Stephen Zaima: Painting Post-History
As with all artists, Stephen Zaima’s practice did not develop in isolation, nor is it the product of a single culminating event or epiphany. Instead, it is informed by the convergence of subjective experiences and objective knowledge, as well as the successes and failures of other artists. Zaima’s practice has developed over a long period of time in a non-linear, non-deterministic manner. Figuratively, what set this process in motion were messages sent forward—some recent, some hundreds of years old. As in a game of telephone, with each relay bits and pieces of data and information were lost, syntaxes and vocabularies were modified, and other messages were mingled in, so that at times the message received could be so garbled as to be nonsensical, or so deceptively clear that it could be viewed as a directive.
Born, raised, and educated in California, Zaima, during his graduate studies beginning in 1969, was aware of recent developments in mainstream contemporary art, and had also been exposed to the eccentric figurative funk art of the Bay Area. While visiting New York City in 1968, he saw Bruce Nauman’s inaugural exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery and realized that consistency of style was no longer the order of the day—one could make diverse works as long as they were thematically intelligible. From this Zaima appears to have concluded that art’s subjects, forms, and contents are irreconcilably separate entities and that the “work of art” (the tasks it performs) is always already incomplete. With this epiphany, he rejected the notion of stylistic development, and, by implication, he cast off the notion that everything needs to have a beginning, middle, and end.
The lasting effects of Zaima’s insights are with him even today in that he does not feel bound by the imperative of stylistic refinement or continuity. Over the decades, this has led him to the understanding that each painting need not be rooted in its predecessor, nor does it need to be significantly different—each painting stands alone and is at the same time part of a gradually evolving project. The result is multiple versions of some paintings, while others are unique. Yet, recurring throughout his oeuvre is an iconography consisting of airplanes, dividing lines, varying spiral forms, the phases of the moon, interpenetrating cones, blacksmith anvils, French curves, biomorphic forms, etc., accompanied by formal and painterly concerns and devices. This lexicon is not fixed in the sense that some images are retired or merely held in reserve for years before being called back into service.
Like many from his generation in the mid-70s, Zaima started his professional career by seeking out “the next big thing” in the wake of the onslaught of Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art’s radical dematerialization of art. This period, associated with post-Minimalism, was committed to the idea of art as an event and was characterized by frenzied experimentation that left the era style-less and culturally exhausted. By the mid-80s, it appeared modernism’s paradigms could no longer sustain themselves. In their stead, new critical models were theorized based on the view that art’s development, rather than being a logical progression, was a result of discordant practices and viewpoints competing for dominance. Some of these would momentarily be held to be aesthetically, formally, or conceptually radical, only to wane away, while other previously dismissed practices would, over the long term, prove themselves to be significant. Within the confusion generated by this challenge to the status quo, Western art—and Zaima with it—entered the multiverse of postmodernism in which everything was to be judged by its own criteria and standards.
Amidst the declining status of abstract art and the diverse narratives of appropriation, identity, non-linearity, and the end of history generated by the breakdown of the modernism’s essentialism during 1980s–90s, Zaima recognized his options: he could join the chorus of artists who sought to sustain the modernist ethos in the face of its demise; or he could step away from the highly conceptual mode of geometric painting and installations he had been working in and seek a new direction. Out of a sense of optimism, not pessimism, he decided to explore the possibilities that the mapping of the uncharted terrain of his subjectivity would afford him. His willingness to leave behind art’s essentialism and purity permitted him the freedom to work across genres, produce hybrids, and to reference the world beyond the painting’s frame. By doing this, Zaima has found a way to address the abstract by other means.
Based on the view that art develops intuitively by unfolding and evolving in time, Zaima set to work determining which aspects of modernism he could adapt to this new outlook and which previously negated or repressed practices and skills he might revive and exploit. Though he would retrieve devices such as the pictorial space used in early Gothic art, Zaima instinctually resisted the appeal of the anecdotal or other literary forms. Instead, his paintings came to consist of arrangements of discrete painterly forms and images. In general, his works are poetic, not in the lyric sense, but more in accord with the maudlin, fever-induced imagery of Baudelaire’s Fleurs de Mal, where nothing escapes the gravity of those buried or half-forgotten memories and hallucinations, whose very existence reflects the entirety of being, both past and present. In a sense, Zaima’s works are way stations on a journey that is simultaneously made up of nomadic wanderings and pilgrimages. Every gesture, every image, both figurative and abstract, is a sign and part of an arcane vocabulary Zaima uses to signify personal and archetypal meanings. The theorist Walter Benjamin identified such composites of disconnected and self-conflicted elements as dialectical images, capable of illuminating and re-contextualizing their subject to reveal hidden aspects, or meanings.
Though Zaima’s work has been consistently painterly, it is not expressionist. If anything, it communicates urgency and a sense of immediacy, from which it may be inferred that Zaima’s interest in signs and symbols extends to the question of what paint’s qualities may re-present, express, or represent. As with the Abstract Expressionists, his works are characterized by fragmented fields of painterly effects in which he embeds his imagery. Given the dual nature of his imagery as something recognizable yet abstract, Zaima at times isolates and foregrounds an image on a painterly ground much as Jasper Johns did with his targets and flags. At other times, employing a simple figure/ground relationship, Zaima’s images occupy their own distinct pictorial space, and by painting multiple layers he creates a double-exposure-like effect in which each layer obscures and intermingles with the previous ones. At times, viewing these images is akin to looking through a streaked windshield as the wipers move back and forth, and the headlights of oncoming cars cast threatening shadows—respectively, everything is indistinct though not necessarily unrecognizable.
