Ion Zupcu, Etudes on Glass @ClampArt

JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 color photographs, mounted and framed in white, and hung against white walls in the back gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2019 or 2020. Physical sizes are either 14×18 or 26×34 inches, and the prints are available in editions of 10 and 6 respectively. A third larger size (40×52 inches, in editions of 3) is also available, but is not on view. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The answers to the broad question of what kind of music a person chooses to work to feel endlessly surprising. For some people (the library goers and noise cancelers), true silence is the only effective audio accompaniment. For others, music can provide a backdrop to the process of work that actually minimizes distractions, enhances productivity, and seemingly makes the work go faster. From there, the sub-questions of what kind of music is best (especially for certain kinds of work) is even more nuanced. Do words or lyrics become distracting, encouraging the mind to follow along, or do they propel the work forward? Is a person’s usual playlist effective, or perhaps a specific set of low volume “good for working” music is required? The answers can be fascinatingly personal, and altogether unexpected.

One potential solution to the problem is music composed for solo piano. For more than a few, the patterns found in compositions for a single piano, as built (or improvised) by Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Monk, Ibrahim, Jarrett, and any number of others from a variety of genres and time periods, offer the right balance of quiet interest and stimulation to complement hard attentive work in some other form. And for Ion Zupcu, as seen in this recent body of photographs, inspiration specifically comes from listening to Philip Glass and his Piano Etudes.

It’s been more than a decade since we last checked in with Zupcu. Back in 2010 (reviewed here), he was experimenting with geometric abstractions in serene shades of black-and-white, made with multiple exposures and arrays of painted cubes. Zupcu’s new work continues his exploration of in-studio tabletop construction, this time using cut paper as his underlying medium, now in a variety of bright colors. In essence, he’s continuing to build sculptural still lifes which he then photographs, and in this case, those new images are built in direct response to and in dialogue with Glass’s music.

Glass composed a total of 20 etudes between 1994 and 2012, but Zupcu’s titles only tell us when he (Zupcu) made his photograph, rather than which particular etude he was listening to at the time. So we can’t quite examine the one-to-one correspondence between specific repetitions, crescendos, rising and falling scales, and other flourishes and intensifications in Glass’s music and the paper sculptures Zupcu made to reflect them. Instead, the connections are more generalized and abstract, Zupcu’s curves and planes capturing spirit and energy rather than mimicking particular sounds or progressions.

Apparently, Zupcu made line drawings of all his compositions before executing them in paper, and that linear thinking is visible in the way he treats his forms. Each work has two layers: a foreground element in bright color, and a background element in muted tones of blue. The focus has been meticulously placed on the foreground object, allowing the back to drift to blur, softening the planes and surfaces so they complement what’s in front rather than compete with it. In some cases, the backdrop is simply the striping of dark tabletop and lighter back wall; in others, Zupcu has added folded geometric elements that provide understated contrasts to or echoes of main sculptural form. In some sense, this layering can be associated with the left hand/right hand playing in the music, with one providing foundation and the other leading with melody.

Zupcu’s interest in line can clearly be seen when he photographs his paper sculptures straight on from the side, turning the edge of the paper into a thin line. Using bold orange and pink papers, he traces three sides of a cube, lifts the fourth side up at an angle, and creates jagged up and down triangular rhythms. In other works, Zupcu allows curvature into his visual vocabulary, with standing pieces that curve into swirls and curlicues, the yellow and blue papers seen slightly off kilter, making their wideness seem like the drawing of a thick marker. And in still other photographs, Zupcu builds the papers into interlocking forms, where a red lattice looks like a precarious house of cards and bent red and blue forms interact with complementary repetitions. In each case, we can reasonably approximate the music Zupcu was thinking about (in our heads at least), from clean simple notes to more elaborately dramatic gestures and interwoven structures. Listening to the etudes themselves makes the inspiration all the more clear.

While Zupcu began this series before the coronavirus pandemic began, these photographs have all the hallmarks of quarantine-constrained art making – humble available materials, small scale construction, inward-looking personal reflection and response, and ultimately, some hints of gestural optimism. In this way, these abstractions feel well timed – measured, intimate, and thoughtful, while still open to hopeful spins and filigrees.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at either $2200 or $4000, based on size; the largest size (not on view) is priced at $5000. Zupcu’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Little Big Man Books (here). Softbound with dust jacket, 10 x 7 inches, 292 pages with numerous color photographs. Includes a text ... Read on.

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