In his fifth solo show at Galerie Nordenhake, John Zurier presents new paintings shaped by an intense engagement with traditional Chinese and Japanese painting and poetry. The inclusion of nature and perceptions of nature plays a key role in these classical genres. The way in which the seasons, for example, are linked to certain moods and their depiction can generate feelings similar to those experienced in nature itself.
The concept of “Level Distance” (pingyuan in Chinese) is one of three compositional principles that became established in Chinese painting during the eleventh century to generate atmosphere and distance. Over centuries, this principle was repeated, refined, and reinvented. In a painting with “level distance,” the gaze gradually wanders to a far-off point in the image. The way in which this takes place, in an either unobstructed or interrupted manner, could be an allusion to painting itself, to levels of abstraction, to the personality of the painter, or represent an implicit commentary on the political situation at the time of the painting’s creation. As the artist himself puts it, “The title is meant to suggest breadth, balance, stillness, and expansion, qualities that are important to my painting.”
Like Chinese landscape painting, Zurier’s works powerfully communicated an atmosphere that recalls natural phenomena, the memory of a certain light or color quality in a particular location at a certain moment, frequently linked to literary figures and poetry. The title of Track (Spring Evening) (2022) is taken from an eighteenth-century haiku by the Japanese painter and poet Yosa Buson.
The paintings play with depth and surface, the ephemeral and the concrete, the signified and the signifier. For example, in the tempera and oil-based painting The Waves (2000), the layers of paint were scraped away with a sharp knife to the raw canvas beneath. This work was created at his studio in Iceland during the late summer with a view of the mountains, fields, and the sea and with Virginia Woolf’s eponymous text in mind, where she reveals that the only constant is flow and change.
Several paintings in the exhibition are covered with luminous washes in subtle colors and shades that lend them an ethereal atmosphere. Others show a powerful brush stroke in intense, broken fields of pigment or vertical and horizontal lines that support one another, apparently divorced from the surface and thus alluding to a spatiality. In their directness and immediacy, the works usually seem to have been executed rather intuitively and quickly, but they actually emerge “in a balance of deliberation and spontaneity,” making time another element of the composition. The physical painting itself, its objecthood, and even more its content, is reduced to its essence, over days, sometimes years. Comparable to poetry, John Zurier’s painting is abstract, condensed sensation.