Toby Ziegler: Surface Tensions

Published in Hong Kong Tatler, May 2014

Photo by Thierry Bal. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery
Photo by Thierry Bal. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery

I’m having a threesome Valentine’s dinner with my husband and Toby Ziegler. No, not the President’s speech writer from the West Wing; this Toby Ziegler is a 42 year old London-born artist. It’s late morning when I call Ziegler in his London studio, and I’m frantically scribbling down notes as my husband scowls at me from across the table. Fortunately, he’s affable and easy chat with, making multi-tasking with a glass of wine, a telephone and a pen, a breeze.

It’s only been a couple of years since his breakthrough 2012 Frieze installation, ‘The Cripples’ at Q-Park, an underground Mayfair car-park, that catapulted him onto the international art scene and into renowned collections. In that time Ziegler, without fanfare or pomp, has been making a quiet impression on critics, collectors and curators with his paintings and sculptures.

A lot of Ziegler’s work is based on existing art historical works and objects, and sometimes also everyday objects, the images of which he often tracks down on Google. He then digitally reappropriates, abstracts and often reduces the original image to a field of geometric shapes, while sculptures are pieced together like a Cubist painting. Works by Piero della Francesca or Bruegel the Elder, and even Greek sculptures, undergo such distortion and obfuscation, by painting, spraying, scraping, layering, that they are rendered all but unfamiliar. “I’ve always looked at painting for as long as remember”, says Ziegler of his source material. “I drew inspiration from historical painting. Looking at pre-Renaissance works, they can appear peculiar and alien because they don’t have a familiar reference point for us. They feel like a different breed of pictures,” he explains. “I’m interested in way things get distorted and objects get redefined. They may be made from one reason and purpose and over time they are reused and acquire a different symbolic value. They have their own life”.

'The Art of Sinking' (Study), 2009. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery
‘The Art of Sinking’ (Study), 2009.
Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery
'Family Portrait', 2011. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery.
‘Family Portrait’, 2011. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery.

Indeed, Ziegler’s reinterpretations do transform into something, changelings that are a hybrid of history and the present, of digital perfection and the handmade, and of reproduction and the original. The source image is divorced from its historical context as it goes through several layers of distortion. Sculptures are mapped out with 3D modeling software with the perfect geometry that the digital promises, and images of paintings are distorted before being repainted and put together by hand. There’s a tension between the perfection that the digital can offer and the imperfection of the handmade, such as his paintings ‘The Grand Cause’ (2006) or ‘Vitalis’ (2007), a landscape and a scene of clouds made up of vivid colourful repetitive patterns. From a distance the works give the illusion of a pixilated image, but on closer inspection they reveal the artist’s hand. Brushstrokes are uneven and expressive, calling attention to the materiality of the surface, and random splashes of colour appear like blemishes across the canvas. “As soon as you make something by hand it becomes flawed and human”, says Ziegler. “At the moment I’m using thin aluminum and it becomes crumpled and creased, and picks up traces of human handling. It gives it a beautiful surface”.

'Vitalis', 2007. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery
‘Vitalis’, 2007.
Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery
'Designated for Leisure (2D)', 2004. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery
‘Designated for Leisure (2D)’, 2004.
Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery

His sculptures look more like maquettes or blueprints, as though precursors of something more fleshed out, solid and polished. ‘The Liberals’ (2008), a couple of geometric cardboard sculptures inspired by a set of Victorian Staffordshire dog figurines, looks unfinished, painted in patchy, uneven dabs of gesso, and edges of cardboard sticking out. It’s the artist’s design to keep them this way. “I’ve always loved unfinished paintings. As a viewer it offers people a way in. When things are too perfect it’s hard to have relationship with it, except one of desire. When something’s damaged, it offers an understanding of how illusion works, how it all comes together.” No longer a recognizable historic art fetish object, nor just a sterile digital replica, the image has now acquired a new personality and becomes something personal and unique, through the process of remaking by hand.

