01. 03. 18 – 14. 04. 18
Is the painted picture closer to the reality or to the appearance? Doris von Drathen asked the painter Gerard Richter in 1992. We could ask the same question of Asha Zero in 2018, for at the heart of Zero’s inquiry in paint is a concern with the multiplicity of reality and appearance in contemporary society.
The title of this, Zero’s third solo exhibition with SMAC gallery, implies a concern with reality and appearance in terms of a personal identity in an online world; set user is a term associated with gaming avatars. Since user identity can readily be changed, it denotes the ability to interact with reality as one identity amongst many, hence the requirement to set the user for the activity to commence. Zero compels himself as well as the viewer to question ‘who’ is looking. In an age of identity prescribed by user interfaces, where multiple login identities can exist for a single person, Asha Zero is a name, a tag, a user identity, born in the pre-digital age when the streets were considered the first truly egalitarian space to create an identity that could compete with a media-saturated world.
In the 1992 interview between von Drathen and Richter, Richter responds by saying that, because painting is an object in itself – it is hand-painted and “tangibly and materially produced” – it has a reality of its own. This is an important thing to remember when looking at Asha Zero’s paintings, because they are illusionistic depictions of something else. They are hyper-realistic painted representations of magazine or digital image sources; torn, collaged, and contextualised in a contemporary bricolage. Using silkscreens, he represents the tattered wallpaper of an undisclosed interior. In thicker swirls of paint, he plasters other areas in a complex riddle of repair or neglect. Zero’s game of reality and appearance forces the viewer to reconsider the material reality of his paintings. What at first appears to be a collage of actual magazine, wallpaper, and plaster elements turns out to be an exquisite rendering of those materials in acrylic paint.
Using paint and not collage is Asha Zero’s way of forcing the issue of ‘reality loss’. Today’s capitalist environments are mediated by our user identity, by the conversion of human movement, emotional responses, and preferences into data to further technological advancement and to make interfaces more ‘user friendly.’ Reality becomes relative to perspective. We are living in the ‘post-truth’ era some have heralded. Zero’s time-consuming painting process affords us the possibility to take responsibility to picture reality for ourselves. The questions his canvases pose to the viewer encourage us to keep our consciousness wide enough awake to figure out what it is that we are looking at.
While tromp l’eoil has been a consistent element of Asha Zero’s work throughout his practice, the site of this interrogation has shifted. His earlier works were more overtly connected to the spaces of the street and the street artist; set user marks an engagement with a distinctly more interior space. Artists since the 60s have pointed to the conflation of the domestic space with the ‘public’ space of commerce and media. Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? is the watershed for this discussion of how consumerism began to invade the way we conceptualise domestic spaces. Asha Zero furthers this comment in an aesthetic of entropy. Like the bulldozing of homes in Detroit, where empty suburbs stand testament to Capitalist failure, Zero’s canvases hint at the abandonment of utopic consumerism. The works could read as the slide into oblivion that all great empires face, as the unsustainability of our economic system becomes all the more apparent.
That entropy is beautiful in and of itself. A strange palimpsest of objects of desire, a strangely fractured means of creating identity, of creating something original amidst the visually saturated ‘society of the spectacle’ that is the mechanism by which Capitalism operates, as Guy Debord so eloquently theorised in 1967. To see is to consume, to visualise is to behold, says the Capitalist belief system. So to fracture the image is to rebel, to collage is to dream outside the order of this system. Zero articulates this fragmentation in the titles of his paintings, which refer to the ‘glitch’ or the digital language of file names: bAQV, cnsole log, or dx3c4fa.
Might pictures overturn indifference? Might the painting redeem the image? This is not Asha Zero’s concern. He does not need to believe in pictures to produce them. As his works evolve, one can sense a growing concern with the formal qualities of composition, of paring down elements to foreground the objective craft of image making. His is a social bricolage that attests to reality as augmented by looking at images, and all the ways that we see them.
Natasha Norman is an independent artist and arts writer, MFA University of Cape Town.
 Interview with Doris von Drathen, 1992 in Gerhard Richter Text 2009 Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist (ed.s) Thames and Hudson: London. p282-287