So many contradictory art movements come to mind when talking about the paintings of Asha Zero, including Dadaism, Nouveau Réalisme, Superrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Punk, Hyperrealism, and Street Art. I have written a few articles and essays about Asha Zero over the past decade, an elusive South African painter whose identity remains a mystery to this day. A trickster, Banksy-esque, Zero’s paintings often fool the viewer into thinking that they are torn bits of paper fashioned into what resembles a collage. In fact, they are highly realistic, painstakingly crafted paintings, with no pasted elements or actual collage.
Just to get the obligatory bio out of the way, Zero is a contemporary painter based in Cape Town, South Africa. Born in 1975 in Pretoria (Tshwane), Zero’s career has a history of nearly two decades. With major exhibitions held locally and abroad, Zero boasts over six solo exhibitions amongst a variety of group exhibitions, art fairs, and auctions around the world. Zero’s work also features in major collections around the world. Below, a selection of two texts and an interview that I think best explains the work of this enigmatic painter entering a phase that can be best described as mid-career.
Until it became fashionable, street art has normally been seen as public vandalism, but the same can be said for billboards, advertising, and other types of capitalist propaganda. Asha Zero is a brand drawing inspiration from all these things, with an idiosyncratic understanding of media and an eccentric grasp of market capitalism, dictating how frivolous such currents are in steering our lives. Alongside other contemporary artists and musicians, including Autechre, Beck, Banksy, Takashi Murakami, Faile, and Barry McGee, Asha Zero effectively renders post-industrial, terminal identity, blip-cultural imagery, depicting a deconstructed global village populated by posthuman citizens. Asha Zero is a commercial entity following the undercurrents of a collective socio-political worldview, documenting a consumer-based society surrounded by commercial glitches, noise, and static.
Asha Zero’s collages aren't collages, they are in fact meticulously constructed paintings, simultaneously landscapes and portraits that depict the pastiche and anxiety of contemporary South Africa, playing with the effects of flickering signs and signifiers that place pressure on our identity, history, and traditions. Zero’s paintings begin as preliminary collage compositions that act as conceptual tools, aiding in the conception of a painting. From this foundation, Zero is a master illusionist presenting highly realistic paintings as if they were cut and pasted paper collages. Make no mistake, Zero’s paintings are as skillfully rendered and layered as any Master painting, where super-realism meets abstraction under the spectacle of hyperreality.
Irony, satire, and parody play an important role in Zero’s depiction of hyperreality, suggesting a kind of neurosis observed in everyday life, manifested in street signs, torn posters, tabloids, headlines, and the like, that surround us. Marshall McLuhan referred to this kind of neurosis as ‘narcosis’, describing society in a state of narcissism and addiction. Asha Zero presents this narcosis through transient and ambiguous mergers of pictorial realism and abstraction, using the conceptual premise of collage. The commonplace is poeticised into a microcosm of alibis for the mutation of truth in post0truth, broken-up into a formal visual language that can sometimes be confused as a political statement. Zero’s painted assemblages mangle orthodox artistic understandings of plasticity, painterly illusion, conceptualism, and abstraction, fractally morphing into epitaphs for the fake and the real, embracing the simultaneous comedy and tragedy of contemporary life.
The spectacle of contemporary society is exposed through contradiction and juxtaposition, utilising traditional avant-garde tools such as collage, gesture, automatism, and appropriation. Zero succinctly borrows from Dada, Neo-expressionism, graffiti, Punk, and Electronica to record glitches in our consumerism, all in an attempt to historicise the present, blurring the lines between beauty and ugliness, evident in the over-stimulated, over-simulated, superficial, and cosmetic. Zero expresses the fabrications of the media, allowing for hybrids of texture, colour, and pattern. Zero’s cut-and-pasted paintings are thus products of a homogenised and fragmented system, and they announce this fact.
Zero’s images are contradictory yet honest. By making paintings that look like a collage, in the age-old tradition of Trompe l’iel, and by re-representing already highly mediated imagery, Zero makes a powerful statement about the global village as bricolage. This is a world where the visions of George Orwell, William Burroughs, Aldous Huxley, and Phillip K. Dick have become accepted norms, where humanist notions of truth no longer teeter on the opposition between good and evil but tinker on the pitting of evil against ‘evil’. Zero delivers a spectacle of xeroxed and mediated imagery, painted by hand rather than merely assembled from pre-existing material in order to articulate a hard-hitting message about the ubiquitous relationship between the real and the fake in contemporary society.
