Toby Ziegler – Breakfast, Interrupted

Toby Ziegler grew up with painting. In a story that he tells with both affection and humour, he describes how his father would rehearse each day the ritual of his formal, meticulous breakfast. An egg, grapefruit and toast, with half for the egg and the other half with honey one day and with jam the next. What a superb order, what consistency in a world where not everything can be been predictable or stable. “The breakfast”, says Ziegler, “was like a composition, a painting”.


What delight for the psychobiographer! Here were all the elements, it might seem, of the artist’s practice: the ubiquitous oval forms, the compulsiveness of design motifs, the fact that, like the division of the toast, the artist would often work on two pieces in tandem… And indeed, some of Ziegler’s early sketches were of the paternal breakfast.


But as the artist points out, breakfast is a complicated thing, since its consumption abolishes the initial design. If breakfast was “like a monument, always in a fixed position, a landmark”, eating it would dissolve this. And if breakfast were like a composition or painting, this would mean that the consumer – or, by analogy, the viewer – would disturb it. Rather than being a passive onlooker, their presence would have an effect.


Ziegler’s art inhabits and explores this spectrum between formal composition and undoing. He creates visual spaces with repeated geometric motifs – ovals, triangles, dots – and then he disrupts them. Paint sprays, obscures and smudges these lattices, as if to emphasise the intrusion of the non-geometrical – what the artist calls “gesture” – into the formal, apparently rule-governed space.


The images often contain several layers in which this tension is played out. Figures taken from historical painting may serve as backdrops or palimpsests, sometimes composed of a geometric grid and sometimes with a grid overlaid. This is the “schema” to which the painterly “gesture” will be added, usually towards the end of the composition. The geometry is rarely pure, its surfaces usually swollen or swayed by volumes, morphing the lattices and evoking both the contours and the libidinal drives of the body.


The initial figures that Ziegler chooses may be modelled in computer 3D, then rendered geometrically via a lattice. Areas of greater density are created via the addition of further geometric planes, and then, as the process continues, “something spontaneous will disrupt it”. The curious smudges and zig-zags that he would add at the last moment might be classically conceived as expression, the revolt of signature and subjectivity against the dominion of order and form. Yet for Ziegler gesture is not exactly expression.


The odd intrusions into the visual spaces that Ziegler creates are both intriguing and obfuscating: they obscure and shatter, generating fault lines in the image. Red lines creep nervously across an unstable lattice, smudges and marks stain clouds and the ghostly outlines of human figures. As a pure embodiment of subjectivity, as the refusal of form, these marks are gesture, yet for Ziegler they are also calligraphy, in the sense of a formal technique.


“Calligraphy”, Ziegler observes, “is mediated”, it is a practice steeped in tradition and rules, while at the same time conserving a direct link to the body. This ambiguity is exactly what much of Ziegler’s work explores. Neither pure expression nor geometric feature, his paintwork challenges ready distinctions between form and gesture, and in doing so poses a question to many of the received discourses about creation in the computer age. What is most individual in fact participates in impersonal form, while form itself becomes individual, the autonomy of design motifs becoming strangely personal and unique.


While the more recent paintings seem to move away from these disruptions of surface, they in fact remain faithful to their logic. Computer images are used to generate the initial space, with an overlay of airbrush strokes or small smudges arranged in a geometrical pattern. Although we do not encounter the stark fragmentation of the earlier works, since a grid rather than a streak or mark is overlaid, the elements of the grid are nonetheless more on the side of gesture than of controlled form, and they block any immediate taking in of the image as a whole. Like the earlier works, they continue to question the separation of form and expression.


But why this sustained coalescence of image and opacity? Why should the additions and accretions be felt to block our view? Ziegler is interested in the process of representation, how information is transmitted through time. In order to represent, a code must be employed, and this will have effects on the information itself. As he explains, the current codes involve the pixilation and digitilisation process, which constitute the image. His use of geometric motifs accentuates this, and the gestural fractures then draw attention to the limits of representation, “to what becomes lost in the process”.


