Michael Zansky: Bosch For Today
by Donald Kuspit
This Tabernaculum Dei cum hominibus, to quote from the inscription on the frame, is poised like an enchanting vision above a spectacle as horrifying as any canto in Dante or Milton. A barren earth and angry sea give up their dead. A youthful, brilliantly armored St. Michael, sword drawn and legs astraddle, controls the Spectre of Death, a giant skeleton that seems to rush toward the beholder in head-on foreshortening and stares at us with sightless eyes. Its bat wings, inscribed with the words CHAOS MAGNV and VMBRA MORTIS are stretched throughout the picture so as to separate, most literally, the realm of light from the “mist of darkness,” and the droves of the Damned plummet headlong into the pit to fall prey to hideous demons who merge with their victims in a seething mass of tortured confusion. To compare this evocation of the Abyss with the phantasmagorias of Jerome Bosch is saying too much and too little; conceived
by a mind profoundly sane and optimistic, its horrors are not dreamt but seen. Bosch’s Paradise has fundamentally the same weird, nightmarish quality as his Hell. — Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, commenting on Hubert and/or Jan van Eyck’s Last Judgment, ca. 1430–35.
Edifying—and horrifying—religious literature (for example, the Ars moriendi and such accounts of Hell and Purgatory as the Visio Tundali) must also have played its part in Bosch’s intellectual life, together with popular science, Rabbinical legend, the inexhaustible storehouse of native folklore and proverbial wisdom, and, above all, orthodox Christian theology….and I am profoundly convinced that he, a highly regarded citizen of his little home town and for thirty years a member in good standing of the furiously respectable Confraternity of Our Lady, could not have belonged to, and worked for, an esoteric club of heretics, believing in a Rasputin-like mixture of sex, mystical illumination and nudism, which was effectively dealt with in a trial in 1411….Jerome Bosch was not so much a heretic as one of those extreme moralists who, obsessed with what they fight, are haunted, not unpleasurably, by visions of unheard-of obscenities, perversions and tortures….he may have been a case for psychoanalysis, but not for the Inquisition. — Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting.
It is undoubtedly unusual that plays teach first by learning themselves, that the involved persons and their actions are turned upside down in a questioning and investigating way. And yet, there is already an open form in all dramas, where human beings and situations are shown particularly in their permanent contradictions. — Ernst Bloch, “The Stage Regarded as a Paradigmatic Institution and the Decision within It.”
Michael Zansky’s work as the Lead Set Painter for the popular television series Law and Order: Special Victims Unit seems to me one of the keys to his other, more bizarre, not to say mordantly esoteric work, particularly his theatrical masterpiece Giants and Dwarfs, 1990–2002, a panoramic installation on the grand scale and in the grand manner of theatrical Old Master frescos. The grain of the wood in which the visionary images are forcefully carved or carefully etched—they seem immutably embedded in the surface, like fossils, even as they seem to erupt from the impenetrable depths beneath it, with sudden insistence—gives them a certain expressionistic flavor and intensity, but they remain hypnotically intact, their raw tactility serving their unnerving meaning rather than an aesthetic end in itself.
One cannot help thinking of Munch’s early woodcuts and van Gogh’s late paintings, both of which have a similar hallucinatory character; the grainy wood and grainy painterliness conveying the excited emotions that animate the images so that they seem uncannily absurd yet oddly descriptive. Giants and Dwarfs, also expressively distorted and insidiously empirical, is Zansky’s signature piece, as Munch’s The Scream, 1893, is his, and van Gogh’s Self-Portrait, 1888, is his. All three works convey the artists' experience of himself—his contradictory sense of himself—which is why outwardly they appear strange, suggesting the artists felt strange to themselves. This is all the more so in Giants and Dwarfs, where the figures, most absurdly inchoate, some clearly animals, seem to symbolize a self that is a mystery to itself. Like Munch and van Gogh, Zansky—and he is clearly their peer—seems to feel like a a social outsider, like a “stranger on the earth,” the title of Albert E. Lubin’s masterful psychological biography of van Gogh.
Doubly estranged, from society and himself, Zansky cannot help but feel isolated and involuted: his peculiarly warped figures are much more expressively profound, not to say emotionally shocking, than Munch’s and van Gogh’s more plausibly human figures. Zansky's warped figures seem to be twisted in on themselves, as though seen in a distorting mirror, giving them monstrous shapes with a certain affinity to the incomprehensible anamorphic form of the death’s-head in Holbein’s The French Ambassadors, 1533. In unfamiliar anamorphic form, the death’s-head represents the unconscious truth; seen from the “right” perspective, it comes into clear focus, losing its enigmatic appearance—but gaining shocking meaning—in a jolt of recognition. The tension between the unconsciously felt, deformed, unnatural, unknown and the
consciously perceived, naturally formed, clearly known is greater in Zansky’s work than in Munch’s and van Gogh’s, making it more threatening and insidious. I will argue that it has greater affinity with the ancient imagery of the grotesque, traceable to Roman decorative style— Zansky acknowledges the influence of the grotesque mask in a mosaic of the Casa Del Fauno in Pompeii—and evident in, more extreme, absolute, confrontational form, in Holbein’s death’shead, than with the tamer modern grotesque, evident in Munch’s and van Gogh’s mildly deformed figures. The grotesque is less of the essence of their art than it is of Holbein’s grotesquely distorted death’s-head and Zansky’s grotesquely distorted figures. In Zansky’s Age of Iron, 2012, there seems more than an incidental kinship between them: the grayish shape hovering in the airless space has the same misshapen appearance as Holbein’s anamorphic skull, suggesting that Zansky is unconsciously quoting it.
The ancient grotesque mask is an uncanny fusion of the comic and tragic masks of ancient theater, a paradoxical integration of opposites suggesting that it is hard to know whether to laugh or weep at life. The grotesque suggests that one is as good as the other—that laughter quickly becomes weeping and vice versa. Wearing the grotesque mask as his inner face, Zansky is both Democritus, the laughing philosopher, and Heracleitus, the weeping philosopher. Heracleitus argued that all is in metamorphic flux and thus tragically unstable, and Democritus argued that all is reducible to elemental matter and thus comically stable; Zansky’s art deals with the metamorphic flux of elemental matter. The bizarre figures in such works as Thought Transference, Valley of the Kings, and Cipher 5, all 2009–10, are peculiarly comic and tragic at once. The figures of Munch and van Gogh are only pitiable.
