Tim Zuck, Boat at Anchor, 1980
Tim Zuck—Paintings (review), ArtsAtlantic, 11, 1981
Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, Halifax. 13 March–5 April 1981
Tim Zuck’s paintings recently on exhibition at the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery are interesting and intelligent works. Therefore I wonder at the necessity of the tediously extended description of Zuck’s years of experimentation with conceptualism and systems art which occupies a major portion of the exhibition catalogue. The junky critical apologetics found in the essays in both the Glenbow Museum and the 1977 Art Gallery of Nova Scotia catalogues give me the uneasy feeling that the authors think that this work, which at first glance appears rather conservative, needs to be made respectable through its conceptual and systemic art pedigree—a kind of official certification or Good Housekeeping seal of approval reassuring us that the art really does conform to certain acceptable avant-garde standards.
By placing so much importance on Zuck’s immature work, and downplaying the significance of his returning to more traditional methods of expression, these essays miss the point and do the artist a disservice. Since Zuck was a student until 1972, his work until that date was most likely in the nature of classroom projects, and if this activity has significance now it is that he served this apprenticeship while both a student and a faculty member at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where prevailing critical theories have always threatened to limit aesthetic possibilities and options. That he came through this kind of Wonderland-like obstacle course holding the paint brush by the handle and not the bristles is performance art on a grand scale. This was high-risk activity that, ironically, has strengthened his commitment to construct a personal system of aesthetic concerns. This he has managed to do with compelling stubborn confidence, and the result is an art of deceptively naïve or childlike appearance.
I think it would not be a mistake to identify Zuck’s style with this deception, which operates on a number of levels, and from the moment I entered the gallery and saw the rigid formality of the installation it was evident that this was a very sophisticated exhibition of very sophisticated art. The first impression was one of repetition, uniformity, and bleak marshalling of spaces. This prim redundancy, which is the essential look (or one of them) of systems art, made a strong impact. All 31 paintings are square, except for a triptych of identical trapezoids. They are also delightfully small (about 60 x 60 cm.) and they are hung chronologically. The second impression was that each painting is a little picture in the “old-fashioned” sense, and except for the first two works, which are minimal, non-objective abstractions that become irritating in their need for verbal explication, they make complete and satisfying statements of varying aesthetic complexities.
With very limited visual means, Zuck has managed to impart considerable information. His imagery, which I am tempted to call referential, is made up of the most elementary cartoonist versions of fishing boars, sky, sea, clouds, targets, houses, trees, horizons, guy-wires, throw-lines, and a few mysterious and ambiguous shapes which might be real objects but certainly not familiar ones. The colours, which are subdued, stylish, and cerebral, are predominantly blue-greys, soft lavenders, muddy pinks and maroons, with the occasional dark green, black, or red-orange accents. No serious attention is paid to light or atmosphere, although occasionally the colour of a sky area does imply a specific time of day. Throughout most of the work a heavy white outline, which is actually bare canvas, functions both as an abstract statement and as a device for framing and defining the imagery.
There are two aspects of Zuck’s work which I find interesting. The first one is the way in which the choice and employment of both visual elements and conceptual content seem automatically to fall into an information structure made up of opposing components and conditions. These paintings invite interpretation by comparison of, or calling attention to, pairs of opposites or either/or situations. Among them are colour vs. black and white, local colour vs. autonomous colour, painterly surface vs. bare canvas, diagram vs. realism, geometric vs. organic form, ambiguous referentiality vs. logic, cartoon vs. naturalism, agoraphobic space vs. small contained regular format, elegance vs. crudity, naivety vs. sophistication, banality vs. originality, and so on and on. As an additional pair of characteristics for comparison, just as these paintings invite interpretation they also reject it altogether.
The second and more meaningful component of Zuck’s painting that attracts me is the manner in which his imagery is rapidly assuming allegorical content. The innocent cartoonist abstraction which dominates the earlier works gives way fairly quickly to the dead-pan diagramming of rudimentary land and marine imagery. The resulting ideographic language is surprisingly versatile, and Zuck isn’t afraid to tell a little story at times; especially if it has a spark of wit, such as in one I particularly like where a fishing boat is towing a barge upon which a huge abstract painting stands like a war-time navy target. Having had one’s cortex scrubbed and scoured so often and so long with minimalist and other abrasive theories, it is refreshing to experience the literary being smuggled back into painting. Zuck does it gently and humorously as he fleshes out his diagrams a little more in each consecutive painting with his own brand of unspecific narrative.
In Boat at Anchor, the most recent and very fine painting in the exhibition, Zuck has discarded, significantly for the first time, all his by now familiar non-referential elements of artifice and given nature a toe-hold on his imagery. The horizon and the line where the water meets the land—whether shore-line or sea bottom—have become fully realized naturalistic contours rather than hard-edge geometric elements. The fishing boat no longer has the artificial white outline around it, and this linear device has been straightened out and transformed into an anchor line. Also the colours allude to the natural, dull but luminous marine atmosphere which we see so much of in Nova Scotia.
In his move away from the games-playing of systems art and the self-aggrandizings of conceptualism, Zuck also moves away from the solipsism of the contemporary art establishment. He has become his own man, and his paintings now look like the work of someone to whom something other than art has happened. He is developing a strong unfettered visual style, and this exhibition is an important document of a young artist having to run backwards to keep his eye on the pitfalls of the past, but at the same time gaining the invaluable knowledge of hindsight.