Drew Zimmerman: Artist StatementsA radical axiom of B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorism observes that consciousness is rather inconsequential, that is, not formative of action. We don’t guide our hand to draw the arch of an eye with “mentalisms,” verbal commands. Instead, the body conceives and acts independently of consciousness, which swims along in the wake of things while taking credit for everything.
I have found out the hard way that the average person has a fierce resistance to Skinner’s model of human behavior. (“Whaddya mean I didn’t tell myself to pour another cup of coffee?”) On the other hand, artists are particularly well-positioned to agree that the subject and style of their work comes from a non-verbal understanding of their materials, the incalculable muscle memories and ways of seeing and feeling that guide the hand to form the object.
My art comes from papiér mâché in very specific ways. I can mumble and futz around with the ideas that informed the conception of an individual relief-collage or marionette, but the work originates in my life-long exploration of paper strips and paste: what they can do, the myriad forms cataloged in the muscles and recognized in the eye. When we speak about the hand of the artist, the unique signature of his or her interaction with a medium, description is plainly the vain attempt to communicate with words a purely experiential phenomenon. The hand of the artist–that ineffable trace of an individual life interacting with the material–to me is the salient production of every work of art. The expression of the mysterious interior life of one being to another justifies the heartache and pure drudgery of accumulating thousands of torn pieces of paper on a cardboard ground. I don’t care about resemblances; every representation is fundamentally an abstraction, whether a figure is the subject or some exercise of pure color and brushwork. A work is recommended by the way it communicates the indelible and deeply personal interaction of the artist with the grist of creation. Nothing else matters.
Art is how we know, here was a life and this is how it was lived.
Since I began my career as a professional artist forty years ago, my interests have developed inevitably from concentrating on technical results--especially achieving a likeness of a human subject--to more abstract concerns. While artists of the 40s and 50s identified figure representation as superfluous to the strokes of the painter’s brush, the abstraction my mature work is hoping to attain has to do with the artistic impulse itself: what is art, what is an artist, and what is the purpose of it all?
Like the canvases of the Abstract Expressionists, my work developed as it has from the nature of my materials, strips of found paper, gleaned from newsprint or magazines and pasted to a cardboard understructure. In Atlas, which I showed in 2011 at Harrisburg’s Art of the State, I explicitly illustrate the process of pre-planning, projection, cutting, and collaging that goes into my work. I revealed every dirty, little secret of my unique process. Unlike the “art for art’s sake” ethic, my point was to say that sifting through the means of my creation actually reveals little about its meaning.
Which isn’t to say that I disregard the pleasure of constructing an evocative image out of recycled litter. The physical unlikelihood, the incongruity of making beautiful trash enthuses me. Collage by those 1920s masters or Romare Beardon pops and sizzles, but I find I am even more moved to create by the idea of appropriation and repurposing than the finished object itself, the paper and paste. For me, tearing newsprint ads into their ink components and slowly and deliberately arranging them on a flat surface in an Impressionistic juxtaposition of complementary shades is analogous to the way my consciousness was formed. My process recalls the mystery of the accumulation of identity and memory, and the tension between whatever the heck is “out there” and my persistent, intangible perspective in the whirlwind of it.
Thoughts are not things. Alas! they are not. Every painting is in a sense an abstraction, and appearance and likeness are illusory. What is real for me, my inner life, never becomes concrete within a frame; I can only whisper the rumor of my private existence. My skill falls short of expressing what it is to be me. I admit this without bitterness. Still, since I am convinced that everyone, artist or not, crawls upon the crust of the planet under the weight of having a voice that can’t be heard, I am fascinated by the paradoxical optimism of Art.
Regardez vous the great names of Art History, their movements and ages, their cocky manifestos! How they declared themselves and how they were acclaimed for their vision at the apex of Progress! As Dr. Seuss remarked, “To think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.” In my piece The Ruth Kligman Story, which I showed at Art of the State in 2015, I glorified Jackson Pollock’s and Willem de Kooning’s mistress because the sad and sordid details of an alcoholic’s self-obliteration are eventually more accessible to us than the impenetrable mysteries of Autumn Rhythm, Number 30 or Excavation. Recently, my work Eugéne Delacroix Gives Birth to the Romantic Movement in Painting wryly exalts the exact kind of allegorical, meaning-ladened art that subsequent Impresssionist and abstract painters decried.
