Daniel Zeller is a master of the intricately swirling, rippling, echoing line. He is a cartographer of alien surfaces — recording something between skin and machine, reptile and vegetation, thermal imaging and imaginary highways. He has been exhibiting his graphite and ink drawings since the beginning of this century and has gotten better and better at them. I first wrote about his work in 2004 and have followed it ever since. In his exhibition, Daniel Zeller: Recent Drawings at Pierogi, the largest works, which measure around four by six feet, are in graphite, but he also uses ink and acrylic. The result is a body of rigorously complex drawings of competing systems that is simultaneously scientific and phantasmagorical.
“Static Impulse” (2017) is a fine-lined drawing depicting the wrinkled surface of an unnamable form seen under a magnifying glass. Composed of circular concentric lines, the surface evokes skin, but of what or whom? What is dazzling about the work is the concentration required to make segmented line after segmented line in a scrupulously echoing pattern that is periodically interrupted and traversed by thicker, darker, meandering lines, which make what we are looking at seem to have folds.
This kind of slow, meticulous drawing is rarely seen in art today; it requires the artist to intuitively follow what the line suggests, to repeat small, intense gestures without worrying about how it will add up. It is an incremental graphic process in which the image appears with the last mark. I imagine that it is the kind of drawing where the tiniest deviation would quickly expose itself. Rather than looking at the drawing, I think we become absorbed in it. I certainly did.
This kind occurs with all of Zeller’s work. We move closer and closer to “Static Impulse” until we become lost in its countless marks, their hypnotic rhythms. I repeatedly found myself gazing at a small area of the drawing until my attention shifted. I kept trying to drink in all the details, which was both pleasurable and daunting.
Take the large drawing, “AnWaHaSoGrMoVaWiCr” (2017), which seems to be the aerial depiction of a vast metropolis from the future. And yet, as I had this thought, I realized that I could not identify any of the structures — and that it did not matter. The density of the connecting structures occupying the upper right side of the drawing made me think I was looking at a section of what writer William Gibson called the Sprawl, his colloquial name for a megalopolis that takes up the entire Northeast coast from Atlanta to Boston.
Zeller’s ability to both control the line and let it meander is astonishing. He seems to have heeded Paul Klee’s advice to take a line for a walk, but in a way that the master of the fantastical imagination could not have foreseen. For one thing, as breathtaking as “AnWaHaSoGrMoVaWiCr” is, it can also be a disturbing vision. In some places, everything is so tightly fit together that it attains a density one can envision as stifling. This is the double edge of looking that Zeller invites us to ponder. I was amazed by the concentration of elaborately connected structures in his drawings, especially those as large as “AnWaHaSoGrMoVaWiCr,” and, simultaneously, wondered if this is our future: network upon network of forms that help ensure both the continuity of human life and the further, irreversible destruction of nature. William Butler Yeats’s prophetic phrase, “A terrible beauty is born,” doesn’t do justice to Zeller’s drawings.
In “Conversion” (2017), Zeller seems to be depicting a state of change (or conversion, as the work’s title implies). And yet, we are left, once again, at a loss to know what inspired it. The color shifts our looking, as Zeller uses it to distinguishes one kind of shape or entity from another, as well as evoke families of related forms. The linear structures extending into the drawing from the four corners are met by a series of distinct forms, which seem to be expanding. There is a mindfulness operating in everything the artist does; no matter how small the shape or mark in his work, it all feels purposeful.
Zeller can be playful, as when he has two forms extending into a drawing from beyond its outlined boundaries. He seems to be inspired by both science and science fiction, as well as Japanese woodblocks and the virtual world of computers. It is not hard to surmise that he is concerned about the fate of this planet, especially in light of all the destruction and waste we perpetuate daily. He works with simple, inexpensive materials, delivering a strong commentary on art that requires fabrication. And yet I would argue that his drawings pull us into a deeper place of thinking. Working with a straightforward vocabulary of abstract marks, Zeller has moved into a class all his own.
Daniel Zeller: Recent Drawings continues at Pierogi (155 Suffolk Street, Manhattan) through June 30.