Un- is the sketchbook I kept my senior year of college while a student at CCAD. It dates from 10.5.96-1.5.97. I was 21 at the time and working on my senior thesis paper and exhibition (Most of the paintings on this page were shown in that exhibition and the thesis paper is published below.) It is presented here because it is a more personal and in depth look at what I was thinking than my thesis paper which was rushed and subject to harsh critique and editing by my professors at the time. It was passed around amongst my close circle of friends for years before ending up back in my hands so that it could be presented here.
Senior Thesis Paper submitted to the BFA Fine Art thesis committee for critique with my senior thesis show spring of 1997 at The Columbus College of Art and Design:
My mind has been challenged and my thinking expanded in many good ways by my education at CCAD. But I find that I am often drowning in an ocean of thought and information that seems incomprehensible to me due to its sheer immensity. I believe this is a result of an unsound grounding in historical and philosophical issues. I find myself getting caught in dilettantish ways that lead to poor scholarship. As a result of my realizations and the desire to move past those problems my work has been a process of finding what fits and is meaningful.
Painting “fills in the cracks” so to speak and illuminates mental trajectories. Sometimes painting is an intensely romantic and spiritual activity for me while other times it seems all I can do is goof off. I get wrapped up in a meditative and contemplative search for understanding and enlightenment that is usually abandoned in a rebellious need for a lack of seriousness.
When battles between confused and off kilter aspects of my thinking won’t let me get a hold on anything, I doubt myself and my ability to handle the challenge of painting. It makes me not put as much into my work as I feel I need. The uncertainty I face also makes me feel like I never really look within correctly or deeply enough, or do I look so deep that I just miss the point? I don’t know. Self-doubt makes me nervous, scared and distracted, so I give up. I fall to absurd frenzy, a lack of control and chaos to claw out of the pits I create for myself. A desperate and aloof sense of humor and whimsy takes over when I fall short.
I feel as though my paintings are views of an inner ocean of illogical, dialectic thought. The mental activities I seek to document are dictated to me by the feelings that are aroused by the things that I read, the music I listen to, the teachers I take criticism from, the contact I have with peers and friends and the environment in which I live. Artists I admire and admit being influenced by include Cy Twombly (for the beauty and simplicity of his marks), Jean Michel Basquiat (for his crude cartoon color and shapes), Philip Guston (predominantly because of the willful simplicity and comical sinisterness of his late work), Robert Motherwell (more for his writing than his paintings), Richard Diebenkorn (for his use of geometry in space) and Joan Miro (for his childlike attitude). I am influenced further by the writings of Robert Anton Wilson, Hakim Bey, Ivan Stang and The Church of the SubGenius, Baudrillard, e.e. cummings, Joseph Campbell and anything on eastern philosophy.
When reading I am interested more in the effect that nuances of language have on my sensibilities and emotions. Rather than any specific discussion or intellectual discourse, I am involved in what is stirred up within myself and how I react to it. The same can be said of the music from which I draw inspiration.
I listen to a broad range of music but am particularly drawn to the stylings of They Might Be Giants, Fugazi, Mr. Bungle, Faith No More, John Zorn, NegativLand, The Poo Syndicate, David Byrne and The Talking Heads and Japanese noise band Boredoms. Anyone familiar with those musicians and groups I think can recognize the metaphorical and structural similarities between my work and theirs. This is because I sometimes physically emulate the sounds I hear when I paint. A loose visual translation is the result.
I wonder though if I am nothing but a medium for the influences with which I come in contact. When do I stop being a painter of my inner workings and start being merely a copycat of the things I am influenced by? I must ask, is that a problem in our present era of simulacra and appropriation or just a matter of proper evaluation, defiance and control?
With a lack of control being a large part of my approach to painting, often I am at a loss for how to describe the processes involved in what I do. Robert Motherwell wrote, “The act of painting … is an effort, often clumsy and sometimes desperate, like a blind swimmer, to cover the abyss, the void that the world sometimes presents, with our love, with our sensuality and passion, our sense of commitment to a mode of expression that becomes ideal … ” At times my “mode of expression” becomes a cycle characterized by an action followed by a reaction that leads to contemplation which often leads to sabotage or another action. The “snowball effect” that that cycle creates guides my paintings’ evolutions and revolutions.
