A Conversation with Eric Zimmerman

Austin artist Eric Zimmerman's drawings and sculptures employ the exacting and precise methodologies of schematic plans and architectural modeling even while depicting sites and subjects as varied as Jefferson's Monticello, meteorites, icebergs, and the gigantic sundial at the Jantar Mantar complex in Jaipur, India. Zimmerman investigates the nature of spacial relationships in broad physical ways, and also explores the intellectual and emotional terrain of the human imagination. We recently emailed with Zimmerman to ask him about his latest series of drawings, Atlas, and to see what he's working on now.

NB: I want to start by asking you about graphite, a material that you frequently use. It's something that most people are familiar with, of course, but your drawings are so detailed and ornate that it's sometimes hard to imagine that you’re rendering those images with a pencil. Can you tell me a bit about what draws you to the material?

EZ: I was conceptually moving towards addressing straightforward representation in my work. This came out of thinking about the correlation between imaging something versus imagining it, and the perceptual movement between those two types of representation. I am interested in the photographic image but not in the sense of time that is an inherent part of every photograph. The drawing is an attempt to strip away that sense of time and re-insert the representation alone into a more flexible sense of time and space—to put different types of images into proximity with one another on a level playing field. Slowly rendering something also helps me to process each image and attempt to come to a place where I understand it and what it represents.

Formally I was interested in reducing the materials to their most basic, and maybe even essential, to see if I could open up the work conceptually, and make my ideas more clear. A pencil and a piece of paper seemed the most basic I could get without limiting myself and the work too much. My interest in the material is mostly because it is most appropriate for the type of work I am making right now.

Atlas #1,Ruins Projection (Hooker), Graphite on Paper, 12" x 10"

Atlas #6,Grid Projection (For Noah), Graphite on Paper, 12" x 10"

NB: In terms of your subject matter, your drawings run a wide gamut from the almost hyper-realistic depiction of places and things to similarly detailed but less familiar images of real or imagined forms. What subjects lend themselves to faithful renderings? Which to abstraction? In your mind, is there a difference in the way you approach those two things?

EZ: The two kinds of representation you mention are very similar to me so I don’t consciously choose one or the other. I render the invented pieces just as carefully and specifically as the “real” images. The imagined and invented places in my work are derived from seeing those “real” images and the larger research component to my studio work, so in a sense they appear to me right along side the more traditional representations. The imaginary and the real aren’t necessarily opposites.

Using this mode of realistically rendering something and applying it to a thing that does not physically exist in the world also has some resonance with me. The realistic images are really just abstractions of a place; they are symbols for, or referents to, that actual location in the world. I like this idea quite a bit as for me it blurs the boundary between real and unreal, here and there, and allows the images to interact with one another on a more interesting and complex level than they do as singular entities. It is a space full of possibility.

There are also qualities that I look for in existing images and try and coax out of my invented ones that are almost identical so I don’t see much of difference there. I think the important difference emerges when the drawings are completed and placed in proximity to one another. That difference has more to do with how we understand and perceive different types of representation than anything else—real, abstract, textual, symbolic, etc.— and this is really the key to the Atlas drawings for example.

Observatory/Projector (Metropolis), Installation View, Art Palace Gallery, Austin, TX, 2008

Observatory/Projector (Metropolis), Installation View, Art Palace Gallery, Austin, TX, 2008
Wood, board, overhead projector, model trees, ink, 4' x 4' x 9'

NB: It seems to me that the kind of “straightforward representation” that you talk about is complicated when depicting text rather than something overtly physical. You mention “here” and “there” which are both depicted in the Atlas drawings (Atlas #10, Locations (Here) and Atlas #11 Locations (There), respectively).

It seems to me that the depiction of words rather than real or imagined physical spaces complicate the notion of objects and referents because both words (“here” and “there”) are relative terms that have no specific, physical objects that they aim to represent. Or, rather, those places are relative to the context in which you might use those words as descriptors. When we’re looking at an iceberg, for example, we understand that we’re viewing a thing, and when we view your drawing of an iceberg, we understand that we’re witnessing a depiction of something physical that really exists somewhere in physical space. “Here” or “there,” though, seem almost like an indictment, asking the reader to consider his or her physical position rather than to imagine something that’s physically external.

Can you tell us how you view and use those two different kinds referents (words versus concrete physical things) in your work?

