Dallas-based artist Jeff Zilm launches his first solo outing on British soil, courtesy of the London branch of the highly-thought-of Simon Lee Gallery in Berkeley Street. I took in the show and met the artist to gain an insight into just what makes the work, and the artist, tick. Zilm’s work is interesting on a number of counts; the titles, the self-professed cinematic format and accreted content. And not least, the very presence of the works themselves.
The ‘paintings’ are, in fact silver halide sensitised canvases, each of which contains and compounds the entire frame exposure content of a single emblematic movie, condensed into chiaroscuro to resemble impressionistic paintings. If this description seems a little dense, it’s because it is; the works themselves are proportioned in a largely cinematic aspect ratio (a kind of painterly widescreen), but are monochromatic, sparse and restrained in their delivery. Despite their much-researched filmic references, the works appear unromantic and un-expressionistic in any conventional sense. So I have said what they aren’t.
The works have the appearance of sooty, powdery silhouettes, the imagery fugitive and stuttering, giving the impression of graffito against what appears to be a multitude of slipped stencils. Though the canvases are photosensitised, exposed, developed and fixed, these are neither photographs nor photograms; I suppose the closest I could get to in terms of description is that they are some kind of ‘cinematogram’– if indeed such a word is applicable outside of the physical sciences.
I love the idea that the entire content, imagery and audio of a movie can be compressed onto a canvas in the same way that I love being able to store a gigabyte of music onto a sliver of memory card, but the big difference here lies in the retrieval of information. The information retrievable from Zilm’s canvases differs from that disclosed by the titles and from that vested in the movies by association. I was lucky enough to catch Mssr Zilm and ask him about this content/title relationship and was suitably reassured by his alertness, not only to the readings facilitated by the genres and titles, but also by his rather self-effacing grasp of the deftness and lightness of the images as things unto themselves.
In this respect, I actually don’t think that the sensibility of Jeff Zilm is so far away from Ad Reinhardt (‘Art as Art’) - even though the words and delivery methods may differ – the work is enough. We are also outside of Reinhardt’s era of course and this makes a big difference in terms of both audience and interpretation. I would argue that our expectations as viewers are so very different in century 21, and whilst we would all love to think that we are the super-enlightened children of post-postmodernity, the plain truth is that our predecessors of the 1960’s and 1970’s probably had to work a sight harder to wrest the means and the meaning of art from Modernism: More than we can even imagine.
From a personal perspective I found it refreshing that there was some interpretative work for me to do here to make sense of Zilm’s canvases and to square away the imagery, the extraordinary idea, and the visual outputs - especially as the productions aren't about making pictures or developing a linear narrative.
One very much gets the sense with Zilm that the artist’s brain is paddling like mad beneath the surface in order to conceptualise and process the work, but we are presented with a signature elegance that belies this.
This is a show of calm, of shadows and dancing light and it is well worth a visit.