This is Cageian indeterminism and variations on psychic automatism. I am tinkering with Taoist and anarchist ideas to understand the incomprehensible and paradoxical nature of being to be sure. This work is Neo/Pseudo-Dada escapist tactics. I am reacting against the ordered structures of logic and reason within myself and others. In the end is this just nonobjective, modernist abstraction and not a whole lot else? Probably. But I try not to define where my work falls because it ceases to be what I say once I pin it to definitions.
Lately my line of thinking has led me to see how much I can make happen on the picture plane by using as many elements as I can at once.
Cy Twombly wrote, “To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation or release; and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state, but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse, or in the process of painting run a gamut of states.”
I have been trying to make paintings that “run a gamut of states” by finding harmony and relativity in as many different visual and conceptual issues as possible, all along regarding an underlying sense of balance as important. What often results seems like chaos. This is probably because I play off chance occurrences just as much as I do conscious decisions. Tinkering with paint application and brush stroke variation as well as using oil bars, craft paints, sign enamels, pencils, markers, ink pens, magazine photographs, canvas stitching, duct and masking tapes and an occasional split or hole in the canvas, I try to create as many visual/textural relationships and phenomenon as I can. As a result, I have difficulty verbally describing most of the things going on in my work. There are probably things going on in my paintings I am not aware of.
I have been working with the idea of setting up a frenzied field of activity with various “stabilizers” that confuse and solidify an underlying current that moves horizontally across the picture plane. I play with illusory space and a recognition of the surface using value and color intensity coupled with low relief collage and textured paint. In “Wagwibble” muted tones and less intense contrasts in the bottom left of the painting as well as in the upper right seem to fall back in space while the brilliant neons and primary colors push forward in a manner reminiscent of Hoffman’s “push/pull” idea. Small bits of photo collage and duct tape which sit on the surface and stitching which comes from the foundation up push even further forward because of their tactility. The blocks of pure color around the edges in “Wagwibble” also serve the function of being enclosing and controlling elements. These elements which appear in most all my work, I teel temper the chaotic activity they surround In the upper middle toward the left the flesh tones, substructures, linear squigglings and muted tones are kept from “misbehaving” too much by the purple, yellow and orange structure in the corner. The appendage-like green arrow directs the eye toward the linear activity that moves horizontally in the lower middle part of the painting. The graffiti-like lineage serves as an anchoring element. The arrows that point outward on each side of the line activity imply outward expansion. The expansion is then tempered by the large blocks of color that surround it.
The graffiti lines have become a more important part of my paintings lately. I feel as though they reference some kind of abstract calligraphic writing and maybe speak to a vague interpretation of a stream of consciousness or maybe they are the variations of sensation given off by a line of poetry, a passage of text or perhaps a mimicry of the undulations, syncopations, and variations of a guitar solo in a song.
In “Peruvia-3PO”, the line work is less resolved. I feel it comes from the left moves toward the center, breaks up and comes back together as more solid shapes on the right. Yellow appears in blocks around the edges. I feel it coordinates a connect the dot circular relationship that encloses the horizontal current.
Diagonal interweaving of streaks of the primary triad in “Wagwibble” along with groupings of perforated lines and arrows weave in and out to create top to bottom and side to side sub movements. The same phenomenon occurs in “Peruvia-3PO” with the black arrow toward the center and the pink and orange lines placed here and there in the painting.
My painting activity is frequently based on color manipulation. I use color metaphorically to reference feelings and symbology as well as to point out relationships. In “Hate=Fear”, I use a predominantly red and black palette to speak about the relationship of hatred to fear. In “Mango HeHar”, I use a largely yellow palette to point out madness and laughter. I often juxtapose complements to bring power to the color in focus. Flesh tones speak about sexual activity, black when not used for line is an absorptive oppressive presence, blue references water and tranquility, purple is anguish and despair, orange hums, green smiles, yellow laughs, and red screams.
Never one for subtleties, I have always used pure and vibrant color. As an extension of my preferences, lately I have been enamored by neons. I think I use them to communicate a sense of obnoxiousness and annoyance. Colors like “Orange Glow” and “Cerise” just seem to stick their proverbial tongue out at me. They make me giggle too. I feel the simple colors I use end up communicating feelings that are carnivallike, absurd and hyperbolic but at the same time agitated and sinister.