EZ: I like to think about the words “here” and “there” as pointing to a location in space, and as a way of thinking about location and representation based on language. The text provides a spatial framework for the images that ideally makes the work perpetually present, and complicates the relationship between how we define and understand spatial location. There is definitely a conscious decision on my part to use the text to point directly at the reader/viewer.

With pictures there is a generally passive relationship. You view these places and representations and can either engage and imagine yourself within them or not. They are pictures that act as referents to other places. You are always placing yourself into the work. With the text it starts to place itself back into your space and create a moment when you are conscious of your place in relation to it and all of these other representations. I think this has to do with how text becomes activated only through reading, and because this reading takes place in our minds, it is impossible to engage with text as an “other” space that isn’t always connected and dependent on our bodies to some degree. Each time you read it you are there with it in that moment. I also like that you can use these spatial words to say “Here you go” and “There there” for example, or as this communicative gesture between people.

Atlas #10, Locations (Here), Graphite on Paper, 12" x 10"

Atlas #11 Locations (There), Graphite on Paper, 12" x 10"

NB: I recently read Noah Simblist's piece in Art Lies about your most recent exhibition, Atlas, at Austin's Art Palace. In his review, Simblist points to Clement Greenberg's analysis of the tension between classicism and romanticism in modern art, and I couldn't help but think that Simblist's reference was a good one in terms of how a viewer might experience your work. On the one hand, there seems to be something cool and objective about your depictions of mechanical or structural objects. On the other hand, there's something incredibly romantic about even the most faithfully detailed and seemingly objective rendering of a gargantuan 19th century refractor telescope.

Would a viewer do well to think about the tension between the naturalistic and the abstract, or, in Greenberg's terms, the classical and the romantic, when encountering your work?

EZ: I certainly think that the tension between the cool and objective versus the romantic is present, but hopefully how and where it is manifesting itself in the work is a little evasive. Both of those are qualities I am drawn to when I am gathering images and inventing my own. There is something terribly romantic about the coolness of science and architecture, maybe because it runs so counter to our instincts as human beings, and that coolness and quest for objectivity ends up being this unattainable ideal more than an actuality. The sense of wonder that drives scientists can’t just be born of icy objectivity, there has to be some emotional predisposition involved.

Most of the images I am working from are from USGS and NASA databases along with science and history books, etc., but they exude this amazing sense of longing and desire to archive and understand the world. Context has a huge role to play, but I’ve always seen science as tinged with these human qualities. Architecture is another story, yet it exudes the same kind of optimism and wonder for me.

Lord Rosse's refractor is a good example as it is this structure built in order to observe and understand the heavens. Seeing images of early scientific instruments draws a line of connection for me between then and now. The technology has changed but we are still longing to understand the vastness of the universe and to be able to locate and describe our place within it. If this isn’t a romantic pursuit I am not sure what is. I am trying to open this idea up on a more general level and think about this notion of persistent longing for the unattainable—maybe even impossible—and how that effects how we image, imagine, and live within space. The drawings are just one instance of this.

NB: This may be an obvious question, but do you feel that you approach your artistic pursuits with a similar optimism or hope that you imagine scientists bring to theirs?

EZ: I have my occasional moments, I think. But in general I am much more pessimistic about the world, and I think this drives the work more than anything. It helps me keep a certain amount of perspective that allows me to move forward and maintain a level of curiosity and interest in art and ideas. So maybe the hope is found in the pessimism.

Multiplying/Seperating/Island (For Tom), 11" x 14", Ink, graphite, and marker, on plastic, 2006

Floe (Island), 9" x 10", Ink, graphite, and marker, on plastic, 2006

Four States From Eight Cities, (Matterhorn), 14" x 17", Ink, Graphite, and Marker, on Plastic 2007

NB: In addition to your drawings, you've also created sculptures. Other than the obvious differences of materials and process, are there conceptual differences or similarities between your drawings and sculptures? Do you see them both as components of some larger whole?

EZ: For me they are similar on a conceptual level. The sculpture comes out of my interest in astronomy and architecture, particularly the way the telescope becomes this liminal site in between this vast, inconceivable space, and a small perceivable image on a lens. That flat two-dimensional image, colored by computer algorithms, is the way the majority of us experience the cosmos.

