within a picture frame that he himself holds. Here he is also kneeling, but with his body upright and just in front of a montage of smaller frames spilling out like playing cards.
The painting poses questions about Ziegler’s trajectory as an artist. Three creatures, which are visually akin to those which appear in his mural work, fill the top of the painting. One looks to the sky with fingers curled. Another has its back to us and with interlaced hands behind its head, almost as if bored with the drama behind. The last cradles the reclining Ziegler and locks eyes with the viewer. He holds him, as if Ziegler is tired, perhaps referencing the exhaustion the painter has experienced creating work in cities around the world. The elevated Ziegler holds the light bulb as if it’s an object to be examined. This action suggests consideration of progress, illumination, and new ideas. The framed Ziegler represents the scrutiny he’s been under, contemplation of what he’s already accomplished, and the cards yet to play. The Three Modes of Paintings resonates as an account of his present state of mind.
In The Trinity, Ziegler lies shirtless and vulnerable on the floor at the feet of both his father and his partner, Velia. His father’s attire, particularly his shirt, filled with images of fruit-bearing trees, suggests fecundity. Velia is in profile with her eyes closed or perhaps cast down towards Ziegler in concern. The entire foreground is spilling out of another realm, an almost egg-shaped other world with a quaint village scene visible inside. This other world appears to be the torso of the large figure whose three-sided head (or at least three visible sides) populates the center top of the canvas. The feet are discernible at the bottom of the canvas. One of its arms consoles Velia, the other arm, near the artist’s father, makes a peaceful gesture with its fingers. In either top corner of the canvas are ominous faces staring down at the scene, one a skull, the other a male face.
The avatars of Ziegler’s sculpture and other identity symbols also populate the canvas, along with a ram in the center, a symbol of strength as well as sacrifice. Bright green leaves reinforce an Eden-like image. The viewer gains a sense of new beginning after a period of pain and discovery. The egg-like pod that forms the belly of the creature seems to lure the viewer to enter this peaceful realm.
The canvases are closely related thematically and have clearly been worked on simultaneously or in close succession. The resulting cohesion allows for a greater rigor of sustained ideas in the paintings. These are not mural walls painted in a single pass; they are ripened works where the choices appear both deliberative and intentional, while still retaining the spontaneity of subconscious impulses that invite the unforeseen.
Color is important in the paintings. What appears to be unadulterated primary colors is actually carefully saturated and muted by mixing, as well as by repeated mark-making, which creates a blended effect, akin to what is achieved with soft pastel. Look carefully and you can see shifting colors in a single area, the resulting hue emphasizing the fantastical dream-like element he seeks. He harmonizes the composition by fading gradations throughout.
Zio Ziegler, The First Turn of the Screw, oil, acrylic, and gouache, 96 x 72 inches, 2016.
In some of the paintings, Ziegler remains present, yet the primary focus shifts away from him. In The First Turn of the Screw, two figures we haven’t seen in the other canvases are depicted. They are likely friends of the painter, seated at a table and engaged in post-meal discussion. They exude ease and familiarity. A miniaturized version of the painter (presumably Ziegler) stands on the table with brush and palette in-hand, his back to us, but turning as though he is aware of the viewer’s presence. Because the painter is rendered in a colorful mosaic, he blends into the scene, not disrupting the focal point, the two friends, who are depicted with an absence of geometric patterning. A panel at the lower right illustrates multi-angle views of Ziegler’s golem sculptures. Four colorful faces watch from above, appearing to be mere spectators.
In the left panel of the triptych The Three Stages of Utopia Velia is portrayed cradling a large head, with another figure behind her, kneeling, with its hands on her shoulders. It is as if this figure has removed the mask of his primitive self, which they now both hold proudly and with tenderness. The figure’s actual face remains without full features, as though his true form has yet to be remade. We must assume this is Ziegler himself. The overall effect of this painting, with its sparse structure and minimal coloration and patterning, is one of calm emergence. It’s as if the figures are putting the past to rest with care.
In the center panel of The Three Stages of Utopia Velia relaxes while soaking in a bathtub. Ziegler is represented as his golem-like figure in attendance. Velia’s eyes are closed. The upper half, depicting building architecture and tree foliage, is painted in yellow and black, and represents something completely separate from the lower panel. In both the left and center panels, we witness scenes stripped of the customary Ziegler patterning and color bursts. These are much more akin to real life. Even the black and yellow panel is quite realistic in illustration. There is a sense of arrival, of coming into focus, and quiet appreciation.
It’s worth noting that Ziegler’s four-faced Janus sculpture appears as its own symbol in many of the paintings. In effect, he takes a three-dimensional object and integrates it into the painted narrative, making it a character in the story he is painting. Again, there is self-portraiture (or at least self-referencing) at work, but it also represents transition, as Ziegler looks to the past, to the future, and to both sides of the present. For instance, in The Trinity, a Janus faced demi-god presides over Ziegler, his partner Velia, and his father. In the same painting, it also sits as a portrait of the work of sculpture, with the hand of Ziegler’s outstretched body upon it. Likewise, the golem is represented in a position of loyal presence as Velia takes a bath in The Three Stages of Utopia. Ziegler is reclaiming personal space from the frenetic pace of his life over the past few years.
In all elements of this exhibition, Ziegler invites the viewer to join him in the vivid yet perplexing landscape that both separates and connects identity with perception. He does this by example — putting his disembodied face, his “framed” face, or his golem-like creature self in the mix. He then moves more deeply into the consciousness of the viewer by putting his own recorded voice on a sound loop, intoning notes of supplication, warning, and commiseration. His voice endeavors to foster a revolution of spirit in each of us.
The central character in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is Stephen Dedalus. The semi-autobiographical novel captures not only Joyce’s own struggle for artistic autonomy, but alludes to the inventor Daedalus of Greek mythology, and his fight for freedom of expression. Dedalus was the master craftsman who built the labyrinth which King Minos of Crete used to house the Minotaur and trap human prey for the beast. It’s an extreme example but this notion of an artist tormented by a metaphorical maze of his or her own creation is an intriguing one to consider. In Ziegler’s case, he almost seems to be placing himself and his audience within the drama of such an escape attempt, forcing us to consider the world we’ve constructed for ourselves, and whether it is enabling or constraining our truest expression.
Zio Ziegler, Who I Am and Who I Want to Be, oil, acrylic, and gouache on canvas, 96 x 72 inches, 2016.
“He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld.” – James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Tamsin Smith & Matt Gonzalez