“The phrase that each of us is unique and irreplaceable is so powerful”
A man caught between the spiritual world of his faith and the material one of his craft, Dan Zimmerman has lofty ideals to support his work and life. In Thomas Florek‘s short documentary Dan Zimmerman: Musician, Painter, Cosmic Patriot, we experience the thought process behind the New Jersey-based surrealist through his own words. Every second contains either the artist in interview or his voice in song melodically touching our soul as the camera pans over high-resolution photos of his paintings. Dan creates worlds for his audience to overcome the isolation of the flesh. Through art we communally free ourselves to traverse new environments and stand alongside a kindred spirit willing to live beyond the constraints of the dog-eat-dog world desperately trying to tell us we’re ordinary and expendable.
Not to be pigeonholed into any documentary mold, Florek creates his film as more of a glimpse into the artist’s mind rather than depiction of the man himself. By never showing the interviewer, the work becomes almost autobiographical as an oration of ideas. Paintings are shown in detailed grandeur—close enough to see the palette knife ebbs and flows on canvas—and music is uninterrupted to accompany the surreal landscapes to form a music video rather than brief sound blurbs only giving listeners a taste of Zimmerman’s Nick Cave-esque vocals. As the artist looks to find the context between the physical art and his faith, the film lets us experience the work on our own terms to do the same. The art is allowed to touch us personally and not be merely what Florek tells us it is.
The sparse 18-minutes stand as an artist’s statement delving into a little history—the opening voiceover explaining his journey from boyhood to the present—and an explanation of motivations. Many of the works have a Francis Bacon aesthetic while others go towards the abstract with waves and faces flowing freely, but each finds a way to remain accessible for audiences. Listening to Dan speak of art as participatory in this way is inspiring. To him each work is a template for experience and not a definitive entity left to languish in a stagnant existence. The simple choice by Florek to play songs like “The Public” from the artist’s album Cosmic Patriot helps awaken the imagery by adding a story and emotional resonance above sight itself. Hearing his words about a false populace being manipulated while a painting of mankind’s herd enters the belly of a monster is astonishing.
There are some stylistic choices towards the end that did take me out of the work, but for the most part Dan Zimmerman: Musician, Painter, Cosmic Patriot is a unique look at an artist on his own terms. Using color filters on footage of the painter mixing grays was a bit too on the nose and placing his singing visage in circular vignette on a canvas exploration confused my focus—something so crisp and clear up until that point. I would have loved to watch a little of the performance by itself in order to watch his expression and emotion at the microphone, but the brief look in the top right corner seemed an after thought rather than artistic flourish.
Truth be told, I would have been happy watching the camera move over his work while the entire album played. Florek takes Zimmerman’s lead and allows the music to color his muted work. Just like Dan explaining his process of adding emotional hues to the black and white films he watched, the filmmaker lets the canvases and songs live together in visceral concert. His music and art exist as a window into our own souls as we travel through the dark terrain and discover details about ourselves reflected in the imagery. It’s refreshing to hear an artist speak without ego, happy to create while the world watching is free to interpret without concrete answers dismissing their individual journeys.