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Formal Matter was shown at ACME. gallery in 2017. This body of work consists of a group of warm-toned black and white photographic prints, varying widely in size, all with a matte surface. There are two ‘kinds’ of photographs within the series, namely images of large coastal outcrops titled ‘Rocks’ and images of wood carvings titled ‘Carvings’.


The Rock photographs of coastal outcrops are all made along the California coast, ranging from Orange County to Mendocino County. Several of the locations are quite remote and can only be accessed by hiking during low tide. Like Zaki’s Tree Portraits from 2013, these photographs isolate the subjects against a largely overcast or flat sky, rendering the scale of the rocks unclear, alternating between appearing monumental or miniature, depending on how close one observes the details. Something that drew Zaki to the subject was considering the way they have been formed, incredibly slow over many millions of years, largely by the erosive ebb and flow of the ocean tides which are created by the gravitational forces of the moon and the sun. In that macro-sense, they are amazing objects of contemplation, both constantly changing and timeless forms created by incredibly complex and creepingly slow, natural phenomena.

Amir Zaki, Rock #12

Like much of Zaki’s work over the last 5 years, each of these highly detailed photographs are made using a Gigapan tripod head, and seamlessly stitching together an array of dozens of individual images on the computer after the fact. The process is cumbersome and slow going, the equipment is large and heavy, and the artist cannot see his results in real time. In some ways, this experience harkens back to 19th century landscape photography that involved incredibly elaborate processes and arduous journeys before an image could emerge. Yet in other ways, Zaki is utilizing the newest kinds of image capture and printing technologies to create work that has a visual clarity and a degree of detail that could not have been created even 5-10 years ago. As an artist working with the medium of photography in the 21st century, where images are literally omnipresent yet largely empty, Zaki is very intentional in his approach of straddling contemporary and historical practices, and insisting on prioritizing the bodily experience of beholding and considering an actual photographic print hung on a wall. This is a way to say that Zaki intentionally creates photographic prints that have qualities, some subtle and some not, that cannot be simply replaced by the experience of viewing them on digital screens (phones, tablets, computers).


The Carving images form the other half of this current body of work.  They are depicted on a white or light grey ground and backdrop, not unlike the grey skies surrounding the rocks, isolated from any other kind of environment and lit with a single, directional light source. The shapes are organic, curvilinear and relatively abstract, yet also tend toward anthropomorphic forms. It is impossible to determine their scale.

Amir Zaki, Carving #8

The Carvings were constructed in a vastly different way than the Rocks. In fact, these were not actually photographed with a camera at all and do not exist as tangible objects in the world. Instead, they were constructed using 3D modeling software, rendered as digital images and finally printed. The forms were created using a method of chance within the software, much like imagining a form one might get by dropping a piece of cloth from a tall building and freezing it in space at any given moment. These somewhat arbitrary forms were then given volume and substance within the software environment. In stark contrast to the fact that the coastal rocks have been formed over millennia at a geologic pace, these 3D models take their initial, ’random’ shape nearly instantaneously. The wooden material that the forms possess is created by texturing them with images from high resolution photographs that Zaki made using the Gigapan technology of 4 x 8 foot sheets of different kinds of wood veneers. These virtual carvings are then placed on a virtual ground, and lit with a virtual sun and then rendered as high resolution digital images.


As a complete body of work, Formal Matter is in part a meditation on ‘the natural’. Seen together, the Rocks and Carvings can often look anthropomorphic, highlighting the seemingly innate and overwhelming tendency to imbue images with human desires and values. As an installation, the Rock and Carving photographs are hung together, intentionally printed in various different sizes, never resting comfortably with themselves in terms of scale, and further obscuring their ‘true’ nature, as if there were one to be found.

Read The Los Angeles Time's 2017 review of this work by Amir Zaki at ACME gallery, Los Angeles.

All prints are Epson Ultrachrome Archival Ink on Epson Hot Press Natural Paper. Printed in 2016

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