This text was first published in 2010 for Modern Art Projects, Black Book Series.
The Day I Became an Intertextual Chimera
There is no simple way to describe this conversation. Abbreviated, Asha Zero makes art that explores the effect that technological progress, contemporary media, and communication networks have on traditional forms of representation and language. This investigation currently employs the medium of painting, grafted onto conceptual processes that have historically been connected to collage. These paintings exist within shifting frameworks, depicting the ubiquitousness of the present day, particularly within the context of digital, mediated, and virtual spaces. All this whilst adding to established narratives, actively engaging with the rubric of Modernism.
Fragmented and scrambled imagery speaks to the historic flow of art starting with Realism, flirting with Dada and Pop Art, briefly visiting Lettrism and Nouveau Réalisme, ending with elements of Street Art. Zero’s paintings are composite images fused with various ideological foundations, amalgamating diverse offshoots of Modernity, Postmodernity, and Posthumanism. These contrasting, synthesised surfaces document the everyday spectacle of the human condition through combined and juxtaposed source material appropriated from the urban landscape and the present mediasphere. Given this inquiry, we are still left with some interesting questions. Continuing our ongoing dialogue, the artist and I sat down for yet another chat.
Q: Your artworks are commonly perceived as collage. However, they are in actual fact hand-rendered paintings. Do you think this misreading affects the manner in which audiences read your work?
A: It is interesting to see how a person’s engagement with the work changes once this realisation is made. All of a sudden something that was perceived as a loose and messy construction is read as a considered and methodically executed artwork. Two opposing sensibilities become one, connecting two different readings, tying a seemingly quick and easy process with a difficult time-consuming process. I think it’s a bit like trying to read in opposite directions.
Q: Why did you choose the medium of painting, as opposed to the traditional approach, and simply use collage?
A: It started in a very playful way after art school, and slowly developed from there. I had produced some collage work as an art student and found it a useful and fun way to develop ideas. At some point, the thought crossed my mind to render some of the collages in the tradition of trompe l’oeil, which were convincing as ‘collages’ and in many cases pleasantly surprised people. So I stumbled into it.
Q: So you did start your process with actual collage, and then moved onto painting later?
A: Yes, kind of. It was a mix-match in the beginning, probably better described as paintings or drawings with collaged bits; typical mixed media stuff.
Q: We have established that painting is your primary medium, but where does your interest in collage originate from?
A: My interest in collage comes from a mixture of sources, specifically the work of Modernist figures — Dada, Surrealist, and Pop artists — and the prevalence of their varying approaches to mainstream culture. Things like band posters, punk-inspired DIY zines, and so on. I was also drawn to the amalgamation of different contexts and the way that collage sets-up jumps in logic.
Q: In what way did Dada specifically influence your work?
A: The influence lies in the way that content can be stumbled upon accidentally and shaped organically. Our environments continually present interesting juxtapositions. The clash of discordant scenes, languages, and seemingly incompatible ideas — sounds, images, textures, surfaces, platforms — create interesting hybrids. Also, technology now plays a major role in transmitting these conceptual memes and the influence can be seen in the paintings. It influences the range of techniques employed in producing the images.
Q: Has digital culture facilitated broader participation in creative expression, and how does this influence your image making?
A: Within the context of traditional media and the historical trajectory of Modernism in art, particularly the overlapping offshoots of Pop Art, one can easily notice how technological advances in communication impacted these modes of art production. Copying, splicing, and pasting of cultural information, appropriating bits and pieces of narrative are commonplace today. It plays a role in linking various systems, so much so that our way of expressing and communicating through a mixture of sources becomes the norm. The paintings are the result of these types of inputs and processes.
Q: Are your images informed by the notion that contemporary expression is a kind of collage of offline and online, analog and digital, real and virtual?
A: I think so. Mass-produced and technologically manipulated images are hybrid memes. If you consider the techniques employed in the production of the paintings, as well as the sourced images, you can notice a cross-pollination of digital modes of production with traditional media, such as pigment on board. There is an interesting interplay between translations of the ‘online’ and the ‘offline’, between pixel and pigment.