I think my “Live-ons” are more physical documentations of the obtuse, imprecise, enunciable battles and the rebellion against those battles that my thinking and therefore my other paintings often become. They are also evidence of the mental struggles brought on by the demand for questioning the motivations behind my main body of paintings that senior thesis class has made me do. I find such honest, profound beauty in the accumulation of splatters and dried pools of paint, the scribbles and pen marks, the notes of revelations I come to in the middle of a painting frenzy, and the scuffled dirt and dusty smears left by my activity at the other canvases.
By putting a piece of gessoed canvas under the area where I paint and living on it for a while, I am forced to confront the sheer reality of my situation as a painter. When I get lost in my identification with the act of painting as some deep inner struggle, the “Live-ons” say in rather zen-like fashion, “You are here, and this is what you are really doing so quit worrying about it”.
Maybe they address the issue that the things I attempt to illuminate exist only because I paint. Maybe the “Live-ons” expose and, in part, satisfy my sometimes desperate need to have a place inside as well outside of myself that I can rest on and take comfort in when doubt, uncertainty and fear overwhelm me.
Questions and battles rage so that I stay on my toes but my will to understand is sometimes defeated by a deficiency of vision, consciousness and desire brought on by a disregard for control and certainty. As a result, the balances I seek often end up being agitated, uncomfortable and seemingly foolish.
Most of the time I feel like I am clumsily falling in many directions trying to get a grasp on something. I probably need to button things down more and quit being so hyperbolic, but I am afraid something mechanistic will result. I feel as though uncertainty and the drive toward disorder are vital to my being alive to the painting experience. It makes me crazy most of the time though because I do not want to fall apart through the processes of experimentation but at the same time do not want to be a robot spitting out the same painting repeatedly.
It is important to understand that my work and thinking are in a state of constant flux. My paintings float around ideas about chaos, illogical dialectic structures of thought, streams of consciousness, color metaphors and romantic inner struggles with uncertainty, doubt and fear sometimes brought on by dilettantish scholarship. As a result, right now my paintings are mostly about change and growth. Hence, I do not expect that this paper will be any sort of conclusive statement; that would be simply impossible.
Sol Lewitt wrote, “The artist may not necessarily understand his own art. His perception is neither better nor worse than that of others.” Considering that, my efforts in this paper are as legitimate an attempt as is presently possible at understanding a body of work and a sea of thought that I have only begun to come in contact with.
The Painting of Aaron Zimmerman
This is a paper written for Dennis Drummond’s Senior Painting Class in response to an assignment to write about a fellow classmate’s work.
By Michael Walker
October, 9th 1996.
Play and work are often considered opposites, with play being trivialized or abandoned altogether and work viewed as an arduous necessity. But to Aaron Zimmerman play is vital. “The most important aspect of my work is play.” (quote by Zimmerman in first interview 10/1/96)
Aaron Zimmerman makes charged marks and dashed areas of highly saturated color on canvas, panel, and paper. He works primarily in watercolor and on a larger scale in oils; both modes include the use of every-day household materials: various pens, colored pencils, safety pins and rubber bands are involved.
Aesthetically Aaron is most notably indebted to the scrawled mark- making and enigmatic writing of Cy Twombly; both painters investigate and hint through the process of automatic writing and image making. There is a child-like quality and playfulness to the approach of both artists as they deal with intellectual, emotional, profound and elusive matters.
Zimmerman’s paintings are intuitive, largely non-objective images with writing, often made-up words and phrases that superficially resemble the graffiti in a public lavatory. Zimmerman’s paintings are investigations of primordial chaos and its limitless possibilities and ultimate nothingness. They speak of frustration/transcendence, paradox/equilibrium, of a humor and liberting playfulnessborn from the “eternal questioning that leads to insanity that happens when I’m on acid.” (quote by Zimmerman in first interview from 10/1/96.)
Like Twombly, Zimmerman is influenced by Miro’s automatic surrealism and the playful, childlike quality in the work of Paul Klee. Aaron is also influenced by the writings of ontological anarchist and chaos theorist Hakim Bey. Though interested in anarchism he feels that it is in the best interest of the artist to remain an unaligned observer. Though his politics definitely skew to the left he is concerned with balance and “maintaining an even keel,” including and accepting the counterpoint to every statement.