While his imagery is rooted in personal associations as well as the mythological realm, Zaima’s mural-sized canvases, by analogy, return painting to the scale of Abstract Expressionism and that of the 19th century Salon, a mythic domain in which artworks link the experiential, cognitive, and the analytic to a disembodied aesthetic. And these contradictory terms do not cancel one another out; rather, they come to rest in a dynamic equilibrium—a stalemate of opposing conceptual and material forces. From this we may conclude that Zaima is not just intent on maintaining painting as a form, but actually desires to know what more it might signify with competence. Ironically, while this permits Zaima to negotiate his way between the idiosyncratic and the quantifiable, it leaves the viewer to wander through an indeterminate field of visual effects that fluctuate between the sensuous and symbolic. The attentive viewer wishing to make sense of Zaima’s combination of mimetic images and geometric and biomorphic forms will find they cannot affix a meaning to them because each element offers up its own logic, so the whole may become more than a sum of its parts.
If a fixed narrative underlies his works, the cipher is hermetically sealed away in the recesses of Zaima’s conscious and unconscious mind. Inversely, the sense to be made from these works may in fact lie in Zaima’s freedom to employ diverse imagery and painterly effects as signs. The sources of these range from the art-historically-derived crown of thorns to the inter-penetrating cones appropriated from psychoanalytic theory. Others, such as the spirals, are improvised or are synthesized from unattributed sources. One might deduce from this eclecticism that for Zaima, if painting is to remain viable it must be able to sustain a dialogue between the vast array of intuited, eidetic (vivid mental images), cognitive, aesthetic, and the semiotic means by which things come to be represented to the Self.
Time and time again, Zaima has rethought, modified, supplemented, and re-contextualized his evolving repertoire of images, symbols, and painterly effects so that he might intertwine new observations, memories, and associations into his ever-evolving project. Yet, there is a stubborn insistence that imagery, composition, palette, etc., not succumb to a single symbolic logic. Each thing portrayed and each painting in its entirety exists within and for its own logic, which in turn consists of multiple frames of reference, each of which generates an interpretation that fails to account for the meanings that may be assigned to the differing pictorial, aesthetic, perceptual, or cognitive aspects of a particular work. Though this leaves his works textually indecipherable, formally Zaima’s paintings resist being read as a thoughtless mash-up of arbitrary effects and images. What seemingly matters to Zaima is the complexity of the allusions his works can suggest, and achieving resolution without closure is an expression of Zaima’s commitment to the speculative nature of his art.
By approaching painting as a form of deliberation, a means of lavish presentation, as well as a mode of exaggerated articulation, Zaima is in keeping with the Mannerism of Tintoretto and Symbolist traditions of Odeon Redon and Gustav Moreau. But unlike the images and symbols used by those artists, Zaima’s iconography of moons, abysses, crowns of thorns, etc.—even though they can be associated with the spiritual—do not designate the sublime or transcendental. They instead demonstrate how all modes of signification are essentially abstract—the signifier always a sensuous thing, which at times, by association or consensus, brings to mind a content foreign to it. This splitting of the sign situates his work relative to lived experience, rather than metaphysical ideals. In 1999, when I wrote a short statement for Zaima’s Rome exhibition, I focused on how, by collapsing high modernism and the Baroque, Zaima reflects on art’s humanist and expressive values as well as the human condition whose principal concern is the promise of an emancipation arrived at by a process of sacrifice and transcendent pleasure. Seemingly, this continues to hold true.
Saul Ostrow, NYC, December 2021
Stephen Zaima: Mysterious Bridge
“A writer says almost everything in order to be understood; painting builds a kind of mysterious bridge between the soul of the characters and that of the spectator.”
Eugene Delacroix, Oct. 8, 1822
The ‘mysterious bridge’ that Delacroix describes is not one that need be traversed with hesitancy. In the best of cases, the bridge built by the artist should be approached with deliberate curiosity, and if successfully erected, it can be crossed an unending number of times.
Mysterious may not be an obvious descriptor one would use in characterizing Stephen Zaima’s works upon first glance. It would run contrary to the emphatic nature of his iconography, his palette, and often, the scale of the work. However, when trying to deconstruct a narrative in each painting, photograph, collage or installation, it’s never quite as there-for-the-taking as might be initially assumed.
The spare components that comprise the monumental L’evitare, 2000 (the most seemingly narrative in the exhibition), suggest an easy interpretation, but baked into the work are numerous subtle, right-turn decisions made along the way – the profound use of negative space; the textural treatment of the underbrush obscured by the main event; the object-ness created by the hanging mechanism – and it is these decisions laid bare that allow for infinite pleasurable attempts at deconstructing the painting for any active viewer.
As seen in the works in this exhibition, Zaima’s symbols and iconography recur throughout his oeuvre at varying intervals and across several media. Immediate examples seen in A Real Allegory, 1990, Corona del Spina, 1997, and Anvil, 1998, include the harpsichord, the airplane, the anvil, the dividing line, varying spiral forms, and the crown of thorns. The relationships between these icons and the manner in which they’re created involve no accidents. Personal and art historical anecdotes intertwine, previously visible imagery is obscured, and compositions oscillate between the Rorschachian and the linear.
Stephen Zaima does not spoon-feed narratives, nor does he fall into the contemporary trap of thoughtlessly amalgamating imagery into some ambiguous moat. In his work he captivates, he challenges, he provokes contemplation, and by so doing we fortunately engaged enjoy every ramble over the bridge.
Eric Gleason, May 2019