In Holbein, the meaning of the death’s-head is defensively repressed, even denied, by distorting its appearance into a grotesqueness so complete and radical that it becomes unrecognizable, so that it doesn’t seem to belong in the picture of The French Ambassadors. It seems “incorrect” and a “mistake,” not to say “wrong-headed” and “thoughtless,” compared to the men's “unmistakable,” “correct” appearance and “right-headedness”; they are men of reason and culture, as the objects accompanying them suggest). The obscurity of the totally distorted skull makes it peculiarly haunting, as though insinuating it into our unconscious. To use Freud’s distinction, in grotesquely distorted anamorphic form, Holbein’s skull is the manifest content of a terrifying dream; seen from the “correct” point of view when one is awake, one understands its meaning, which is the dream’s latent content. Death is unrepresentable, the anamorphically distorted skull suggests—a skull that has become an absurd abstraction, so estranged from its appearance that it seems to have no reality, a skull that seems more immaterial than material, a formless mirage that seems to have no meaning, an empty blur invading the clarity of the scene like a cancer—but undistorted and “interpreted,” the skull represents and materializes death.
One must make the same revolutionary change of point of view to grasp the meaning of
Zansky’s distorted figures; one does not have to change one’s point of view to understand Munch’s and van Gogh’s figures. They are instantly comprehensible; Zansky’s figures must be interpreted to be fully comprehended. Munch’s and van Gogh’s figures look normal, realistic, and familiar compared to Zansky’s abnormal, unrealistic, unfamiliar dream figures. Munch and van Gogh are not deeply shocking, however much they afford the so-called shock of the new. In contrast, like Holbein’s anamorphic skull, Zansky’s grotesque figures, rooted in age-old art, shock us to the core of our being. They, too, have the ugliness of death, seem like death perversely incarnate, together forming a sort of macabre dance of death. If life is beautiful, then death is ugly, and the grotesque is anti-life ugliness epitomized: what the philosopher Francis Bacon called the “something strange” that infects beauty and disrupts its harmony, is death. Zansky is a master of strangeness more than Munch and van Gogh ever were. Zansky’s capacity for strangeness makes him the greatest master of the grotesque since antiquity—even
greater than Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, and the other Francis Bacon, the modern masters of grotesque expression.
In the Renaissance, the goal of art was grace, as Vasari wrote, stating that the “divine
Michelangelo Buonarroti” realized it as no other artist had before him. In modernity, the goal of art was the grotesque, making its first dramatic appearance in the bizarre figures pictured in Redon’s Symbolist portfolio of prints, In the Dream, 1879. They were officially the first dream, surreal imagery, and for some art historians a precedent for the art of the insane that became influential in the twentieth century. The grotesque is the opposite of grace—indeed, a fall from grace, the “disgrace” Adam and Eve suffered when they sinned, bringing with it the feeling that their bodies, beautiful in paradise, had become peculiarly ugly and unsightly. Zansky's Giants and Dwarfs is a perverse update of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, inviting ironical comparison with it, all the more so because it is as overwhelming and intimidating. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment turns the Chapel into a kind of theater in the round, like Zansky’s Giants and Dwarfs. For Zansky the ceiling is a religious “comic strip of fifteenth-and sixteenth-century thought” about “how the universe is created,” which he replaces with a scientific comic strip of nineteenth-and twentieth-century thought about how the universe is created. Zansky is
as great a master of the devilishly grotesque as Michelangelo was of the divinely graceful. In Zansky’s godless universe, nature is in perpetually amorphous process, obscenely chaotic evolution, with no Adam and Eve on the scene, and certainly no garden of paradise. As such, it is profane, ugly, and grotesque compared to Michelangelo’s sacred, beautiful, harmonious universe, created by the grace of God for man, who was his greatest and most beautiful creation. Zansky shows us a universe fallen from grace, like the abysmal hell of Van Eyck and Bosch. In Bosch, hell is ironically conflated with heaven, for his paradise is the opposite of what it seems to be, like the famous image of the false or anti-Christ, which is a Christ look-alike but seductively naked, in his Adoration of the Kings, ca. 1510. In Zansky’s hell, the devils don’t have to disguise themselves as angels. For Zansky the evolutionist man is descended from beasts, which abound in Giants and Dwarfs, overgrown and monstrous creatures in a primeval jungle. Man is himself half-beast, as the devil is in religious iconography. The comparison of Bosch and Zansky announces another significant difference between the art of Munch and van Gogh’s and that of Zansky’s. Munch’s and van Gogh’s works look forward to expressionistic signature painting, which involves what Ernst Gombrich called submission to “the anarchic tendencies of the unconscious”—more particularly “the instinctive drives” that are “the most primitive layer of our mental life.” Munch and van Gogh's works look forward to the beginning of twentieth-century avant-gardism, heavily influenced by primitive art, as Gombrich remarks, in the hope that what Gauguin called its “savagery” and “barbarism” could “rejuvenate” art. (By the nineteenth century, classical beauty, which had inspired art since the Renaissance, seemed overripe and academic, not to say shop-worn and devitalizing—all too “slow” for what Baudelaire called “the rapidity of movement” in modern life.) Zansky’s work, however primitivist its technique sometimes seems, looks backward to traditional eschatological painting, with its superego character. Adam and Eve gave in to their sexual instincts and were punished by God the superego, and Zansky’s instinct-driven figures are punished in primeval hell, like those of Bosch.
The decadence and bankruptcy that overtook classicism after a run of nearly four centuries— from, say, the remark about the “many and fine godly arts…of the virtuous ancients” with which Alberti began his 1435 treatise “On Painting,” to the assertion that “antiquity has not ceased to be the great school of modern painters” with which David began his explanation of his 1800 painting The Sabines—overtook modernism, with the development of postmodern “postart,” in less than a century. The boundary between everyday life and imaginative art became blurred; the mindless expression of primitive instinct became a cliché; “outsider” avant-garde art became “insider” establishment art; once proudly independent art became dependent on institutions for its legitimacy, even identity. What had once seemed like true art—full of “spontaneous gesture” and “personalized idea” and as such an expression of what the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott calls the “true self”—had now become “false art,” on the model of Winnicott’s “false self,” a compliant cog in the socioeconomic machinery of art. What Gombrich called the “permanent revolution” became retardataire; what was once forward-looking—recklessly unconventional— became conventional and routine. The avant-garde claimed to renew art, but it became stifling. With the avant-garde now the rearguard, to “break with tradition” (including the now traditional avant-garde), which was supposedly a creative act and a sign and proof of originality, an artist had to invoke the traditional. What Baudelaire called the “great tradition” seemed to rise from the dead like Lazarus.