Though Aaron’s work looks frenzied at times and there is a sense of exasperation in his experience with art, he approaches his current work in a somewhat detached manner, appreciating every aspect of the ride so to speak. Likewise, Cy Twombly is characterized as fundamentally different from the abstract expressionists in his downplaying of the individual. This is suggested in his reference to anonymous graffiti and his use of myth and literature alluding to some collective. Both Zimmerman and Twombly seem to have a fascination with the balance of diametric opposites Eros and Logos, Apollonian and Dionysian, and to have rich layers of ambiguity in their work.
Each of Zimmerman’s paintings reveals “a different forum for problems that become important”; they deal with abstract ideas like the painting of -un and perhaps an esthetic-emotional problem: for example, aspiration to paint blue somewhat in the manner of Yves Kline’s “Blue monochromes, a blue that hums at you. ” (Zimmerman, fourth interview 10/07/1996.)
During the process of mark-making and intuitive color choice “Esthetics fall into place ” (Zimmerman 2nd interview 10/03/1996). Aaron attributes his esthetic concerns to conditioning at art school and likens it to throwing the audience a bone; he doesn’t consider the audience too much but feels the color and formal issues give the viewer something to look at. In this sense perhaps the paintings are “happy fuck-you(s)” (a suggestion by a friend of Aaron’s). The playfulness and bright colors balance and shroud a darker violent undercurrent. It is true of both Zimmerman’s and Twombly’s work that the serious and educated viewer may get a sense of the artist’s intent; the outward appearance of fun and play, while sophisticated, still shifts into a child’s scrawling for the uninitiated or insensitive.
Although Zimmerman speaks of esthetics as a sort of by-product and appeasement, he concedes that line, form, and shape are fundamental to the introspective process of his art making. “The validity of the existence of each mark must be questioned.” As marks, words and color are committed, withdrawn, and modified, the artist “hashes out an argument with(himself) ” “Through tackling the formal aspects and confronting them one comes across problems that are not just problems in the work but problems in the artist: psychosis, flaws in character, and various insecurities.” (Zimmerman second interview 10/03/1996)
Zimmerman’s work on a painting leads to some recognizable form inevitably emerging as an “impossible skeleton” as Aaron calls it. This is a personal joke that refers to the lack of physicality of imitative forms in painting, a questioning of their existence and validity. When a form references something from the physical world he will accentuate it, isolating the problem while poking fun at himself. (See the Dolphin head at the top right in “Play at the She Shore.”
In Zimmerman’s work free-flowing words are doodled or scratched into the surface of the painting. They may point directly to the meaning of a piece as well as contradict or distract from it; exploring ambiguity as a means for understanding what there may be there. But just as often they are simply entertaining for their creator. “it’s just play in the face of the futility of existence.” (Zimmerman 1st interview 10/01/1996.) Zimmerman finds catharsis in wackiness, as a reaction to and a relief from his grappling with endless gray areas and constant uncertainty. “It’s really just escapism.”
Pseudo-Neo-Dadaism is a common contemporary trend in a time of Postmodern ambiguity in an overwhelming information age, a trend that parallels the attempted return to absolutes and is characterized by angst, anger, aloofness, and confidence only in the tongue-in-cheek. Excepting the tongue-in-cheek, all these issues find expression in Zimmerman’s work in striking and entertaining ways.
Play and work are often considered opposites. If we think of play as something pleasurable and creative and its absence what makes work so abominable. What makes play frivolous and inane is the absence of purpose while work carries the implications of a terminal amount of meaning and seriousness of intent. It is the inevitable and profound intermingling of these compliments that “make it.” And so, it goes in the painting of Aaron Zimmerman.
“Automatism and my Watercolors”
Written for Dennis Drummond’s Senior Thesis class 12/08/1996.
“Put yourself in as passive or receptive a state of mind as you can. Forget about your genius, your talents, the talents of everyone else…Write quickly, without any preconceived subject, fast enough so that you will not remember what you’re writing and be tempted to reread what you’ve written…Go on as long as you like… if silence threatens to settle in break off without hesitation. Trust in the inexhaustible nature of the murmur.”