Given the initial use of computer-generated imagery, paintwork and pixilation enjoy an odd companionship. The image is made up of pixels, which are then translated into brushstrokes, which in turn come to resemble pixels. This layering evokes the famous levitation scene in ‘Solaris’, a film which Ziegler has often referenced in his work. Moving from the futuristic habitat of the space station to a room filled with terrestrial objects, the astronaut meets the spectre of his wife, as the camera continually enters and explores the texture of a Breugel painting.


The encounter with what is most real and intense for him is mediated, the painting being both a symbol of a world he has left behind and the icon of representational space, of what is artificial. It suggests, Ziegler notes, that the astronaut’s wife is no more and no less than the sum of his memories, which are signs, representations. Tarkovsky’s movement between three different spaces – the futuristic, the terrestrial and the painterly – echoes Ziegler’s use of multiple spaces to elaborate this question of memory and loss.


In many of his paintings, the very process of transmission – here, pixilation – is simultaneously what allows an image to be constituted and what obscures it, as we see in the airbrush grids imposed onto the final surface. Ziegler is showing how the medium both creates the message and distorts it. One of the ironies of this method is that it makes the image increasingly abstract, and we could see the same technique at work in his sculpture. His choice of subject matter tends to start out with some historical object, the function and form of which have changed radically over time. An exotic Chinese lion dog would become a domesticated Staffordshire pottery dog, and Ziegler is fascinated by “how these things have lost information”. “The dogs”, he says, “went on a journey, starting as one thing and becoming something else”, with the moulds becoming less and less precise. Once again, it is the very medium of transmission that is responsible for both conserving and disrupting.


As this process continues, Ziegler asks whether “there is an original image”, and his paintings certainly invite the viewer to engage with this question, as they clearly point us to referents. If in one series of pictures we see traces of a Freud family portrait, in others the architecture of classical and Northern Renaissance images predominates. These works, the artist says, allow “more room to navigate”, since they are almost emblematic of the process of losing information. Recent and contemporary images are perhaps too bound up with current meanings and signifiers, too interpreted, while the earlier images bear an entropy: they have clearly metamorphosised over time, losing much of their original context.


Ziegler’s use of geometric grids changes accordingly. Where the Renaissance images were built up by their artists from perspectival schemas, in Ziegler’s work the geometry “comes not at the bottom but at the top”. Where the pixelated motifs formed part of the image, they now come to obstruct it. This embodies the loss of information that so intrigues Ziegler, and sheds light on his penchant for superimposed planes and surfaces. Just as one image invades and intrudes on another, so different histories refashion and recreate information.


The artist’s choice of air fright containers as plinths in some of his recent work develops this theme. “Battered from the inside”, they bear the marks of their own history, vessels quite literally of information, displayed via surface deformations. This is why Ziegler turned to aluminium, a material that, unlike cardboard, allowed a more permanent record of multiple fractures and changes.


Like the original breakfast, these containers were surfaces which became disrupted. Yet, contrary to the breakfast, the disruptions are retained and turned into objects. Ziegler must make patterns in order to disrupt them: images for him are always interrupted, with void spaces, dots, blotches, streaks, smudges or awkward lines. As he says, it was the ritualistic nature of the paternal breakfast that accentuated for him the question of  information, since it meant “forgetting what things actually were”.


Like the dreamwork described by Freud, it is the very means of representation that equals the intended message. Rather than simply searching for a secret desire hidden beneath the dream, Freud argued that the very form of the dream could deliver its truth. The condensations, fusions, displacements and contradictions of a dream could in themselves constitute its ‘message’. Like the monk sent on a journey to meet his master and finding no one there, the secret is less some conclusive revelation than the actual journey itself. And for Ziegler, it is the process of transmission of image, memory and information that is crucial. The ‘message’ itself becomes merely the process of distortion: rather than his art aiming to represent or depict an object or ultimate referent, the referent is the actual process of disruption, the loss of information that he continually returns to.


Would it be a surprise if one day Ziegler disclosed that there never had been the paternal breakfast? That it had been simply a fiction to draw interpreters to his work and question the idea of an original image, composition or painting? His paintings and sculptures, after all, never refer us back to one point, one anchor, one centre which would guide us. Rather than this kind of closure, his work makes openings: the grids, lattices and multiple surfaces are never entirely bounded. They are punctured, torn open and incomplete, always inviting us to enter another space.