When the team at INTRINSIC Wine Co. sought a designer to create the artwork for their cabernet sauvignon label, they didn’t turn to a Madison Avenue product-design team. They found what they were looking for painted on the side of a building in Jersey City, New Jersey: A stylized, wild-style rendering of a woman in a flowing, river-of-red dress leaning back from Cupid’s arrow. The creator? A Queens-born street artist who goes by the name Zimer.
Juan Muñoz-Oca, head winemaker at INTRINSIC, recognized the similarities between street art and the unique wine his company produces—both take form and extract the best qualities from their environment. The soil and climate of the vineyards in Washington inspired Muñoz-Oca to leave the grapes in contact with their skins for nine months after picking, notably longer than the six or seven days as practiced by traditional winemakers. Zimer’s “lady in red” motif comes from a recurring pattern that has evolved over the years, first as an ornate graffiti, then as the hair on wall paintings of women’s faces, and finally the dress on a full figure, which Zimer has painted in multiple locations, in various poses.
Zimer started by clandestinely painting in abandoned warehouses in 2001. From such humble—and illegal—roots, he has since worked his way up through ad hoc graffiti collectives in Long Island City, Queens, and Bushwick, Brooklyn, to coveted invitations to create his art on walls and private buildings.
During the South by Southwest Conference in Austin last month, Zimer set up his easels under the Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk, when onlookers marvel at the scores of bats flying into the night sky. Even here, Zimer’s lady managed to fit into her surroundings. “She’s still wearing her red dress,” Zimer said. “But what does she do when she comes to Austin? She wears boots and she’s playing guitar.”
What inspired you to start street painting?
Zimer: I saw graffiti art and said, “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I have to do it, too.”
Did you start by tagging, or did you immediately create full paintings?
Zimer: Unfortunately, the first thing I painted on was a tree in the forest right by my house. When you’re learning, you don’t really have a place to learn, so you gotta break the rules until you’ve graduated to not breaking the rules.
In the beginning you’re under bridges, hopping fences, climbing rooftops. You’re going to places that regular people don’t want to go. It’s fun. The only thing you have to worry about is not falling through a floor when you’re working in an abandoned building. I almost died a few times like that, no exaggeration.
Did you study art in school or were you self-taught?
Zimer: I took a painting class in architecture school [New York Institute of Technology]. The architecture training teaches you to imagine how a building is going to be used, where it will be, the longevity—so I apply those ideas to art. I’d say something that separates me from a lot of street artists is that I understand public space because of those classes.
I tell people, ‘Don’t just look at the surface of the wall. Imagine the people that are going to be interacting with it.’ You figure out that people are going to take a picture and from what angle. You can use the scale. For example, with the lady in red, a little person walking by a giant dancer creates an emotional impact.
When did you start painting the lady in red?
Zimer: I did the first wall with the lady in red spontaneously at Art Basel Miami. Everything came together at once. I like painting female figures, not just faces the way other people do. A face on a wall doesn’t interact with people walking by. A whole body does.
Red invokes an emotional response. Women in red dresses do, too. What makes my art my art was the structure that I put into those dresses. So for 15 years before I painted the red dress, I was just doing the color structure on its own—maybe as far back as 2008.
The painter Mark Rothko—all he does is show you the colors, and I actually use some of that idea in my paintings. I see how he arranges colors and…makes those colors into objects. I’ll do red for two-thirds of the painting, and then I complement it. Someone seeing the painting will just like the way they feel looking at the image. But the color relationship is one of the tricks I use to evoke that feeling.
What was your reaction when INTRINSIC asked to use your art for their label?
Zimer: I was super excited to do artwork on a product that I think deserves it. Architecture school focused me on the idea that there’s form and there’s function. Art is lacking in function almost by definition, and if you call a building a piece of art, it almost means it doesn’t function. That my art is actually performing a function is absolutely one of the highlights of my career.
First, my painting directs the viewer toward a worthy product. Then it allows the buyer to enjoy the product. I could make someone’s day better by making a pretty picture, but this is definitely a few steps past that.
Where do you go for inspiration? Do you go to museums or art galleries?
Zimer: I would say both. The one thing I do not like to get inspired by is the work of fellow active artists because I like to keep my own intrinsic style. I often go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art because I learn something each time. Those paintings earned their place on the wall because they were cherished for hundreds of years. We live in age where everything changes so fast that I’m always trying to [avoid] trends.
Andy Warhol often put labels in his art, and now you’re doing your art on a label. Have you thought of that relationship?
Zimer: I would almost say we have opposite approaches. He’s a great marketer, and graffiti has a lot of marketing to it. In the New York subway, you’ll see an advertisement repeated one after the next. Ad people have said they learned that from the graffiti guys. Warhol took an image and repeated it all in your field of view—he’s forcing that image onto you. I feel like he’s using the stick and we’re using the carrot, like, ‘Isn’t this nice enough that you want it so bad?’
This article was created for and commissioned by INTRINSIC Wine Co.