My intention has never been to condemn any of art’s historic pretenses; alternately, I hope to convey with humility and humor my own enthusiasm for the indelible courage of art to realize that which may not be expressed, our private human being trapped in a carcass of babble and sensation. But that’s just me.
An explanation of the content of my paper mâché pieces must include the phrase “When I was a kid” regularly, since often my work brings to life weird artifacts of memory. Why I should retain vivid recollections of advertisements I read in comic books when I was eight and absolutely nothing from several years of French language instruction is a great mystery to me. I think art is improved when it includes mystery.
When I was a kid, my most advanced reading was Mad magazine, which constantly used language and concepts I had never before encountered. In a parody of the television show Lost in Space, Mad described the worst dangers a stranded Space Age family could run into on an uncharted planet as the threat of tripping over one of the paper mâché sets. I had to grab my family’s dictionary to see what that meant.
I quickly realized that one could use cheap, fast, and lightweight paper mâché to imitate other materials such as rock, metal, flesh, or wood. For me, paper and glue always held an element of fakery and even a hint of comedy. When I build up a volume in strips of newsprint or model a likeness in paper pulp, I never stop thinking of the comical imitation that's at the heart of the material. My pieces are all satirical versions of some original, like those favorite spoofs in the Mad parodies I enjoyed when I was a pre-teen.
The latent spoofery in Atlas, I hope, dissuades the viewer from accepting it as a “how-to” lesson in building a collage relief. For one thing, the form of this ultra large comic strip mocks an ad that was published adjacent to typical kid-lit of the mid-1960s, an ad for Charles Atlas’ muscle-building program. Under a heading that said, “The insult that made a man out of Mike” was the story of a 98-pound weakling who turns the tables on a beach bully. In my version, art, not weights and vitamins, is the transformative secret.
The other thing going on in Atlas is my belief that I can reveal every secret of the physical process that goes into making my art without leading the viewer very close to copying what I have done. The unique arrangement of my interior life, filled with pop references and my personal iconography, shapes my work individually much more than Exacto blades and the focus knob on my projector.
The constant noise in the background of my trivia-packed brain is represented in finished work as the jumble of letters and headings strewn over its colored, top layer. Letters and bits of wording drift over the skin of my paper mâché as on the surface of a bowl of alphabet soup. I am always aware of the junk in my consciousness and how the environment of my quirky internal dialogue influences my public choices.
In my most recent work, Rübus, I crafted a Rube Goldberg sequence of mock causes and effects, and I made that narrative literally apparent in the composition of the work. Beneath the causal reality is a secret meaning, a rebus of phonemes spelling out a relevant theme, but that Gnostic truth has such a tricky idiosyncrasy, I am doubtful anyone can solve it without my leaving abundant clues. Like the mocking how-to instructions in Atlas or the jumble of words in my hidden consciousness, the physical availability of meaning isn’t the same as accessibility to reason. Rübus’ references to the Black Dahlia murder mystery, the miracle of Lourdes, and the inscrutability of whales underscore the point.
Far from being a boon to understanding the processes of existence, our consciousness, with its ultra subjective perspective and awkward conduit between private and public expression, creates isolation and error. I hope that's evident in my piece Suitcase Flying Open, which represents the moment when the interior life of the mind is exposed. Imagine wearing a hard and thick casing, custom-built to fit exactly, which contains your inner selfhood and what would happen if it suddenly cracked open, revealing all. My sculpture shows the jumble of words of which that interior is formed but they are unreadable. An outsider wouldn’t understand it even if it were shown to him.
That paper mâché recycles newsprint and cardboard for new purposes ought to inform a discussion of my work. I rescue the advertising and packaging of culture from the trash and, through a labor-intensive process, mutate it into art. Atlas reuses the form of an ubiquitous ad from 60s comic books; Grit and Will Sea Monkeys Become Our Masters? do the same. Many were the minutes my childhood self spent ogling the ad for Grit that promised heady consumer pleasures just for selling the rural newssheet that real boys assured me "practically sold itself!" My art work attempts to crystallize the very moment I fell under the spell of the American Dream.
Likewise, Sea Monkeys asks the viewer to recall a moment in advertising when a whole world of cotton-candy delights was offered up to kids in return for practically nothing: Just add water! I attempt to satirize in my paper mâché art the psychic underpinnings of the pop culture that was sold to me in my youth. I have no way of knowing whether the consumers of my work appreciate the expression of a knowing point-of-view or if they are themselves churned into the mixer, the better to sort it all out in the next cycle.