Museum art, as Clement Greenberg called it, no longer seemed like a dead end; some artists, who rejected it to look avant-garde, returned to it for creative inspiration after their “breakthrough.” They realized that breakthroughs are short-lived and unsustainable (by definition); the question remains: how does one make an art that has staying power—art for the long term, like the art of the great tradition, not art for the short term, like avant-garde art, which quickly became what Greenberg called novelty art. They intuitively realized that “it is not possible to be original except on a basis of tradition,” as Winnicott wrote, suggesting that avant-garde originality stands on shaky ground because it repudiates tradition. They learned the hard avant-garde way that without the “facilitating environment” of tradition—the constant nourishment and support of tradition—art eventually withers on the vine. They watched the avant-garde revolution against traditional art become a repressive reign of terror. For them tradition became a treasure chest rather than reified history, true art rather than false art, the embodied living spirit rather than the dead letter of art. Especially because, viewed in art historical perspective, installed as one art among the many in the universal museum of art, the avant-garde tradition of the new no longer looked as “great” as its “breakthroughs” initially made
it seem. However, it did develop many “great” new methods of making art. In avant-garde art technical innovation became an end in itself—and became confused with originality, which involves what Winnicott calls “primary creativity” and “creative apperception”—but it does not guarantee what Greenberg dismissively called the “spirituality” and emotional depth of the great Old Masters.
As the philosopher T. W. Adorno wrote, modern art—and he was a devotee and advocate of it— may claim to “will what has never existed before, but…the shadow of the past looms over everything.” Past art—including the art of the modern past—informs Zansky’s “dream imagination,” to use Freud’s term, even as it is concerned with processing the present. Just as Renoir looked to Rubens’s paintings for inspiration and support, Epstein to Michelangelo’s sculptures, and Soutine to Rembrandt’s paintings, Zansky looked to Dürer’s prints; like Dürer, he is a post-avant-garde artist, fusing traditional and avant-garde ideas of art—more precisely, using modernist means to address traditional spiritual issues. Zansky realizes that the unconscious alone can no longer make the artist magically creative, as Redon thought it could; the artist must now be fully conscious—of the encyclopedic richness of art history as well as of his own and society’s complexity—to be meaningfully creative. The avant-garde tradition dead-ends in pure abstract art; it is the climax of what has been called the religion of art that developed in the nineteenth century. The worship of art replaced the worship of God, as though the creation of art was the same as the creation of life, with art finally essentializing itself as though it were more important than existence. Whereas, the great tradition was concerned with the comprehensive representation of the “all too human,” with all its paradoxes and problems. I am arguing that Zansky ambitiously engages the great tradition—indeed, that his art belongs to the great tradition—using and ingeniously fusing a variety of modern and traditional, abstract and representational, modes of artistic expression. The tondos, 2011–12 are an eloquent example—to restore what Baudelaire called the “majesty” of art—confirming that for Zansky the all too human is more important than narcissistically pure art.
It has been said that Zansky is a Surrealist. If so, his Surrealism is heavily indebted to the
Surrealism of Bosch’s religious painting, with its spiritual existentialism. Bosch has been said to be more Surrealist than the modern Surrealists, but there is a crucial difference. Following Breton, they were indifferent to “any control exercised by reason” and “any aesthetic or moral concern,” relying entirely on what Breton, in his 1924 Surrealist manifesto, called “pure psychic[ological] automatism.” (He took the term, without acknowledgement, from the title of Pierre Janet’s 1888 book about it; Janet was a founding father of modern psychiatry.) Automatist expression is supposedly free expression, for Breton modeled on Freud’s idea of free association, which, as Freud ironically noted, is not free but unconsciously determined. Both expressionist signature painting and surrealist dream painting are rooted in automatism, which is a way of making the unconscious conscious, of articulating inarticulate sensations and
feelings—those that are seemingly irrational and unaesthetic and that are beyond good and evil. It is throwing all caution and inhibition to the winds in the name of rootless “self-expression." But Bosch’s paintings, like Zansky’s works, are rationally conceived, imaginatively aesthetic, and above all concerned with good and evil. And, one might add, more carefully crafted, not to say better made, than expressionist and surrealist paintings. Zansky’s art is urgently moral: his Giants and Dwarfs belong in Bosch’s Hell.
Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is also urgently moral: it too is a morality play, if less satiric, fantastic, and formulaic than Bosch’s and Zansky’s. It deals with criminals, just as Bosch and Zansky deal with sinners; the subjects of both the TV show and the artists' works have let their instincts determine their behavior, which is why they must be punished by the superego, represented by the God in the Last Judgment by Bosch, the police and judge in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and, I will argue, by Zansky’s American Panopticon, 2013. It is his climactic representation of hell on earth—a technological/bureaucratic society in which we are under constant surveillance by a mechanical eye (not exactly the mind’s eye). An artificial eye as all-seeing as God’s eye and as sharp as St. Michael’s sword. A public eye that also watches over us wherever we are, that sees whatever we do, and that judges and punishes us if we do something bad. An eye that makes us feel safe by controlling us—Big Brother’s eye enforcing blind obedience. We internalize and idolize the technologically, bureaucratically rational administrative eye of the collective superego, as though it can save us from our irrational instincts, as though technology/bureaucracy can tame the beast in us. The eye is a nightmare from the indignant point of view of technologically/bureaucratically self-righteous society, as the nightmarish forms it has in Zansky’s Giants and Dwarfs makes clear.
It is worth noting that Law and Order: Special Victims Unit deals with crimes against nature— sexual crimes—which are also represented in Bosch’s Triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1505–10. It depicts a variety of perverse sexual acts, suggesting that the garden is an obscene hell—earthly delights are not exactly heavenly delights—bringing to mind Panofsky’s observation that Bosch’s heaven and hell are equally “nightmarish.” Their similarity suggests their interchangeability. Similarly, in Zansky’s art the irrational unconscious, with its obscene instincts, and modern reason, with its own peculiar obscenity, grotesquely converge. The organic forms in Giants and Dwarfs, many of which are deformed—they are grotesquely mutated and are thus crimes that nature commits against itself—suggest that it is a garden that has gone to hell, as the barren, earth-brown coloring that pervades the fresco suggests. It is also worth noting that in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit a psychiatrist often appears, functioning as a sort of deus ex machina analyzing and evaluating the psyche of both victim and victimizer. Zansky is also psychologically minded, as his dream imagery makes clear. His
knowledge of psychoanalysis implicitly informs his art.
