Objects and Poetics // A Conversation with Eric Zimmerman

December 13, 2013 · Print This Article


Eric Zimmerman is an interdisiciplinary artist with an interest in the successes and failures of American history. His subjects have varied from Clint Eastwood and Spaghetti Westerns, the Apollo 11 lunar landing, and George Eastman of the Kodak Company—all done with excruciating detail in drawings, sculptures, didactic installations, sound pieces, and more.

The most fascinating part of Zimmerman’s practice is the research involved within the making of sometimes six-month long drawings or three-hour collages. He often presents artwork like pieces of evidence, making a visual map to help the viewer see many facets of an event that may or may not have actually happened.

He currently lives in Houston, Texas and is represented by Art Palace Gallery.

Telltale Ashes & Endless Disharmony exhibition at Art Palace Gallery, 2012.

Telltale Ashes & Endless Disharmony exhibition at Art Palace Gallery, 2012.


You’ve mentioned the “poetic connections” that often occur in your work — can you explain how that started for you and how you’ve used/been influenced by poetry to inform your studio practice?

I’m not sure if I can pinpoint that exactly, though on some level its likely something that has always been present in my work. I’ve always maintained an interest in reading poetry and thinking about the way in which language and text imparts an idea in contrast to visual images and objects. Poetry is a way for me to complicate and undermine some of the conceptual coldness in my work. I want there to be that emotional resonance/dissonance that poetry does so well.

Poetry is one of the last vestiges of radicalism left in the world and I’ve found myself thinking more and more about how, as a set of working parameters, it might be useful in the studio and when putting together an exhibition. Useful in its uselessness, and I mean that in the best possible way. Outside of the zine ‘West of the Hudson’, which is a collection of actual poems, it’s thinking through this general notion of the poetic that I find myself coming back to most often in the studio.

There is a play on lapsed mythologies and time in your work, but also masculinity as a reoccurring role in history. How do you arc the three things together, or do you feel that they play a very separate part in your work?

Time is something I think about very specifically, in terms of the deliberate speed of production and the ideas that center around history. Mythology tends to enter into the work more organically. Mythologies of the American west, violence, art history, Western capitalism and specific historical figures have each played a part in my work over the past few years. They become linked through the accumulation of evidence (objects, sounds, images, texts, etc.) surrounding a particular event or figure and the broader goals for a particular piece or exhibition. The masculinity aspect is a less conscious choice and comes out of my thinking about the pairing in human history between success and progress with failure and destruction. Men happen to be responsible for a lot of our failings as a species and play central roles in the portions of history I’ve been interested in thus far.


We Chose To Go To The Moon (exhibition), at Austin Museum of Art (2010)

We Chose To Go To The Moon (exhibition), at Austin Museum of Art (2010)


Your drawings are based off of iconic imagery or snapshot photography, and are painstakingly photo realistic. The Clint Eastwood piece comes to mind specifically. What is your intention behind working with appropriation but by switching mediums to appropriate? How does snapshot photography influence your work?

This goes back to the notion of time and evidence. When I was just starting to make drawings of actual things I wanted to deliberately slow the process down, as a way to really process the source material and as a response to digital speed. I wanted to let images from a variety of time periods operate on a level playing field and drawing was a way to neutralize the sense of time inherent in photographs. The photographic image, as a form of documentary evidence, is important to me but I care less about the actual photograph itself. The drawn illusion, or photo-realism, is a product of that thinking. It’s a means to get the kind of images I want. Again, I think the avalanche of photographic images, and snap-shots, is unavoidable so it’s interesting for me to think about how ‘art’ pictures fit into that equation. Drawing is a really stupid way to make a photographic image when we’ve got so much technology everywhere, but its attractive to me for that reason, which maybe gets us back to this idea of poetry and uselessness. Maybe photography and the photograph are just too damn useful; I haven’t figured that one out yet.

Eric Zimmerman, image of Fidel Castro from a National Geographic thumbnail, 2013

Eric Zimmerman, image of Fidel Castro from a National Geographic thumbnail, 2013


In your most recent exhibition, you placed a bobcat skull and a feather as lone objects. They almost seem to me like pauses between your didactic and installation work that can be text-heavy or referential. How did you feel about making a sculptural piece that was seemingly less about craft and more about the relationship to origin/context?

It was a fairly natural progression for me. In some ways it was an inevitability that came directly out of the zines, posters, sound pieces and sculptural objects. These were all pieces that took source materials and plugged them into new contexts that established alternative reference points and often-nonsensical narratives. In thinking about the exhibition as an entire piece, the feather and skull (along with the selenite and petrified wood) were about injecting this notion of physical fact, or proof, up against the drawings, collages, and other works that are far less matter of fact.

At the same time these objects contain a sort of poetry that attracted me to them. I like this notion of these scientific-esque specimens that are reactivated and made poetic through context and their place amongst the other works. They become evidence of something else other than their materiality and origins. They’re symbols for old geologic time, flight, life cycles and decay, which suggest a sense of duality and transformation between their original and current states.


West of the Hudson (exhibition), Texas State University, 2013

West of the Hudson (exhibition), Texas State University, 2013


I’m interested in your sense of presentation that seems to be intrinsic to the authenticity, or lack there, of an object. [i.e. the Apollo moon landing exhibition]  Do you begin knowing how you want to show it, or does that not factor in until later?  

