Walter Zimmerman

Edward Kienholz's 1966 sculpture State Hospital depicts a dimly lit cell furnished with a metal-frame bunk bed. Two naked male figures curl in fetal positions on thin, filthy mattresses. A stained bedpan lies on the floor nearby. Eric Fischl's 1979 painting Sleepwalker portrays a young boy, also naked, standing in a plastic swimming pool in the moonlit backyard of a suburban home. The boy is bent slightly forward, his head down, his hands on his penis. He is masturbating.

However provocative their content, works such as those by Kienholz and Fischl remain in the realm of commentary. Neither the artist nor the viewer inhabits the image. We all stand on the safe side of the proscenium or the picture plane, free to take on whatever attitude we choose: guilt, outrage, sympathy, cynicism, even indifference.

Walter Zimmerman allows neither himself nor his viewers the luxury of this remote perspective. In the guise of the familiar, his works insinuate themselves into the defenseless center of our psychic space. Tawdry, battered versions of the Trojan Horse, they lie or stand or hang in the gallery, doing their best to camouflage themselves as meter boxes, fire hose cabinets, electrical panels, or janitorial supply carts. But when we step in for a closer look, lulled by their apparently innocuous nature, our bodies recoil in horror before our minds have a chance to intercede. Whatever these things are, they are repellent and terrifying, as well as pathetic and vulnerable. And what they appear to be, more than anything else, is alive.

In his 1997 book The Anatomy of Disgust, William Ian Miller points out that the inorganic is seldom disgusting, but what does disgust, surprisingly, is the capacity for life. Nearly all of Zimmerman's works have as their core element one or more pieces of blown glass. The rich texture of this specific medium, masterfully manipulated by the artist, is registered by our senses as human tissue. Necrotic, tumorous, malformed . . . but human nonetheless.

The hollowed interiors of Zimmerman's organ-shaped forms often contain crushed glass, human hair, or dried pools of paint and lacquer that read from without as body fluids. Their surfaces are cracked, blistered, pock-marked, and partially or wholly encrusted with scabrous grit. They usually bear a cryptic form of identification, such as an alphanumeric code suggesting a military or institutional inventory system.

These glass elements are integrated into larger assemblies of "found" industrial paraphernalia appliance parts, flexible hose, rubber gaskets, copper shims, wire. Zimmerman's deliberately crude connections (he has a penchant for hot glue and plumbers' epoxy) reinforce the objects' thoroughly credible aura of institutional neglect. Orphaned by society's desire for seamless perfection, they look like what gets shoved into the broom closet just before the glitzy corporate office party or the meeting of the nursing home's board of trustees.

It's no accident that these works reek of abandonment. Underlying Zimmerman's intellectual engagement with issues of content and form is an influence that he refers to as his "Dickensian" childhood: His parents divorced when he was nine years old, and he and his three brothers were placed in the United Presbyterian Children's Home in Mars, Pennsylvania. "I spent so much of my life trying to hide from the things that happened to me, about which I was ashamed. I dragged my past behind me like a lead weight. It wasn't until I was in graduate school, where it was so exhausting, nerve-racking, expensive, and there was so little time and so much to do, that I ran out of the emotional energy it took to keep dragging the dark secret behind me. I had no choice but to turn and simply look at it. And because I had lost sight of anything else I could do, I just started using it."

However personal their origin, the fear and loneliness that permeate Zimmerman's works strike universal chords. As we approach the millennium, every living creature on the planet is exposed to dangers over which there is no control. There's no satisfactorily secure storage for nuclear power plant waste, the ozone layer appears to be evaporating, the list of endangered species is ever-lengthening, acid rain melts timeless bronze.

German sociologist Ulrich Beck has coined the term "risk society" to describe the current state of Western civilization: "Everyone is caught up in defensive battles of various types, anticipating the surrounding hostile substances in one's manner of living and eating . . . Private life becomes in essence the plaything of scientific results and theories, or of public controversies and conflicts . . . In global risk society, then . . . the political nestles down in the middle of private life and torments us."

Although human life has always been at the mercy of nature, we are now more endangered by the consequences of our own technological advancements, which we once believed to be manageable and perfectible and now understand to be anything but. Organic life is enmeshed, constricted, even snuffed out by this "vision of the future" gone horribly awry. In light of the seemingly irresolvable dilemmas humanity has inadvertently created for itself, the impoverished details of Zimmerman's work the stains, the brittle pieces of tape, the frayed wires, the dirty plastic mats on which many of the free-standing pieces rest-speak to the impotence of routine maintenance.

The objects' shabbiness is so sincere it's almost impossible to believe that every detail is calculated and contrived by the artist. To achieve the particular look of carelessness he's after when he's painting the carts, for instance, Zimmerman assumes a persona he describes as an "underpaid, put-upon, overworked member of the janitorial staff in some state-run hospital who's got to paint these stupid things again." He applies layers of paint, shellac, and India ink, spattering the materials and distressing the surfaces as he goes. "I do it like the worst examples of state workers or federal employees, both of which I've been. I just do it badly . . . with only this kind of tepid caring."

When Zimmerman draws, he says, he feels obliged to imply the missing third dimension. When he makes sculpture, he feels obliged to imply the fourth, which is time. Yet he produces a curious sense of time: it stands utterly still. The glass elements appear animate but immobilized, each radiating the dull, aching energy of an active brain (or heart or soul) that's come to accept its fate in an otherwise paralyzed body. For all the implications of connection all the tubes and hoses and wires, nothing life-giving seems to flow. If communication occurs among these entities, it is purely telepathic, adding another level of subliminal radiation to those already disturbing the viewer's sensory field.

A friend once remarked to Zimmerman that his works look like memories of something that hasn't happened yet. He agrees, having entertained his own image of them as relics of a pillaged future objects that have not yet come into being but are already obsolete, dysfunctional, worn out. When asked in an 1998 interview whether he regarded his work as optimistic or pessimistic, Zimmerman allowed for a "dingy optimism." "The worst thing would be if these objects had been abandoned. They haven't been abandoned. They've been housed, but they're housed cheaply. They're housed negligently. They're not taken care of particularly well. We fix them but we don't fix them as well or as often as we should. So there's some hope, but it's bleak."

Roberta Lord
August 1999
New York, NY

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