Astronomy is, on a certain level, about applying structure to the heavens and I am thinking about the constellations in particular. Telescopes can become projectors. There is a certain amount of transcendence one can attain when peering into a telescope, so I am trying to suggest that through light and the architectural structure that surrounds the projector. Like the drawings, it is about a movement between different kinds of representation, the flat map-like projection on the wall (projection), the three-dimensional object (structure), and this wash of light on the ceiling (atmosphere). Like the drawings I hope there is a play between imaging and imagining, and maybe even the classical and the romantic you mentioned earlier. So, I definitely see them all as components of a larger whole right now.

NB: Your work is aesthetically complicated and often quite beautiful. The ink and graphite pieces from 2006 and 2007, and the more recent work from the Atlas series, are striking in their nuance and intricacy, but all of those pieces are conceptually nuanced as well. Do you prioritize aesthetics over conceptual work or vice-versa? Is that even a fair question?

EZ: Yes, I think that it’s a fair question. I think my practice overall is very formal in nature; I have this series of ideas I am interested in researching and communicating through the work and its material qualities. I have ideas behind the work, but I wouldn’t label myself a “conceptual” artist by any means. I do place a slight emphasis on developing the ideas as this is what drives the material choices and pushes my work forward in the studio. I have been thinking about how to move away from such a straightforward formal component to the work without sacrificing making things.

For me it’s a question about the larger nature of art, and asking myself if formal and aesthetic qualities are just a stamp that labels something “art” and how far you can push against that boundary before you don’t have anything of interest. There are a lot of answers to be found in 60’s Conceptualism, but there is also this incompatibility with human emotion, poetics, and experience there that is difficult for me to reconcile. But on the other hand there is also something utterly non-spectacular and un-material about Conceptual art that I find myself drawn to lately.

NB: You’ve lived in Austin for quite a while now. What’s the art world like down there? Has it changed significantly in the time that you’ve lived in Texas?

EZ: The Austin art world is very small, though has undergone large, and generally positive changes over the six years I’ve been here. The number of serious galleries and greater overall interest in visual art is the biggest change I’ve noticed. These spaces are taking their artists to art fairs and bringing a broader scope to Austin by bringing international artists to the city and putting together thoughtful programs. Studio space is still hard to come by and the glass ceiling is fairly low, but there is good energy and a group of people who are interested in moving the scene forward.

We are also in close proximity to Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio that feature more established, even world class, institutions and diverse art communities. The D.I.Y aesthetic and way of organizing is very popular in Austin and that has its pros and cons depending on your interests and position. The biggest hurdle for Austin, and maybe all small regional art communities, is to figure out how to take part and interest in the larger conversation and not get bogged down in local gossip and an overly regional focus. I should say I’ve done work for them, but I think Texas based Art Lies magazine and …might be good, a local e-publication, are leading the way on this front, primarily by addressing larger fundamental art issues, and in the case of …mbg, doing it through the local lens.

NB: Can you talk a bit about what you’re working on now? What direction your work is taking?

EZ: I am still making lots of drawings of various scales, working on a sculpture, and related to the previous question, I am thinking about ways of utilizing the materials gathered in the research phase of my work as the actual work. Right now this is taking the form of digital C-prints and “binders” that are organized around a particular group of ideas, and contain found images, photocopied texts, postcards, scans of my own drawings, and photographs. They are accompanied by an audio program, filmography, and bibliography that are another component of the object. Hopefully all together they will form a constellation of images, sound, text, and references, whose points each move between different spaces and time periods. This isn’t always the case, but references are sometimes used to bolster work, or as a substitute for original thought, so I am interested in thinking about this relationship and seeing if the idea of the reference can’t be transformed.

I am still playing with the exact form that they’re going to take, but the one closest to complete is entitled The Historian and The Astronomer, a phrase and theme that has followed me around for a number of years. My thinking about the Voyager Golden Record, which was sent into the universe aboard the two Voyager spacecraft in 1977, influences much of my new work. It is effectively an archive of sound, language, images, and science that intersects nicely with the ideas I mentioned previously.

NB: Can you tell us what you're up to now, and maybe let us know where people can view more of your work? Can you tell us what you're up to now, and maybe let us know where people can view more of your work?

EZ: I am in a group exhibition in Houston entitled Architecture of Perception at the Box 13 Art Space that opens on September 27th. In November, I will be giving a talk at The Menil Collection on the exhibition Imaginary Spaces for their Artists Eye program, and then later in the month, I am in a group exhibition in Nuevo Laredo Mexico. In addition, I am working on grants and proposals for some non-profit art spaces around the country to produce and exhibit The Historian and The Astronomer project.


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