The predatory creatures proliferate in Bosch’s Triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights,
Temptation of St. Anthony Triptych, ca. 1500–05, and the Hell, pictured on the right wing of the Hay Wain Triptych, ca. 1490–95. They are bizarre hybrids of different animals, many from different species, making them all the more grotesque and monstrous freaks of nature, suggesting that nature is inherently freakish—a reconciliation of opposites made in emotional hell. These creates reappear, however transformed, in Zansky’s tour de force series of ink and acrylic works, punctuated—punctured—with screws, as though to suggest how “screwball” they are, and as though to drill into the depths beneath the surface, perhaps suggesting the geyser of unconscious meaning that suddenly erupts from it. Among them are A Five Year Plan, Scalping the Indians (subtitled Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry), After the Flood, The Great Monster Rubenstein, and Tricks with Fire, all 2008–09. Texts appear in many of the works, as though to make their point clear—texts that hover in the air above the weird insect-like figures, like the thoughts that appear in balloons above cartoon figures, and like the texts that appear in medieval manuscripts and paintings, making the meaning of the image unmistakably clear. The
words Max J. Friedlander used to describe Bosch’s works readily apply to Zansky’s ink on paint works: “terse sharp lines” on “thinly applied paint,” suggesting the handling of “a carver in relief.” The screws make for a relief effect; the works in Giants and Dwarfs are also partly in relief, partly flat, suggesting a fusion of three-dimensional terrain and two-dimensional map, that is, textural literalness and conceptual invention—more pointedly a fusion of self-conscious surface and intimations of unconscious depth. The creatures in Zansky’s Burnt Drawings, Studies for Giants and Dwarfs are even more grotesque and distorted, and those in the New Kingdom series, 2012, are totally “insane”—a sort of protean primordial ooze, perhaps in the process of evolving into definite, refined form, perhaps devolving into raw indefiniteness. Zansky’s return to nature, like Bosch’s, seems driven by the death instinct rather than life instinct, as it was in Impressionism.
Dürer’s Melancolia I, 1514, and Goya’s The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters, 1796–98, along with his so-called Black Paintings, stand between Bosch and Zansky. The bat in Dürer’s print reappears in Goya’s print, transformed into a predatory owl, which is multiplied seemingly ad infinitum. (The bat is quoted in a Manet print.) The wings of both the bat and the owls are spread in flight, but where Dürer’s bat remains fixed in the sky, high above the melancholy angel seated on the ground but holding a sign naming the disease from which he is suffering, some of Goya’s owls come down to earth, landing close to the sleeper, almost on top of him, haunting, threatening, and glaring at him with blazing eyes. The bat wings that hold the Melencolia I sign are derived from the batwings of the Spectre of Death in the van Eyck Last Judgment, suggesting that melancholy is a kind of living death. Dürer’s bat and Goya’s owls are the ancestors of the giant multi-winged bat-like bug—another Spectre of Death—that appears in Zansky’s Giants and Dwarfs. It is Zansky’s “Melancholy,” as it were, on a par with Dürer’s woodcut—a sort of visionary expansion of Dürer’s allegory, which, for Redon, epitomized melancholy and was “written according to line alone with its powerful attributes.” It is a version
of the great Beast, named Mystery, in the Revelations. For me Zansky’s Giants and Dwarfs is a kind of apocalyptic handwriting on the wall—a grandly apocalyptic vision worthy of the fame of Dürer’s series of Apocalyptic woodcuts, admired because they seemed like etchings.
The bat, owl, and bug are equally ominous, emblematic, terrifying: creatures of the underworld that is the grotto of the unconscious—for Zansky a sort of Platonic cave where unenlightened beings live in perpetual darkness, a dreamworld whose inhabitants are nonetheless startlingly real. Just as Dante passed through the gates of hell, leaving all hope behind—which is one way of understanding what it is to suffer from melancholy—but recovering hope when he finally reaches heaven after passing through purgatory. Zansky, in his “divine comedy,” has his Rimbaudian “season in hell,” exploring every dismal cave in it, feeling peculiarly comfortable with the strange creatures that inhabit them, whereas Dürer and Goya are only visited by them. They remain on the rational surface—Dürer’s allegorical figure is deeply sunk in thought, reasoning with himself, and Goya’s human figure is an Enlightenment man of reason (he temporarily loses his reason when he falls asleep, that is, becomes unconscious, and is plagued by mad dreams, with his inherent madness taking the ironical form of the judgmental owl, a symbol of wisdom, the opposite of madness); whereas Zansky knowingly plunges into the irrational depths, identifying with the alien creatures at home in them. It is not clear that he ever
reaches heaven, although the twisted tondo images, related to the American Panopticon, suggest that he reaches purgatory, still a melancholy place of suffering.
Zansky is also concerned with reason, as his Age of Reason series, 2009, shows—a more particularly modern technological/bureaucratic reason (as I have argued), symbolized by his American Panopticon, 2013, hell and purgatory in one piece. The authoritarian panopticon may be socially rational—an efficient way of turning irrational, lawless criminals into rational, law-abiding citizens—but it has a dehumanizing, melancholy effect on those it imprisons. They are damaged social and emotional goods—screwed up human beings. Some of Zansky’s figures are twisted like screws. Tightening the social screws on them may seem to straighten them out, but it screws them up completely. The panopticon is institutionalized paranoia, rather than a
therapeutic humanizing space. It is another kind of Platonic grotto—a holding pen for dangerous “animals in the dark.” For Zansky, all-controlling technological/bureaucratic reason, epitomized by the Kafkaesque panopticon, is a modern prison meant to reform rather than punish criminals, individuals whose anti-social behavior implies that they are social misfits. It is a place where every move they make isolated in their cells is observed by an invisible observer. They are puppets whose strings are pulled by a god-like puppeteer—actors always on stage in the theater of the absurd that is the claustrophobic prison. This panopticon produces depressing dreams, which is what Zansky’s nightmarsh pictures are. The distorted, sometimes fragmentary figures in The New World 5 and Echo 8, among other works in the Age of Reason series, are manipulated puppets, and the spectator of the American Panopticon is its manipulative puppeteer, suggesting we all have a place in Zansky’s grotesque panopticon. The surveilled and supervised and the surveiller and supervisor are interchangeable. In technological/bureaucratic society, we are all watchful and being watched by some anonymous eye—an indifferent eye that claims to make a difference. Supposedly guarding us, it imprisons us. Zansky’s American Panopticon is satiric theater at its tragicomic best. It is a devastating critique of American society. “All the world’s a stage,” and for Zansky the world of the panopticon is the strangest stage of all.
For me Nebuchadrezzar’s Dream, pictured in A Five Year Plan, 2008–09, one of the ink and canvas group of works, along with Philip of Macedon, 2012, one of the New Kingdom series, are basic to understanding the social critical aspect of Zansky’s art—his sense that society is crazy and drives us crazy. The emperors Nebuchadrezzar and Philip of Macedon were the epitome of hubris: it drove them mad and caused their downfall. It made them grotesque animals—often pterodactyl-like and with sharp teeth—which is the way we see them in Zansky’s pictures. Some have thought that the fantasy figures in the ink and canvas works are the crazy characters in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Let us recall that the young Beckett, with his distorted sense of himself and his body, began psychoanalytic treatment with Wilfred Bion, an innovative Kleinian psychoanalyst, suggesting that the figures have to do with what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position. Are the two figures, seated opposite each other in Tricks with Fire, analyst and analysand, both playing with psychic fire? Is it the fire of hell, or the fire that Prometheus heroically stole from the gods, for which they punished him? Or are Zansky’s tricksters just blowing smoke? Parody is clear in the works—the figures are caricatures—but I suggest that it is finally a parody of power in all its destructiveness and self-destructiveness.
Nebuchadrezzar II (ca. 630–562 BCE), King of the Chaldean Empire (reigned 605–562 BCE), was “the greatest member of his dynasty,…known for his military might, the grandeur of his capital, Babylon, and his important part in Jewish history.” He conquered Judah (Israel), among other countries, capturing Jerusalem in 597, attacking it again a decade later, capturing it in 586, deporting its prominent citizens to Babylonia, and deporting the rest of them in 582. This is the beginning of the so-called Babylonian exile of the Jews; in Jewish lore Nebuchadrezzar is ambiguously pictured as “God’s appointed instrument whom it was impiety to disobey” and as a worshipper of the “dragon”—the bestial god Bel (sometimes interpreted as the “Whore of Babylon” of the Revelations). Many of Zansky’s figures are a sort of dragon, and his work has a revelatory quality. More importantly for the interpretation of Zansky’s imagery is that Nebuchadrezzar supposedly went mad for seven years. Hubristically overreaching—which is what imperialism is—he became mad. William Blake’s “Nebuchadrezzar” shows him in a mad state; Zansky’s work clearly has a “delirious,” delusional Blakean quality.
Philip of Macedon, another hubristic imperialist, went mad in a different way. By 339 BCE he dominated Greece, preparing the way for the conquests of Alexander the Great, his son. Philip was a “subtle, pliant, patient, calculating diplomatist, master of timing in politics and war,” but “he ended his life in a tale of irresponsible incompetence.” “His love of drink and debauchery, and his wild extravagance with money” caught up with him when he led his “grand army into Asia” in an ambitious attempt to conquer all of it. He was not equal to the aggressive task; he was overambitious, suggesting that his grandeur had become delusional, which “fizzled out” because he lost control of himself. His hubris caught up with him: he was brought down to earth by his instincts. Surrendering to them, he became self-defeating, and with that could no longer lead his army. Over-indulgence—excessive pleasure—had made him peculiarly mad: he had in effect lost his reason. It is madness to challenge the gods by attempting to dominate and control the world they created, as though absurdly believing one created it by conquering it, making one as great as the gods who did. Philip showed his madness when, “during a procession, [he] set his own statue among those of the twelve great Olympian gods and was assassinated shortly afterwards in the theater.”
Nebuchadrezzar’s Dream is, in a peculiar way, the American Dream, which is why I suggest that for Zansky the imperialism, hubris, and madness of Philip and Nebuchadrezzar are metaphorically America’s. They too had America’s unrealistic sense of “manifest destiny,” which is why they were destined to be defeated. I regard Zansky as a prophet of doom, all the more so because his work has biblical grandeur.
MICHAEL ZANSKY's Inscrutable Worlds
BY MAX Weintraub
Imagine a world in which somber monolithic structures cast heavy, oppressive shadows across desolate landscapes. Imagine further this world inhabited by fantastical creatures as convincing as they are dreamlike, and wherein a disquieting stillness has taken hold and mysterious forces seem at play. This is a world built not upon the foundation of reason but rather the broken line of dreams and nightmarish visions. It is the world of Michael Zansky.
His is an inscrutable universe—enigmatic, claustrophobic—paradoxically expressed with a hallucinatory clarity. Fragmentary doll-like figures populate landscapes scattered with mysterious debris and dulled by the deleterious effects of time. Rich colors and sharp contrasts of light and shadow lend an aura of Baroque grandeur to these foreboding yet somehow poignant scenes. Replete with visual and conceptual non-sequiturs, Zansky’s lushly painted worlds are labyrinths of mysterious signifiers in which the clearest elements are often the most puzzling. In one canvas, a toy figurine of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that in Greek mythology guards the entrance to Hades, stands triumphantly atop the deteriorated wreckage of a large boat, while a doll’s head and other cryptic objects are strewn on the ground below. The entire scene, set beneath a threatening sky, hums with presentiment.
Zansky’s vaguely classical compositions are full of art historical allusion, calling to mind the late paintings of Francisco de Goya (works that Zansky has described as veiled in “a house of darkness”), the vacant piazzas of Giorgio de Chirico, and the unsettling landscapes of the Surrealists. Zansky’s canvases reflect this deep investment in the history and practice of painting, but the strange psychological undercurrents of his sealed-off worlds and the masterful way he handles paint are uniquely his own.
Drawing upon everyday objects both found and imagined, including toys and doll parts, industrial cables and optical lenses to name but a few, Zansky creates a complex and highly personal iconography of forlorn characters slouched amid the fragments of some unconstructed dream. One cannot help but sift through the debris field of his bizarre, absorbing worlds for clues to its deeper meaning, nor escape the nagging suspicion that these poetic paintings must somehow ultimately be grounded in accessible allegorical themes. But they remain stubbornly inert spaces, discursive voids that offer nothing but their own silence, a silence that forecloses attempts to find deeper symbolisms beyond surface appearances. In many ways the foreclosure of meaning has become a central preoccupation of Zansky’s art, in which the elusiveness of signification becomes a sign itself of the artist’s deep skepticism toward human existence and consciousness, and our collective search for greater meaning and purpose. In this sense, his characters and the spaces they inhabit are not so much specific symbols within some broader narrative but instead furtive symptoms of the artist’s vividly idiosyncratic expression of the absurdity of the human condition.
Zansky’s interest in mining this absurdity finds particularly robust expression in a series of grisaille compositions created between 2007 and 2009. In these paintings, reminiscent of the subjective worlds and visionary imagination of Philip Guston (under whom Zansky studied at Boston University) and recalling the casual messiness of such graphic artists as R. Crumb, any sense of melancholy resignation or contemplative repose that informed Zansky’s landscape paintings gives way to frenetic surfaces defined by a decidedly rawer and more visceral approach. Although he continues to incorporate into these works certain recognizable forms and other elements that appear elsewhere in his oeuvre, the moody sensibility and dramatic tension of his well-constructed landscape scenes is replaced by a new manner of figuration, whose measured crudity, complex forms and deftness of execution calls to mind the vernacular language of comic-strips.
Gone also is the eerie stillness and dramatic illumination that heightened tension and isolated figures in his previous work, replaced by deliberately casual figural groupings of creatures—a repertory of macabre creatures with grotesque heads, spindly limbs and other gangly bodily protuberances lumbering across turbulent landscapes. A barrage of nails, staples and screws protrude from the canvases while stains, spatters and viscous pools of poured resin—that can be read as either swirling galaxies or bodily secretions—muddle the surfaces, adding considerably to the turmoil and uncertainty of these pictorial spaces. The anodyne haze that veiled his more colorful worlds has been lifted to reveal a full-blown theater of the absurd. Passive decay, it seems, has yielded in these grisaille works to total bedlam.
“HUMAN TEETH FOR SALE” is written at the top of one disturbing scene in which a grotesque beast with a monstrous, malformed head forcibly drags another, smaller creature across a ruined landscape using a long rope, while the smaller one strains against his bonds at the end of the taut leash. It is a scene reminiscent of the master-slave dynamic between Pozzo and Lucky in Act I of Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece Waiting For Godot, wherein Pozzo uses a rope around Lucky’s neck to guide him around. And like in the Beckett play, the inner human condition expressed so concretely in the absurdity of Zansky’s own tableau is, in a word, bleak. In Waiting for Godot, we learn that Pozzo is taking the pitiful Lucky to a fair to sell him after decades of indentured servitude, while in Zansky’s cryptic scene, which transpires beneath the ominous announcement “HUMAN TEETH FOR SALE,” the creatures exit stage left to a fate unknown.
Zansky’s grisaille compositions offer stark portrayals of the human condition, further dramatized by the obscure fragments of text that appear throughout—enigmatic pontifications that offer little respite from, and certainly no solutions to the predicaments at hand. In one painting a creature with a long beak, razor-sharp teeth and a startlingly realistic eye (the artist uses glass eyes purchased from a taxidermy supply store) sits in a bucket squawking and flailing its spindly, attenuated arms. A second, similar creature lurks in the foreground, its body half-hidden in a deep trough. In each of its hands it grips a short, pointed object. Are these mountaineering tools, aids in the beast’s ineffectual attempt to climb out of the ditch? Or perhaps they are styluses, writing implements of some kind that this hapless creature—in this case maybe a stand-in for the artist himself—has used to author the two phrases written nearby. Whatever the explanation, the accompanying texts offer little help as both phrases, one of which states “THE NAUTICAL ARENA VIEWED FROM THE MOON,” skirt specific meaning and instead linger just at the edge of clear thought—fitting accompaniments to an indecipherable and impoverished scene.
When viewed alongside the other, more somber paintings, Zansky’s turbulent grisaille compositions seem like stream-of-consciousness visions of a mind in crisis. As his imagery becomes more potent and complex one cannot help but feel as though we are bearing witness to a mind facing forces far beyond his control and slowly becoming consumed with existential angst and doubt. In these compelling worlds teeming with meaningless symbols and purposeless acts, Zansky presents a series of inter-connected meditations on, as he puts it, “how inexplicable human existence is, how strange it is.”
And while Zansky’s work is rife with scientific, philosophical and even psychoanalytic reference, answers are not readily forthcoming in these perverse scenes. Indeed, it is as if these provocative tableaux that bring us to the outer limits of reality and meaning are a warning to the viewer not to fall prey to our desires to search for symbolism. Instead, when viewing Zansky’s compositions we are left, like the artist’s forsaken characters, wandering in a no-man’s land, scrounging for definitive answers that constantly elude us, and perhaps where none exist. Despite all of this, the artist nevertheless injects elements of humor into his dark commentary on human existence, and his wretched characters and the absurdity of their plight inevitably elicit nervous laughter. Smile we must, Zansky seems to implore through his tragic figures and fragmentary worlds, as it may be the only antidote to the meaningless solitude that is the hallmark of the human condition.
Zansky’s expression of the absurdity of the human condition reaches something of a climax in a suite of recent works titled the Flatland Drawings, in which Zansky used a propane torch to scorch images of astonishing invention directly onto the surface of the paper. The primary subject of these burn drawings is a furious melee between two men set in a spare, otherworldly landscape vaguely reminiscent of that found in his earlier grisaille compositions. The grappling figures are locked together in combat and charged with a primal energy, their bodies torqued violently by their elemental struggle. With clenched fists and raised clubs, each is poised to strike the other as they wrestle inside a strange arena-like structure.
The drawings are based on memories from Zansky’s childhood of his grandfather’s angry quarrels over theology with a blind, ninety-year-old rabbi of the synagogue down the block from where Zansky lived. For Zansky, the seemingly unrelenting physical struggle depicted in his burn drawings captures the sheer absurdity of the screaming matches as he remembers them between these two old men over the fine points of the Kabbalah, each of whom shouted at the other without any pretense of thoughtful dialogue or of a reasonable outcome.
Yet despite their frenetic style and subject, these Flatland Drawings are also informed by a disquieting inscrutability, attributable at least in part to the fact that the faces of Zansky’s grandfather and the blind rabbi are almost always turned away from the viewer. The face—typically a locus of meaning—becomes instead a site of an impenetrable lack. This insufficiency functions as a reminder that these drawings are fashioned from the relativism of memory and a visual sign of the unbridgeable gap between a moment from childhood and its deferred articulation. The gap, it seems, has become a precondition for our experience of the works themselves.
We might also consider Zansky’s unusual treatment of the figures and space in these drawings within the context of the artist’s ongoing preoccupation with Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, and other accomplished geometricians of the early Renaissance who employed perspective as a means for sensitively reproducing the visual field of their visible world. Zansky has for some time been deeply interested in the ordered space of the Renaissance and other representational schemas through which cultures have sought to give form to the world around them.
Unlike his Renaissance forebears, however, for whom the controls of perspective marked an important step towards the truthful reproduction of an immutable and natural reality, Zansky proposes and assumes a pictorial reality riven by unresolvable spatial conflicts—most notably in the relation of negative and positive space and the impossibly shifting and interlocking planes of his geometric and biomorphic forms.
By rendering forms punctuated by prisms and other polyhedrons and ravaged by the extreme economy of ellipsis and foreshortening, Zansky uses the clarity of perspective not to prop up its myths of a transcendent reality, nor as a way to bridge the gap between the sign and its referent, but for its disruptive potential. It is by imploding perspective’s certainties and fixities through a barrage of unresolvable internal contradictions and paradoxes that Zansky can be seen to dissolve the truth-claims of perspective’s schema and perform a critique of its pretenses—that there is some objective, universal experience.
The most ambitious work in Zansky’s oeuvre in which he explores such fundamental concerns is without question his series of massive plywood diptychs and triptychs, collectively titled Giants and Dwarfs. When viewed as they are intended—stacked floor to ceiling and filling even the most expansive room—his panels recall the monumental ceiling and wall paintings created by Renaissance masters for Church and State alike. Although presented on a scale typically reserved for heroic and transcendent imagery, Zansky’s massive panels eschew Renaissance geometry and instead present indeterminate worlds unstructured by celestial design or ideal forms. Biomorphic forms and suggestions of organic shapes emerge from Zansky’s deeply carved and gouged panel surfaces, which have also been scarred with an acetylene torch and occasionally painted or drizzled with poured epoxy resin. One senses when standing before his massive panels that his Giants and Dwarfs series is not offering up a representational model of the universe so much as gesturing to the impossibility of its representation.
Devoid of any sense of divine order or teleological weight, Zansky’s panels break from the centuries-old convention of giving purposeful order and agency to the world. “Look at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel,” Zansky submits: “it is the illusion of how the universe is created. Well I stand back and I look at that as a comic strip of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century thought…which will get displaced by some other [understanding of the universe], and another and another.” Instead of a Renaissance master’s ordered representation of a world guided by eschatalogical, intellectual or moral certainties, Giants and Dwarfs express a largely rudderless, unstructured universe, a universe in which modern man finds no firm purchase or safe harbor.
This notion of a world and existence beyond the scope of our understanding and control stems in part from Zansky’s interest in Chaos Theory and specifically the Mandelbrot Set, which refers to the fractal geometry of the late mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot (1924-2010). Mandelbrot’s pioneering ideas exposed the non-Euclidean untidiness and irregularity of the physical world and upended our scientific and philosophical understandings of the order of things. Zansky is particularly attracted to the vertiginous aspect of the Mandelbrot Set’s mathematical models, which revealed an infinitely complex universe as well as the prospect that, in Zansky’s words, “as you go deeper and deeper and deeper in this micro-world [of fractal shapes], patterns repeat themselves endlessly down.”
If the regularities of classical and Renaissance art and architecture can be said to reflect a Euclidean ordering of the physical universe, Zansky’s Giants and Dwarfs reflects a much less tidy world, whose intricacies remain well beyond our comprehension and for which representational models and technologies of reproduction are woefully inadequate. “No matter what we come up with,” Zansky reminds us, “it is always going to fall short of what the actual thing is. There is always something that eludes us.” In Zansky’s apprehension of a post Euclidean, post-Mandelbrot world there is no grand unification theory to be found. In fact, the name of the series, Giants and Dwarfs refers to the scientific classification of stars, and is thus a particularly apt title for a series engaging with a cosmic scale which exceeds our comprehension or representation. As such, Giants and Dwarfs extends the artist’s concern with expressing the psychological and existential maladies of a modern age set adrift in seemingly boundless space and endless time, an age collectively grappling with questions about its significance in a universe whose secrets continue to elude us.
That we are collectively implicated in Zansky’s explorations of the condition of modern existence is driven home by the artist’s kinetic sculptural installations, which he has made since 2000 and often used to illuminate his woodcarvings. In these slightly carnival-like contraptions Zansky achieves a unique form of expressiveness by employing a light source projected through large lens mounted on a motorized swivel to cast meandering beams of light and phantasmagoric silhouettes across the darkened gallery.
Optical lenses, which appear in various forms and incarnations throughout Zansky’s oeuvre, are critical to the artist’s expression of humanity’s enduring, and ultimately futile, efforts to account for its place in the universe. As Zansky sees it, “lenses and optical devices act as a distorting mechanism of reality, which is what perception is really all about. Each lens acts as a different perspective, forcing reality into multiple new directions.” With his kinetic sculptures, the mildly sinister beam of light meandering through the darkened room and cascading over the gouged surfaces of his wood panels transposes this ill-fated search for answers into the very space of the viewer, whose own shadow becomes but one of many cast about the space.
At the beginning of the last century, the great French poet Guillaume Apollinaire famously proclaimed, "J'ai fait des gestes blancs parmi les solitudes." Loosely translated as “I made white gestures amid the emptiness,” Apollinaire’s phrase, while nihilistically tinged, also contains in it the prospect that artistic creation just might act as a bulwark: human creativity holding at bay the overwhelming thought of the absurdity and insignificance of the human condition. Michael Zansky’s entire body of work might be considered the white gestures about which Apollinaire speaks. Indeed, throughout every facet of his restless oeuvre, Zansky plumbs the depths of the psychic fallout of a world searching through science, reason, faith and art to quell that gnawing sense of epistemological and ontological doubt. It is an intellectual and artistic journey without clear end and, like a character from a Samuel Beckett play, Zansky trudges on, leading us ever deeper into inscrutable worlds.
Buried by time & Dust
BY Michael Zansky + Bradley Rubenstein
Bradley Rubenstein: This is from Delacroix’s Journals: “At first I thought of my
own insignificance compared with these worlds hanging in space. Then I thought
of justice and friendship, of the divine emotion graven on the heart of man, and I
no longer felt anything to be great in the universe … a mere chance combination
of the elements have created the virtues, reflections of an unknown grandeur! If
the universe has been made by chance, what does conscience mean, or
remorse, or devotion? I think I have made some progress in my study of
horses…” The great thing about reading Delacroix is how he is constantly
bouncing back and forth between the universal and the banality of working in his
studio practicing drawing horses; that is his internal struggle.
Michael Zansky: I find that fascinating. It goes to the heart of clarity. You’re
always searching for it—at least I am—for a certain degree of clarity that signifies
a kind of finality, where pieces start to get locked in place—although they’re open
to, again, multiple ways of thinking.
BR: You’ve said that a key element to looking at your work is that you see the
Abstract Expressionists as having created a break in the history of painting.
MZ: The Abstract Expressionists did indeed create a break from past abstract
styles, but it seems to me a way station. One way of making a painting ended,
but it opened up other ways.
BR: One of the things that is apparent after looking at Giants and Dwarfs, 1990–
present, is just how far you're trying to take the viewer on a trip of sorts, through
a history of painting. It isn’t necessarily the first thing that you would think when
you walk in here, but it's there—the narrative cycles, the integration of the work
with the architectural space, and how you eschew canvas for carved wood.
