The Still Life

Following In The Masters' Brush Strokes, Local Artist Gives His Work Historical Perspective

August 30, 2009|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Matt Zoll really has nothing against the 21st century, or even the 20th. The artist's Baltimore County studio is equipped with electric lights and two desktop computers that suggest his accommodation to the times, even if he paints in a way that much of the art world left behind centuries ago.

On his painting days, he drives about 15 minutes from his home in Anneslie to a commercial strip off York Road. Once he shuts his studio door and goes to work, Zoll has turned his back on the march of art history that has occurred since before the Impressionists first rocked the academy in the 19th century.

The idea of what in the world can be considered "art" has taken one hit after another ever since, but Zoll, a slim, soft-spoken and intense man of 40, figures the definition was settled when the likes of Diego Velazquez and Rembrandt walked the Earth in the 1600s.

He stands in a line of artistic succession, back to the Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore and perhaps farther still. One might say from the cobblestone streets of 17th-century Europe to the relentless asphalt of Lutherville and Timonium.

"I've had critics tell me, even other artists say, 'Why don't you just take a picture of [the subject]? You're just doing what's in front of you.' " said Zoll. "I believe I'm being true to myself. I respect this type of art."

The peaches are peaches, the pears are pears. The cloth drapes just so, the light rakes tastefully across a violin, old books, a rabbit carcass, perhaps a plate of fish - all in these quiet, still-life spaces Zoll makes, as if he's out to banish the chaos of the world. His paintings depict the "real" - only turned up a notch. Don't tell him you mistook one of his paintings for a photograph.

"One of the worst compliments I can get is 'Wow, it looks like a photograph,' " Zoll said. "I want it to look better than a photograph."

Zoll cannot separate his notions of art from his convictions about discipline and craft. First, the drawing. Then the painting, the technique resurrected by French artist Jacques Maroger, who moved to New York in 1939, then Baltimore shortly thereafter.

There's a lineage here, a kind of art world family tree. Follow it from the Old Masters to Maroger, to Hans Schuler Sr. at what was then the Maryland Institute of Art, to Hans Schuler Jr. and his wife, Ann Didusch Schuler, who embraced Maroger's vision, left the Institute and founded the Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore in 1959.

Studying how the masters got impossibly smooth surfaces and precise details, Maroger unlocked the mysteries of lead oxide, mastic varnish, beeswax and sundry oils.

Born 20 years later with a gift that soon became apparent, Zoll studied for five years with a private instructor who had learned the Schuler/Maroger methods. After graduating from Towson Catholic, he enrolled in Schuler's four-year program.

In his rose-marble-topped studio cabinet, he keeps the containers of lead oxide called litharge and the rest of the painter's apothecary. He mixes his own colors from powdered pigment and black oil, a molasses-colored blend of litharge and linseed oil boiled for hours at frightening temperatures.

"It seems real easy, but it took a long time to figure this out," he said as he mixed the amber goo known variously as "Flemish" or "Maroger medium": equal parts mastic varnish and black oil. The stuff aids blending, dries paint faster for layering, enables precise and fluid brush strokes.

The canvas of the moment is a still life featuring a bottle of Flanders ale, a pitcher and other items against a bulletin board backdrop. Zoll put about nine hours of work into it and probably has another 30 to go - moving from patches of relatively heavy paint to ever-thinner layers.

"You can see this is a very slow process. Very tedious," he said. "You just have to get in a zone and get lost in it."

His work, which can sell for up to $20,000, can be found in the Troika Gallery in Easton and Michael Hollis Fine Art in South Pasadena, Calif.

Bob Depew and his wife, Anne, have bought three Zoll paintings for their Kent Island home, feeding Bob Depew's enthusiasm for Zoll's brand of virtuoso realism known as "trompe l'oeil."

"When I run across people who can do that, I'm astounded," said Depew.

Zoll is more circumspect. He talks about looking at paintings he did five years ago and wanting to take them back for more work. Perhaps the peaches could "turn" a bit more convincingly into the shadows. Perhaps the shadow could be richer, the colors more vibrant yet. The masters keep egging him on. He may never catch those ghosts, but he's clearly relishing the hunt.

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