Q: So, networked culture is one of the departure points for the work?
A: Yes, so much is sourced and transmitted via interactive networks; media that communicates in multiple directions with complex ideas that are formed by the overlap of various technologies. These paintings are hyper-realistic images because they occupy positions within crossover zones where the virtual and the physical interchange. The integration of digital networks leaves a viral trace on contemporary art production.
Q: Would you say that the overlapping of various technologies influences perception to such an extent that Abstraction and Realism become one and the same thing?
A: That is a tough question. Yes, it influences the way we observe things. It makes you wonder whether we see more or whether we see less. If so much of it is process-driven, are we observing the underlying patterns, regardless of the surface? This is partly the reason why I find images derived from highly mediated source material interesting.
Q: Is this the reason why you fragment the human form?
A: The fragmentation has to do with what we discussed earlier about technology as an integral part of our existence and the relationship it has with language. It’s not so much about the human form being subject to fragmentation, it’s about the effect on content as it is carried by a medium. Whatever the medium may be, a criss-cross through various translations leads to distortions; iterations of the underlying patterns.
Q: Sort of like the Exquisite Corpse game blended with a machine aesthetic?
A: In a way, it may involve a machine aesthetic but it is a game of various aesthetics. Your reference to the exquisite corpse game forms a nice link to the philosophical concept of “machinic assemblages”, which are combinations of mechanical and organic elements. So these paintings are the result of an engagement with different modes of production as well as materials and concepts that, like the exquisite corpse, approach authorship in a playful manner.
Q: Your most recent work exhibits a marked departure from your earlier figurative depictions. What is the reason for this move towards abstraction?
A: There is a bit of a departure but it’s not really a move towards abstraction because the material that the paintings are based on are complex fabrications of figure and non-figure; of absence and presence.
Q: Your recent paintings also resemble the work of the Lettrists and New Realists, particularly Jacques Villeglé. Did this influence you?
A: Yes, but only superficially. Our approach to and use of appropriation is different. Simply put, there is an inversion of conceptual thinking between his work and mine. Jacques Villeglé deals with collage as painting, and Asha Zero uses painting as collage.
Q: It seems that the Urban Art phenomenon is a symptom of the circumstances that you describe. How would this fall within your artistic practice?
A: The early paintings were small-scale haphazard portraits. The reference images were idealised body parts taken from magazine cut-outs. As the scale of the work increased the game between collage and painting changed. That is when Urban Art elements such as graphic stickers, graffiti tags, and wheat-pasted posters were incorporated into the work. So the larger paintings started to resemble scenes that one would commonly find in urban settings, torn posters on highway pillars, weathered stickers on street poles, and messy electricity boxes. I think a lot of the tactics Urban artists use somehow fall into the cross-over zones that we have discussed.
Q: How do you see your work evolving?
A: It’s difficult to say, depends on where the process leads. I have dabbled in other media and mediums. I don’t see it all locked into painting.
Q: So, given all this deep shit, I am obliged to ask you, what is your favourite colour?
A: I’m going to go with Brick Tamland on this: “I Love Lamp”.
From this brief insight into my conversation with the artist, a few things can be concluded. Although it may seem somewhat dystopic, Zero’s work is simultaneously dystopic and utopic, multiple and singular. This is because the world does not function according to simplified and archaic binary oppositions, black and white terminology, and ideological hierarchies anymore. Language is not fixed or static anymore. Truth is not the truth anymore. The original now exists in a feedback loop; re-represented, in-between, superimposed, remixed, and juxtaposed. Surfaces are scrambled, mere traces of the original screen continually disassembled and reprogrammed. If a clear message can be drawn from all this it is that those distinctions between the authentic and inauthentic, inside and outside, then and now; all are obsolete.
This text was first published in 2015 in The Lake magazine.
“Man’s first expression, like his first dream, was an aesthetic one. Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication. Original man, shouting his consonants, did so in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness and at his own helplessness before the void”.
~ Barnett Newman.
Today. No more poetic outcries. The notion of man no longer implies the heroic, honorable, or virtuous. Tragedy and pathos are superseded by sensory deprivation and overstimulation. Reverbed, delayed, distorted, modulated, sampled, and randomised, the omnipresence of the void. No movement, no consciousness, no original. The authentic now scrambled, filtered, a facsimile. Reproduced and remixed, mashed-up, and hacked. Cut and pasted, the accumulation and acceleration of networks, surrounded by constructed environments.
