The Fragility of Technology

Since I have little time for my own long-form blogging, cross-posting a review of Jeff Zilm’s work I did for the Observer. (Photo Credit Kevin Todora)

Dallas artist Jeff Zilm is engaged in a quest to determine the role art can play in a world riddled with images: What meaning can it possibly have to offer a world over-saturated with visual stimuli?

Specifically, Zilm has his eye on the technology of film and how the medium has transformed not only how we experience the visual world, but also how the comprehensive technology inherent to it is in large part responsible for our image fatigue. In an effort to explore the things which have changed our perception of the visual, Zilm utilizes the tools of the medium itself both symbolically and abstractly, to propose a new artistic language: a language built from deconstruction.

In Lossless Forms for Picture Plane, an overwhelming display of Zilm’s large canvases, ready-made sculptures and film work, on view at the Dallas Contemporary through March 20, audiences have, for the first time, the opportunity to see Zilm’s various bodies of work side by side, grasping the commonalities between his various artistic explorations as they gaze.

Upon entering the Contemporary’s cavernous space, viewers are greeted by an array of Zilm’s “film” paintings; Zilm created the menacing (a descriptor I found myself coming back to throughout the show) gray-scale canvases by liquefying the emulsion from 8mm, 16mm and 35mm black and white films and then brushing or spraying the results across the canvases. The sinister beauty of the works repels at the same time as it attracts, while remaining planted firmly in a history of abstract painting and canvas-based art, without even an awareness of the fact that each painting contains a single film in whole. Zilm tampers with the complex visual information of a film, contained in the mechanisms for recording that information, reducing it to, as far as pure information is concerned anyway, meaninglessness.

Alongside the sculpture Zilm has created from a complete print of the film Alien located in another section of the gallery (an apt choice of film to accompany the eerily alien paintings that surround it), these film-centric works’ strong focus on the art of film and its relationship to the technical tools of film prompts a reconsideration of the meaning we think we’re receiving from the information-laden medium. The pieces work together to prompt a rather stunned response from the viewer, a “Really? This is it?” feeling of discomfort and disappointment in a medium which consistently asserts its omnipotence; a shocking critique of the meaningful, panoptic experience we have, or at least think we have, with film.

The funny thing is that despite having reduced the information contained on the film almost entirely to abstraction, there’s an eerie feeling of recognition as you wander around the exhibition space, the inverse of the idea Zilm seems to be teasing out of his images: the idea that in the 21st century we are perpetually seeing without recognizing.

In later galleries we encounter Zilm’s less interesting “password “paintings, narrow, creatively installed depictions of various combinations of real passphrases which crop up in unusual spots throughout the exhibition space, a tacit reminder of the technology inherent to all that we do, including the conceit inherent to Zilm’s technology-laden analog art.

We also find the space obstructed and our path through the gallery pre-determined by oversize metal sculptures reminiscent of the television and radio antennas we mostly left behind with the turn of the millennium. The, again, alien-like qualities of the oversized sculptures of (formerly) banal household objects are jarring as they dictate our experience of the space — like film, in a way. The sculptures, like Zilm’s paintings, are menacing only if they’re not considered fully. They are, in reality — like film and the images it contains — more fragile than aggressive.

Zilm, like many artists in 2016, is concerned with the paradoxes of life in the 21st century. He’s also interested in the dual nature of film — its power to revolutionize and evolve our experience of the visual world in wholly new ways, at the same time as it desensitizes us, in its ubiquity, to the image’s power. In his work he is not-so-subtly tackling the incongruence between the seemingly all-powerful onslaught of the Internet, film and technology as a whole, and its truly innate tenuousness, pointing out in his intentional destructions and his simple illustrations of the passwords which have come to rule our lives, that the “real” is often self-destructing before our eyes.

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