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Jeff Zimmermann

September 2nd, 2011

In this interview with Elysabeth Alfano of Fear No ART, Jeff Zimmerman discusses the making of his mural at Chicago’s Oak Street Beach.

A native of Chicago, Jeff Zimmermann has achieved national and international recognition for his large scale murals featuring painted images of contemporary pop culture and sensitively rendered portraits. Zimmermann’s pop-culture references range from innocuous consumer products such as beer cans, hard candy rings, and high healed shoes, to more symbolically charged images like pistols and portraits of political figures. The images are discrete and floating, knitted together by geometric areas of flat color. The overall aesthetic is smooth and sensual: shiny metal and glossy surfaces, rendered in saturated colors. Zimmermann’s paintings have the sex appeal of commercial art, and any irony surrounding that connection is light and playful. The artist’s background as a graphic designer explains his shrewd use of flashy and graphic forms which also permeate the mass media (Zimmermann’s self-proclaimed competition), operating on the theory that we all deeply love flashy stuff.

While rooted in contemporary life and consumer culture, Zimmermann’s work also reveals a sympathetic affinity for everyday people. And though he carefully avoids didacticism, instead playing the role of objective visual journalist, viewers may get the sense that he has reached his own conclusions. The portraits Zimmermann renders on such enormous scale enact a specific agenda in his work. In an effort to subvert the notion of what corporate and entertainment culture considers newsworthy, Zimmermann incorporates into his murals a diversity of people who live and work in the communities he visits—these are not the faces we know from the news, magazines, and television, or those whose historical or political status already qualifies them as subjects for public art. Incorporating into his works people excluded from the aforementioned categories—what he calls real people—Zimmermann familiarizes himself with a community while allowing its members to breathe authenticity and life into his paintings. The portraits in Zimmermann’s artwork are dignified and attractive, directing the viewer conversation toward a democratic humanitarian dialog, while giving the work an emotional depth that complements the polished context of his product-based world.

But despite rendering real people, Zimmermann refuses to allow prospective models’ real-life stories of success and struggle to compel him to select them; instead, he chooses subjects according to the conceptual and aesthetic dictates of his paintings. His models at first only serve the visual narrative of his paintings. Reluctant to state conclusively the significance of the personalities in his murals, Zimmermann prefers viewers to make their own discoveries. But when community members, who are often familiar with the faces represented, engage the works personally, interpretations may arise that even Zimmermann cannot foresee. Presenting his subjects with something that borders on reverence, their humanity remains intact. In the end, the artist’s process of culling the communities surrounding the sites for his public artworks communicates ideas that are bigger than any one person.