A Visual Conversation: Paintings by Jay Zerbe

As long as I am around, I would like to make work that allows other artists to reflect on the past, the personal, and the advancement of visual thought. I think of painting as my life’s work/job…. My work evolves over time, and I follow the work… Somehow, your intellectual creative center moves forward, continuing to educate itself.
—Jay Zerbe, 2011

Jay Zerbe’s paintings always inspire me. My curiosity is piqued immediately when he posts a new piece on Facebook, and I find myself drawn into unexplored realms, tunneling into dark spaces brought to light by highly contrasting elements.

(Featured image above: pod, 2011, acrylic and crayon on canvas, 60 x 60 in.)

Zerbe is a master colorist, and his work is consistently engaging. But what holds the body of work together in a serious way, beneath the deeply satisfying variations on a theme, is a structural solidity borne of years of study and experience. He also digs in deep on an emotional level, uncapping and recapping the vicissitudes of life’s “stuff” in a masterful yin-yang dance.

My work erupts from inside. It’s a virus of some kind. It’s a compulsion that keeps me feeling that it’s interesting to be alive…. I am a synthesist and I incorporate everything I love, have learned from, and what I explore and see as I go along. It all gets mixed in and comes out somehow, just don’t ask me how!

Zerbe begins investigations with collage that are oftentimes completely altered in the translation to a painting. Collage allows him less formal entrance into the chambers of his vast imagination—a way of experimenting. And yet, he is serious at this stage of the game, using specific techniques he has studied over the years. He calls this process “collage thinking”… and he is both thinking and sensing.

Collage by Jay Zerbe

#12, 2011, mixed media collage, 12.5 x 9.5 in.

His brilliant paintings are a baroque outgrowth of their more casual cousins. He dubs his work “ethnic Bauhaus,” an inventive and appropriate description of his style. African-American textiles and quilts are a direct influence on the collage work and thus, indirectly, on the paintings. He and his late partner, artist John Reuter-Pacyna, collected African sculpture, and he explains that influence on his work:

I didn’t get into pattern work until I started collecting African art in 1979. I was entranced by the arbitrary proportioning of the figure…which had nothing to do with reality, and everything to do with order…you cannot imagine how many times I looked at a mother and child figure in our home, and, realizing it was divided into rhythms of construction different than anything Western that I knew, fell in love…

He studied African art with great enthusiasm and feels that this education influenced his work “forever.” Zerbe notes that he takes from African work “the geometric proportioning of existing prototypes, abstraction based on physical realities, simplification, and distillation of power.” Seeing The Quilts of Gees Bend at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York in 2003 felt like a validation of his already established direction and study.

"characterAssassination," 2011, acrylic and crayon on canvas, 24 x 24 in.

Painting by Jay Zerbe

"pod," 2011, acrylic and crayon on canvas, 60 x 60 in.

A few short years ago, he held a demanding job at IBM in Chicago as an Information Architect, and he remembers painting 12 to 17 hours on the weekends. Since being laid off from the job, he has focused full attention on painting, and the work he creates is ambitious and constantly evolving. “Don’t we all wish we could eliminate certain things from our past?” he muses. “Art is such a wonderful, flexible world in which you are in control.”

As for working the painting from moment to moment, he stays engaged and responsive, allowing things to happen:

I think accident (including something as simple as how the brushstroke is ended) is important in my work. I don’t experiment on purpose, stuff happens, and I decide quickly whether I like it or not, and, if not, what I should do about it. I stay reactive to the marks… it took me awhile to learn how to keep a piece from ‘dying’ because of overwork or from being too ‘tight’ with marks. If you look at my work from several years ago, you can see how tight I was. I made a conscious decision as I moved along to use looser brushwork, and I feel fairly comfortable allowing my work to evolve. If I get in a rut, I try a new approach.

Jay Zerbe married Dallas Smith in 2011, and they have designed and are building a new home and studio in Michigan City, Indiana, outside of Chicago. He feels that he is a fulfilling, in a very real way, the dream of being an artist from an early age. He lovingly cites his sister, painter Chery Baird, as his first “art teacher”—and an artist who continues to support and influence his work.

There is no doubt that Zerbe will continue to grow in stature in the larger world of art, but, he doesn’t paint “for the market,” and he never will. He paints because, as he says, half seriously, half playfully, “If I didn’t have art, I would snuff myself…” Painting, with its abstract language of color and shape and endless possibilities, is essential to his life.

Painting by Jay Zerbe

"summerSpring," 2011, acrylic/crayon on canvas, 24x24 in.

Painting by Jay Zerbe

"peninsula," 2011, acrylic and crayon on canvas, 30 x 30 in.

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