The city, an extension of the original network — the nervous system. Substrata, layer upon layer upon layer. Mutated neural paths, differed dreams, fragmented, schizophrenic. From this seeming meaninglessness, Asha Zero paints the ebb and flow of information, the stratification of signification, sedimentation of communication, a topology of a euphoric historification. Every surface a piece of history, transition, transmission, nothing is without meaning, the ecstasy of communication. In the silence noise, static, anomalies, glitches. A palimpsest. It is a testament to a simultaneous absence (in the wake of anything authentic or original) and presence (in the form of simulacra and iteration). At this point an absolute ubiquity, an endless repetition of the original subject. Random pattern, melody pulverised into drone, where proximity and promiscuity merge and ambiguously evolve. A singularity crafted from a world founded on immediate communication and instant gratification. Always on, connected, addicted. Asha Zero represents this void, the ever-present, hyper-real. A copy of a copy of a copy, abstract and formless, layered and composited, superimposed as a new form of realism. Realism juxtaposed with Abstraction. Collage, grottage, frottage — an assemblage.
Identifying with a state of terminal identity, masked, pasted, buffed, burned, bombed, torn, and tagged. Obese, always feeding, always connected. A century ago this may have been seen as a moral crisis, presently it is utterly normal. Routine, respite. Sheer anarchy turned absolute normalcy. Nameless, a quasi-exquisite corpse existing as superficial conventionalism. Pure War. Ground zero, Minimalism.
The value of deception and the virtue of ubiquity, concurrently accessible and uncensored yet adulterated and corrupted. Schizophrenia and anxiety are habitual, ‘natural’ responses to the surrounding mediasphere. Asha Zero’s paintings contribute more than just the sum of all parts. Trompe l’oeil here resigns to the conceptual underpinnings of collage, confronting painting under the rubric of collage. Welcoming erasure, interference, trace, and artifice as the status quo Asha Zero symbolises an indifference-in-difference prompted by Dada and Surrealism, stemming from Realism and Impressionism, effectively combining the opposing ideologies of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism. By proxy Posthuman remaining unmarked by humdrum humanist politics or outdated capitalist polemics.
This is no precarious appropriation of established Modernist notions in the tradition of art for art's sake. Nor does it partake in the pretensions of the Postmodern. Asha Zero steals from all, a concurrent Abstractionist and Realist account. Hacked, a chimera. The Realists depicted the everyday original subject in contemporary situations, portraying individuals at their source. Painting as figuration, sentimentality, connected to the real. Abstract Expressionism was the epitome of aesthetic and moral values set forth by the Realists — the other side of the spectrum where painting became ‘pure’, concentrated. Painting as abstract, formal, gestural, disconnected from the real. Sublime, pellucid, spectacle. Asha Zero moves through these narratives and languages inserting hyphens and splices. Appropriation, automatism, cut-up, a machine-aesthetic. Asha Zero reverse engineers these once anarchic avant-garde ideas. Merging all such ‘truths’, hard wiring established Modernist givens to suit the desires of the ‘post-post-‘. Assembling a cacophony of occidental perceptions, Eurocentric diaspora, lost in the post-.
The world is no longer binary, imploding, getting smaller. Hierarchies and oppositions, none of this stuff. Critical mass, it is anarchic, Rhizomatic. The original subject has evolved into an indecipherable cipher. A milieu of cellular automata. In-between, juxtaposed. Surfaces are as numbing as they are stimulating. Scratched and scrambled topologies, simultaneously multiple and singular, combining the ability to differ and to defer. Embodied and embedded, disassembled and reprogrammed, anonymity is chosen over autonomy. Unfixing signifiers, turbulent, entangled, alienated. A clear-cut message: the age-old distinctions between the authentic and inauthentic, in and out, then and now, them and us, all obsolete. Null and void.
“I have studied the art of the ancients and the art of the moderns, avoiding any preconceived system and without prejudice. I no longer wanted to imitate the one than to copy the other; nor, furthermore, was it my intention to attain the trivial goal of ‘art for art’s sake.”
~ Gustav Courbet.
This text was first published in 2015 for the catalog of Zero’s first solo exhibition at SMAC Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa.