Seeing the Light
By Linda Yablonsky
(essay for the exhibition catalog, Nola Zirin, Seeing the Light, April 23 – May 21, 2003 at June Kelly Gallery, NYC)
Nola Zirin works in a studio on a hight floor of an industrial building close to the Brooklyn waterfront, within sight of the Manhattan Bridge. The studio gets copious amount of daylight from the windows running along two walls. Together these windows offer expansive views of the bridge to the north and the city to the west, but when I arrive for a visit it is not the world outside that catches my eye. It is a painting that Zirin has hung on a partition wall on the opposite side of the room. Even in daylight the bright, pale, yellow vapor filling the center of the canvas has a spectral glow as if it were the visible breath of a living organism. Certainly not just paint.
The painting is almost in a corner. To reach it I have to step around a chair and a makeshift altar whose objects include a cow bone and a picture of the Dalai Llama, but I want a closer look. The picture has the cobblestone face of the neighborhood impastoed columns of brick-like tiles resembling the facades of surrounding warehouses; long, arching fingers of translucent gray drips echoing the suspension cables of the bridge. But Zirin has pushed all suggestion of architectural detail to the outer edges of the canvas, just to let that yellow light have the space it demands. I know that space. It is a void that I see myself, every day. And until I saw this painting, I hated it.
The void represents a silence that is just too quiet for words, though not for the vocabulary of abstraction. Its source is a spot in the sky that for thirty years was hidden by the twin towers of the World Trade Center. They were what Zirin saw from her previous studios in SoHo and Long Island City. They were what everyone saw from everywhere. For a year after moving to D. U.M. B. O., where she is now Zirin could still find those towers in her windows on Jay Street. Now all she sees is air, but because she is a New Yorker, a Buddhist and a painter, she knows that doesn't mean nothing else is there.
The light, for one thing. It has an immanence that is peculiar to New York, where light constantly ricochets between the sky, the two rivers and their harbor, and the city's reflective sea of glass and steel. Zirin is a native of New York and she has been watching this light all her life. Over the years it naturally found its way into the scraped surfaces and vertical grids that have formed the pattern and structure, and sometimes the subject, of her paintings. But the light of Jay Street is different. It does not bounce. It hovers. It haunts.
Zirin is not by temperament or training an artist who works from direct observation. She tried that once, she says, but she felt it penned her in. I understand: If your subject is larger than the mind can contain, and you are not afraid to feel it, then you think about color as spirit and landscape as form, and you have the life of an abstract painter.
All the same, a nearly photographic wedge of clear blue sky unfurls like a sail in the wind at the center of Through the Curtain, a two-panel painting on wood that is a miracle of narrative compression. Its headlong tumble of twisting, breaking scaffolds may be emblematic of September 11th, the day our asphalt jungle turned upside down, but it also makes music of chaos.
Through the Curtain, like Jay Street, is no badge of grief; it is more like an ode to survival. But Zirin is not one to remember the past; she keeps her work focused on a here-and-now that belies its actual date. Like those curious items on her altar – the cow bone, an old shell, a tiny Hopi Indian doll – kept there, she says as a reminder of the impermanence of all material things. Yet phantoms bleed through her paintings.
The voluminous scrim of sunlight in Jay Street becomes in Counter Current a sturdy pillar of irradiant yellow bearing the scars of its own making. Patches of green and blue intrude like signs of the neighborhood's gentrification – funny how much you can read into the mingling of paint, form, color and canvas!
Take the five-part, mural-like panorama of Zirin's Color Itinerary: Suddenly, it seems, we have left New York for India. But this trip didn't come out of the blue. It came out of abstract expressionism. Yet this painting has a narrative too, if you believe, with Zirin, that color can tell a story of its own. Of course it's her story too: as the painting's sari-hued, monochrome squares complete their travels, moving from aqueous blue to Jungle Red to solid chartreuse (look at that yellow now!), each makes a vertical stop to pay debt to the ghost of Barnett Newman.
The journey does not end there. Move to the bifurcated plane of Heat Exchange, and we are in a Caribbean fever dream via Gerhard Richter, faced with an impossibly vertical horizon that curtains the sun and shadows the sea.
Nowhere in Zirin's previous work is there the same kind of unfettered space or saturated color that she has allowed herself in these paintings. The newly visible light and sky outside her studio windows is only partly responsible for the change; it also stems from a painting practice that embraces a good deal of printmaking.
Zirin recently published a suite of black-and-white, still-life photographs of some of the objects she collects, namely vintage mah-jongg tiles and antique marionettes, and the temptation to draw a connection between her mah-jongg pictures and the patchwork-grid patterns of her paintings is a little too strong to resist. I don't think she would mind, since they play a significant part in her process. After all, it was in the iris prints of her doll pictures that she began to experiment with watercolor-based inks, the same inks that she has now mixed with her oils to exalted – there is no other word for it – and liberating effect.
Each of these new works bear the mark of Zirin's faith in a tradition of geometric abstraction that began, for her, with the metaphysics of Wassily Kandinsky and more recently embrace the minimalist color fields of Elllsworth Kelly. but they also bring her into the fold of another, more local, tradition, one that includes Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie and Joseph Stella's Brooklyn Bridge. To these please add Zirin's very personal views from Jay Street, because life in New York is about scraping the sky and Zirin has been there, and done it.