– Andre Breton. (pg.41, Ernst, Miro, the Surrealists)
So there I sit on the floor of my work area, amid the paper and markers, paint tubes and brushes, cans of water and pieces of canvas, a heap of potential energy taking the form of flesh through which “art” is about to be actuated. The swirls and gatherings of material around me are a physical manifestation of the mental atmosphere in which I am mired. The art supplies replaced in my mind by a floating yet heavy accumulation of overwhelming data. Data absorbed by an ever uncertain and perpetually inquisitive brain that cannot say no to the unending lure and barrage of images, thoughts, and feelings this data provides
With the simple call let out by Mr. Breton so many years ago in that, now much hackneyed and derogated, Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, as well as by my own alienated “urge to purge”, I am brought to action. Working with frenzied, intuitive, irrational fever I seek to exhume, illuminate, and express, “the actual functioning of thought, dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” (pg.2, Ernst, Miro, and the Surrealists).
Colors, lines, and words are applied with brush, pencil, and marker in a way that betrays logic and seeks only for that perfect union of thought and action. It is where the union of thought, and action occurs that thought ceases to exist in my brain directly. My hand becomes a conduit or medium for an outpouring of everything in my mind. This mental ejection happens right before my bewildered eyes, and I feel the tension release as automatism does its work. I get a sense of detachment and a feeling of loss of control that leads sometimes to a lack of coherence. This is the most fun. Putting myself on autopilot and working in such an aloof manner takes me on a roller coaster ride that is never the same from piece to piece.
Sometimes words emerge and become dominant as they describe “situations” that occur on the page (see “The Pradic Mabble”). In other works, words take a back seat to color washes and lines or simple block strokes that accentuate or befuddle edges (see “Snolly Surplus Folly”, “A Type (Confunction Junction)” and “Strategy Dee”). In pieces like “Filthville at Dawn”, “The Meditation Barn” and “The (Preordained) J.Muddle Wits” situations reminiscent of but not wholeheartedly bound to figure/creature/bugger in landscapes emerge. I try not to judge or question these emergences. But at points certain vandalistic impulses occur (see “Vandalizing Frosted Flakes”, “This Passes Through (this pair)” and “Skitchin’ Kitchen”) Absurdity reigns supreme as my mind tinkers with the information it has consumed and is subsequently expelling. A wonderful sense that the incomprehensible, illogical, intellectual discharge I am engaging in is as close to the real core of my existence as I will ever get becomes evident.
Joan Miro’s use of the automatic process with his vivid powerful color and the carefree nonsensical activity of his characters and situations (see slides 14,15) has influenced the zen/childlike expulsive spirit of my own work. Miro’s art is “voluntarily playful, representing a holiday of the mind.” (pg.27, Miro). A holiday, in my case, much needed to quell the anxieties and frustrations brought on by excessive information absorption. The automatic process at this point is as blissful and innocent as a nice visit to the bathroom after a gluttonous meal.
I believe Cy Twombly echoed the inpulsive/expulsive sentiment when he wrote, “to paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation or release; and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse or in the process of a painting, run a gamut of states. One must desire the ultimate essence even if it is “contaminated”.” (Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, pg.27) It is my hope that using the automatic process I can expose the “gamut of states” that are the “ultimate essence” of my thinking. The “contamination” Twombly speaks of I feel links with the notion of my work as a waste ridding process. Waste being inevitably contaminated by the poison its host wishes gone. I try (by “untrying”) to expose my every thought, emotion and feeling. The results are different each time. Like Twombly I indulge my every impulse while working. All available media in my immediate area are game and are applied, as with Twombly, “obsessively and indulgently without concern for the compositional drama of the whole; or the untoward interjection of mind.” (Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, pg.22.)
In an age where information is infinite, infinitely accessible, and completely relative the overwhelming task of sense making in an absolute way is exposed as the senseless activity that it is. Logical thought is brought to its knees and decapitated by the automatic process, mental discharge for the sake of temporary sanity the result. Thank you Mr. Breton and Mr. Twombly.
- Crispoliti, Enrico. “Ernst, Miro, and the Surrealists.” New
New York: The McCall Publishing Company, 1970.
- Rowell, Margit. “Miro.” New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,
- Varnadoe, Kirk. “Twombly: Retrospective.” New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1994.