Interview with Jay Zerbe


Neoteric Art: Give us some background history on yourself.

Jay Zerbe: My sister (who is also an artist) became involved with art in high school. We hung out a lot, and she decided to teach me what she was learning. (And I have to say that process continues today!). I found I was good at making art, and became more and more interested. By the time I was fourteen, I knew I would be an pace for me to use, and I felt the need to return to painting on canvas. I started painting on canvas again in 2005. And of course, once you start working on canvas, at least if you are as productive as I am, you have to start up the “art business” again to get the work out of the studio. FB has been a great tool for me to expand my contacts and career. In one year of working at it, I have been picked up by two galleries (AMMO in New Orleans, LA and Modern Arts Midwest in Lincoln, NE) via FB connections. And hopefully there is more to come!

2NA: Discuss your work/thought process when creating a new piece.

JZ: I start my paintings on primed canvas. I draw or paint on the canvas, working from one of my collages or drawings. It is fairly rare that anything from this first layer is visible by the time the paintings is complete, but occasionally you can see a bit here and there.

After the first layer is down, I set the collage or drawing aside. I sometimes refer to it again – often to retrieve some of the color of the piece (in the case of collage), or perhaps to get some additional ideas about what I can add to break up the space of the painting.

As I work on the painting, I start what I think of as “carving the space”. I enjoy finding ways of making the space appear deep or shallow using color, twisting shapes, overlapping, and isometric references. I also enjoy including multiple spatial references that enrich how the eye “reads” the space. Layer upon layer is added to the painting as I progress. I rotate the painting frequently as I work to give me a fresh view of what is on the canvas, and to precipitate new ideas. In the process, the painting develops a life of its own, and an atmosphere as well.

I think of the atmosphere of the painting as the emotional content. I do like drama in art (the queer factor?) and I find enjoyment in building visual spaces that, although abstract, recall some hint of emotion. These are emotions of spaces (claustrophobia, safe enclosure, open horizons, brooding vistas… gradually a series of “feelings” get encoded into the piece. In many pieces a narrative feel is created that encourages the viewer to spend the time required to take in the journey of the piece – to wander through the spaces. Of course, the overall composition must work as well.

3The way I arrange shapes is what I call “collage thinking”. Collage juxtaposes neighboring shapes that can be entirely foreign to each other (they may refer internally to different spaces, or be radically different in color/texture). The way edges are defined becomes very important – a straight hard edge works entirely differently from a fuzzy or wavy edge. Being sensitive to this kind of construction is what makes the pieces truly abstract. This kind of juxtaposition is particularly modern, and carries with it a host of meanings (science, philosophy, societal) that I will not go into here. Many discussions are available on that topic (go therefore and Google!).

A painting is finished when it is. I never know a painting is finished until I look at it and – suddenly – it all works! I know when I am getting close to finished. But the exact moment when the painting crosses over from in-process to complete is always a magical surprise! Something clicks between the painting and my perceptions/memories of all paintings that says this one is complete!

collageNA: You create paintings and collages. What are the differences for you and do you prefer one over the other?

JZ: I did collage for quite a few years when I was not working on canvas. I find it very easy to work with because you can place large shapes quickly based on the intuitive feel for where something should go. I also like collage because the color I work with is less controlled than in the paintings. And of course, collage is fairly fast to produce. I don’t do nearly as much layering in a collage as in a painting.

NA: You work in series. Please elaborate.

JZ: There are a couple of reasons for this. First, categorization is a bit of a compulsion with me, and discerning commonality among pieces is an apparently genetic inclination of mine. Second, using series lets viewers know that if they like a particular painting for its qualities, they may be interested in seeing other pieces that have similar attributes. I don’t create a series concept in my head and then work within that framework (as many artists do), but rather when I have finished a piece, I note its characteristics and identify it as part of a particular series. My series are therefore open-ended in terms of how many pieces may end up in one.

NA: You have lived and worked in Chicago for many years. Do you consider yourself to be a Chicago artist? What are your thoughts on the Chicago art scene over the years?

5JZ: Yes, I definitely think of myself as a Chicago artist. I don’t think the galleries here are very supportive of Chicago artists, but that is a common complaint. I think there are “clumps” of supportive artists, who group based on common interests (coop galleries for example) or work environments (artist/teachers via their schools, or studio complexes), but not a cohesive, communicating group. I think networking opportunities such as Facebook provides are very valuable for the community, and I hope they are used more and more to keep us all in touch.

NA: Who (or what) has influenced your work?

JZ: The first influences on my work were the British Pop painters: Hockney, Kitaj, and Jones. My paint was very hard edge for years, but has loosened up over time. The second wave of influence was the Harry Who group in Chicago, and all the painters shown at the Phyllis Kind gallery. If you look at my figurative narrative work from the 1970’s, that influence is really obvious. The third wave of influence was African art that my late partner and I collected for 25 years. I did a lot of pattern work during that time. The final (?) wave of influence was American abstraction from the first half of the 20th century. I saw those pieces throughout the early 2000’s at Gary Snyder Gallery in NYC. Those pieces are what influenced my return to painting larger scale on canvas.

I continue to feel these influences, and am open to influence by whatever I see out there that is useful. I am not a hermetic painter. For me it is all about learning, experimenting, and moving forward.

NA: What was the last good art gallery show you saw?

JZ: The last good show I saw was Keiko Hara at Perimeter gallery. The work on the main floor was excellent: good use of surface and technique, good color, and a very personal “vibe”.