There is a lot of space left for interpretation and for viewers to create their own story for the works. This triangle relationship between the artist, the work, and the viewer is part of the appeal for Ziegler. “For what I do, the relationship between the artist and the viewer is not critical. I am interested in looking at how art creates art itself. The viewer brings a lot to the equation. Inevitably people project meaning onto things as well. As soon as you put it out there it doesn’t belong to you anymore. But I’m interested in that loss of narrative and the way things develop different narrative over time.” The reading of the work itself requires much more than a mere glance. Nothing is given away too liberally; there’s no quick soundbite when looking at his works. His paintings and sculptures are coated in ambiguity and viewers are active participants encouraged to engage with the works by slowing down, reflecting and processing the information before them.

'Metaplasmus' (Second Version), 2013. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery.
‘Metaplasmus’ (Second Version), 2013.
Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery.

After art school at Central St Martin’s in 1996, Ziegler was struck with the thought, as generation after generation of painters are, that there was nothing left to contribute to painting. It had all been explored, no uncharted water left. “Painting is dead”, has been the oft-repeated cry from artists and critics for decades. “Painting felt impossible. I felt there were so many clichés around it”, Ziegler explains. “ I had to reinvent it for myself to make it feel relevant again.” Marrying handmade paintings and sculptures with 3D modeling software offered a solution out of his creative funk and made painting once more feel relevant to him. “I feel that painting is once again important now. It’s a slow process making and looking at painting. It’s precious in an age where we bombarded with images and at a faster speed.” Yet Ziegler takes advantage of the digital tools that have contributed to this bombardment and speed of image output to create his works. The digital process is not disguised, rather, Ziegler revels in it, calling attention to digital reproduction and the ease of reproducibility of an image with each reinterpretation he creates.

Whilst Ziegler’s previous body of work experimented with the layering and adding of paint, his current work sees him transitioning to a more pared back aesthetic, scraping away paint, deleting information to leave only a ghostly trace of the painting once there. It is a new direction upon which he happened by accident. “In the summer I had a couple of months on my own in studio, which is rare. But I had no show on so I banished everyone from the studio and made disastrous paintings. It was brilliant, and such fun! Some of the paintings started to suggest things.” It was a few months of experimenting, a luxury for a hot up and coming artist given the demands for exhibitions and new work. Out of this experimentation emerged the works for Ziegler’s first upcoming May Hong Kong exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery. Following on from this show, Ziegler will also be planning an installation of a group of sculptures in autumn at Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire. Not long now before Google supplies more than a string of West Wing fan sites for Toby Ziegler.

New Realms: What to expect from Toby Ziegler’s first Hong Kong show
“They change dramatically as you walk around them,” says Toby Ziegler of the new work he will exhibit at Simon Lee Gallery from May 14. While it’s not the first time Ziegler has shown in Asia—his work was part of a group show at Shanghai’s Minsheng Art Museum in 2010—it’s his first exhibition in Hong Kong and the first public showing of five new paintings. “They ask to be treated as sculptures. You end up having to circumnavigate them. There’s an interesting tension with these works. I was worried that there would be something macho about grinding back with an electric sander. But the works are so pretty, with scars that look like something industrial.”

Luminous and rich, his paintings on aluminium are sanded back to show a glimmer of the metallic surface beneath. “I’m really excited about work at the moment,” he says. “These new paintings opened up a new field for me.” Simon Lee Gallery has also published a book on the new series to complement the show, as well as hosting a conversation with Ziegler during Art Basel.

Exhibition runs from May 14 – July 1
Simon Lee Gallery

'The Foul and the Fragrant', 2014. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery.
‘The Foul and the Fragrant’, 2014. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery.
'Succession of Failures', 2014. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery.
‘Succession of Failures’, 2014. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery.
Gallery installation at Simon Lee HK
Gallery installation at Simon Lee HK

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