I typically have a good sense of how I want a particular object to be displayed from the outset. It comes down to thinking about typical museum display strategies; the way they present objects, the context of the institution, etc. and then consciously working to undermine the authority of those devices and the purported ‘truth’ contained therein. The zines and posters came about from thinking directly about the sense of power and hierarchy inherent in didactics and gallery guides; those things that tell us that there is a right and wrong way to understand art objects, that viewers need to be ‘educated.’ But it’s also about this idea of accumulation and placing things in proximity to one another. I do this in-order to set up different propositions between the pieces in order to question the narratives and authenticity that is built into every image and object. Lately I’ve been trying to broaden the web of references and potential resolutions offered by a group of works. Productive confusion comes to mind.


There is a lot more to your work, like geometry, collage and archiving—all practices that have deep methodologies by themselves. Is that something that comes to the foreground within your process, or something you directly avoid?

Collage and the archive are things I’m always thinking about. The notion of the archive sent me down my current path and I used to literally keep all these research binders on given topics, a sort of mini-archive, but it became really tedious and constricting so I threw them all away. Really, who cares about what I’m looking up when I go to the library, it’s what emerges from that process that is most important. I’ve become less interested in the literal notion of an archive and the broader ideas they suggest: selection, rejection, context, subjectivity, multiplicity, accumulation, etc. Archives are collages in a way so I’ve been thinking about that too recently. Practically in how I set up an exhibition, how pieces are displayed and relate to one another and theoretically as a way to think about different types of knowledge and our relentless desire to understand the world.


West of the Hudson (exhibition), Texas State University, 2013

“By Your Powers Combined” at Marwen Gallery

September 20, 2010 · Print This Article

There are so many shows opening this month I can barely keep up (watch for my roundup of Chicago’s Fall openings on our next “Center Field” post over at art:21 blog next week) – for this reason, I wanted to draw this little exhibition to your attention, ’cause it’s the modest type that could get lost in the crowded field of Big Fall Shows. And it shouldn’t. The show can be found in the upstairs gallery space at Marwen, an art center in the River North area of Chicago whose mission is to educate and inspire under-served young people through the visual arts. I’d never had the opportunity to visit before, but when I did I was immediately hit with that groovy, good-feeling vibe that you get from a place that’s buzzing with human creativity.  If you haven’t dropped in before, you should! At any rate, I was there to see “By Your Powers Combined,” an exhibition curated by Austin-based artist, writer, curator, and educator Salvador Castillo (a Marwen alum). It’s a  group show of six artists, most hailing from Austin, Texas, brought together under a theme that loosely revolves around the elemental forces of earth, fire, wind, water and (kind of extraneous but still a nice touch) “heart.”

Castillo’s catalogue essay cheerfully acknowledges that his original idea for “a landscape show” turned into something deeper, more personal, and more complex.

“Each artist was chosen for their representation of the five elements that when combined, created the titular character of the early ’90s cartoon, Captain Planet and the Planeteers … every artist counterbalances the real or physical landscape with one that is imagined or perceived.”

Jared Steffensen, Hilltop Trail, 2010

Salt Lake City, UT artist Jared Steffensen makes shoes that wear the earth they usually walk on. They are whimsical and melancholy and in a peculiar way that I can’t quite describe, felt like the most solidly “real” objects in this show. I’d like to see images of these shoes worn on an actual person’s feet. In contrast are Austin-based artist William Hundley’s dreamlike “Clouds”, 2010, a mixed media installation in which discarded street trash appears suspended in the center of the gallery hallway. Castillo’s essay describes Hundley’s related series of photographs, which incorporate sculptures like this one and can be found on the artist’s Flickr page, as “a dazzling magic trick. Colorful sheets of fabric ominously float against a complimentary background. The skeptical jump to conclusions and accuse Photoshop as the true artist.”

William Hundley, Clouds, 2010.

One of my favorite pieces in the show was Roberto Bellini‘s (no, not that Roberto Bellini) one channel-video piece titled  Teoria de Paisagem.

Roberto Bellini, Teoria da Paisagem (Landscape Theory), 2005.

The video consists of an exchange between the artist and a security guard (both of whom remain off-screen throughout the piece).  Bellini wants to film a flock of birds in the sky at sunset – a fairly traditional landscape shot that he finds personally moving, and wants to capture. The security guard–a guy who’s basically just trying to do his job–attempts to dissuade Bellini from filming near the area he’s been hired to police. The tense conversational dance that ensues as each man tries to “claim” the landscape as they see it is priceless.

Eric Zimmerman, Rotating City, Left,(for Heather & Andrew) 2006. [not in exhibition].

Austin-based Eric Zimmerman‘s lovely ink, marker, and graphite drawings from 2006 evoke depict landscape as dream, ghostly possession, and fantasy all at once. (You can see some of Zimmerman’s recent works here). Margaret Meehan‘s gouache and pencil drawings on card recall antique cartes postales and Victorian-era calling cards, yet the freakish alterations made to the faces of the plump infants pictured in these images undercut the sentimentality of their original purposes.

Margaret Meehan. Charlotte, 2008.

Finally, representing “Fire,” Erick Michaud, another Austin-based artist, burns intricately drawn narratives into wooden sculptures that are a cross between spirit stick, scythe, and cant hook (their most direct correlation).

Erick Michaud. Apocalypse, 2009.

Michaud grew up in a small paper mill town near the US-Canadian border, where knowing how to use a cant hook came in handy. As the paper economy went south, so did the town’s economic livelihood. As Castillo’s essay notes, “the tool of the industry, transformed into the Reaper’s scythe, is now an artifact recounting the tale in metaphorical imagery.”

Erick Michaud, Apocalypse, 2009. Detail.

“By Your Powers Combined” is on view at Marwen’s Untitled Gallery through October 15, 2010. Do make some time to check it out!