The National Arts Club | May 2 – 28, 2016
Joe Zucker has avoided the limitations of working in a cohesive style, instead embracing logic to produce diverse bodies of work that seek to unite subject, technique, material, and support. From his cotton-ball paintings depicting the ills of slavery with the very commodity that fueled the trade in human flesh to his lake paintings, the result of paint being poured and hardening in a shallow container to create monochrome works about their own creation, Zucker constantly intertwines art history with practical craft, logic, and wit. Much has been written about this formal and conceptual balancing act, but relatively little attention has been paid to Zucker’s subject matter in itself. Armada, the recent retrospective of his works on paper and studies from the 1970s to the present that feature nautical themes curated by James Panero offers an opportunity to consider a specific topic that has proven particularly fruitful to Zucker over the decades: piracy.
“Piracy,” Zucker claims, “is a metaphor for appropriation.” Often having to build and repair their own ships and equipment, pirates were essentially assemblage artists, using whatever was handy. Furthermore, life on the high seas brought together individuals from around the world that spoke different languages, requiring a uniform symbology of the sea that transcended national origin (hence the familiar Jolly Roger). Pirates tended to inhabit a moral gray zone, sometimes pillaging for personal gain, other times acting as sea-bound Robin Hoods, reclaiming resources from wealthy colonial empires. Seafaring piracy persists today; the term has also evolved to describe the act of illegally recording and sharing content online. By focusing on the history of piracy, the artist is also linking his work to the present.
A number of works in Armada look like illustrations from Treasure Island, glorifying the adventurous lifestyle of piracy. One such work, Pirates dividing treasure on Skull Island while their vessels ride at anchor in the roadstead (1978), executed in felt-tip marker on paper, inhabits a space between figuration and abstraction; the lines of the ships, sea, and shore blend together to capture the tremendous energy and movement of the scene. The title of the work is written below the image like an illustration caption, decoding the tangle of lines and colors. This work reveals Zucker’s affinity for the drawings of William Wegman, who intertwined language and line work. Zucker says of Wegman: “He makes you question whether the works are poems or drawings. Should they be on the desk or the wall?” Conflating the underlying structures of art and language—line and grapheme—Zucker strives to show how the construction of knowledge, whether transmitted through text in a history or piece of fiction or communicated with images by a painting, is complex like the very unstable symbol of the pirate. Captain Kidd is one legendary figure that reflects this instability.
One of the largest works in the show is Final Study Captain Kidd Hanging from the Gibbet (1986), which depicts Kidd hanging from the gibbet after he was executed for supposed piracy, although his mission to capture French ships as a privateer was funded by the King of England and other noblemen. Whatever the truth behind Kidd’s status as either outlaw or government sanctioned privateer, the myths surrounding him have far surpassed any historical truth. Zucker’s visual treatment of Kidd shows how a man can become an abstracted symbol for something greater than himself. With a few simple lines atop a grid, Zucker gives us just enough visual information to make out a man hanging with a parrot by his side. Presented with the most basic information, viewers can come to their own conclusions about Kidd.
While Armada does an excellent job of capturing Zucker’s relationship to the nautical theme, the show would have benefited from either narrowing or expanding its focus, including only works about piracy or alternatively more works that capture Zucker’s relationship with water (beyond the few drawings of canoes and lakes that were included in Armada). Regardless, the exhibition is an excellent starting point to begin a more thorough exploration of the artist’s interest in how large bodies of water play a major role in human culture and how protean (a word which notably derives from the name of a Greek sea god) our knowledge about this topic is.