MZ: Take Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel—it is the illusion of how the universe is
created. I stand back and I look at that as a comic strip of fifteenth-century
thought—one that will get replaced by some other understanding of the universe,
then another, then another. Rather than presenting some kind of systematic,
Renaissance representation of an ordered universe, with Giants and Dwarfs the
title of the series comes from the classification of stars; Red Giants are the
largest, and White Dwarfs the smallest. I was expressing a largely rudderless,
unstructured universe. No matter what we come up with to represent the world
around us, it is always going to fall short of what the actual thing is. There is
always going to be something that eludes us.
BR: And the archeological aspects?
MZ: I was thinking about Walter Benjamin’s History as Ruin—of the layers of
detritus that build up to the present. He wrote this about Paul Klee, “A Paul Klee
painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to
move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his
mouth is open, wings spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His
face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees
one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in
front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole
what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught
in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This
storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the
pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
That was the original premise. I organized the panels, in stacks or tiers, so that it
resembled some kind of archeological dig. But even though that was where I
began working, it’s an ongoing process. Although I’m structured, I open up and
let go, saying, intuitively, “This is where I think the work should head.” Wherever
that may lead is open to explore, so I don’t lock down the avenues of thinking at
the beginning. In fact, I try to open them up, because ultimately that’s what
makes the work interesting for me. The abstract forms and masses of lines
suggest a figure or head, and, on our own, we project qualities on this figuration.
They are caught in some transformative state. I am fascinated by the
unpredictability of evolution, its dead ends, and how the universe seems to unfold
by the luck of the draw. I wanted to create some kind of parallel world where
everything was indeterminate and constantly in flux, pulling together elements of
science, mythology, philosophy, literature, and history.
BR: There is a psychological element in your work…
MZ: Yes. Take my drawings, for example. The power of the unconscious
propels my work in particular directions. This has always been an integral
part of my practice, and the intuitive nature of this process imbues it with a
visceral type of integrity, where the sum of all the marks I make is an
undiluted reflection of the ideas and passions that occupy my mind.
BR: One of the central tenets of the Baroque is a tendency for everything to
radiate from a central point. Here you have the wood carving in the center,
microscopically examined through the lenses; the carvings themselves echo this,
with the radiating striations, a shorthand for crosshatching, I guess. You refer to
Egyptian art with the upper and lower registers of your stacked panels, all of this
giving a visual structure to a very baroque narrative.
MZ: Two artists whose work seems relevant to me here are Francis Bacon and
Jackson Pollock. I wanted to combine the iconicity Bacon achieved by putting his
figures in cells or endless rooms with the all-over pouring of Pollock, which was
its own type of architecture.
There is also Bosch and Goya. These are artists whose works were gambling on
the viewer’s participation to connect the imagery. Trying to push the existing
boundaries of painting plays a major role in their work. If I knew the end result,
that would be less interesting. I had to go back to artists in the past to find a way
to go forward with my painting. I think that the artist should ask questions, or
pose questions to the audience, but the viewer shouldn’t question the finished
piece. The final painting should be complete, like a statement, not needing any
additions or subtractions, all its pieces complete. The painted world is one that is
made magically whole.
BR: There’s fixed arrangement for the panels. In fact, you have such a large
number of them that whenever they have been installed, what the viewer is
seeing is a fraction of the total body of work.
MZ: I have over 200 panels, 4Å~8 sheets of plywood. They run over 800 linear
feet. What you saw with the Giants and Dwarfs exhibition was about 170 panels.
BR: There is an element of theater to working on a grand scale.
MZ: Having worked for years on sets for film and television has given me a
unique perspective on mass media and its relationship to painting, sculpture,
video, and installation art. The sets I’ve worked on have been complex
amalgams of all of these elements.
A movie or TV show reaches an audience in numbers that a painting will never
equal. Movie theaters, TV, and the internet: these are the churches of the
present. Museums are the churches of history. When I’m working in my studio,
what comes to mind is how pitifully small the number of viewers is compared to
the audience of contemporary media. Artists produce fetishized objects for a
much smaller audience. It’s hard to compare the viewer’s response to the
moments they spend viewing any given painting or sculpture or installation to a
BR: The drawings you are doing relate to the woodcuts on a surface level; you
make them using a torch, so you are essentially “carving” into the paper the way
you carve the wood. They have more of a narrative quality, though, in the sense
that you have a character, a protagonist, who shows up in frame after frame. You
pointed out that one of the characters is your grandfather and the other his friend,
endlessly battling it out. In this arena, how important is it for the viewer to
understand this narrative? Are you broadening your work to include overt
narrative in the drawings, or is it just that drawing lends itself to narrative?
MZ: With the drawings I used an oxygen propane torch to control the values of
the line. It is done with great speed—a moment of hesitation and the flame will
burn through the paper. The figures in these drawings represent elements of my
grandfather and his friend, who was a blind rabbi. They would have heated
arguments over obscure theological text—the absurdity of their fighting reminds
me of both Samuel Beckett’s plays and Laurel and Hardy. My father was a
children’s comic book illustrator who was always wrestling with the conflict
between high art and popular culture—he couldn’t reconcile the two. But in these
drawings I am using the narrative elements of my grandfather’s perpetual grand
argument with his friend and combining it with my father’s background in
illustration. I am using the multi-panel format of the comic book but reinventing it
like Beckett did with Waiting for Godot, taking elements from Laurel and Hardy
films and restaging the pratfalls and slapstick humor as a tragic conflict. In these
drawings the two characters are locked in a perpetual physical and moral
struggle. I don’t mean for them to be a simplistic melodrama intended for a mass
audience, like Batman or Superman, but a kind of drawing that questions most of
art and philosophy’s deep arguments, though filtered through a common
vernacular form. A picture can become visually iconic in a way the moving image
cannot because art objects are singular. They stop time.
BR: When you look back over the thousands of years that people have made
plastic art, you find connections. For example, you can look at Egyptian art from
2,500 years ago, such as a sculpture, and it may represent a religious idea or
something else, but it's still a sculpture of a cat. With film and theater that isn’t
really the case. There are only, say, ten or twenty classical Greek plays that still
are revived with any note. Another example is Restoration comedies; they just
don’t have the same purpose without their context. Do you see the same
happening in film and performance art now—that the relevance of your painting
and sculpture is less context-dependent?
MZ: Having worked in film, I’ve seen its strengths and weaknesses. There is a
complex dynamic at work that requires continuous and prolonged observation.
With painting and sculpture, the object is fetishized, in much the same way movie
stars are. Painting and sculpture are integral elements of that same enigmatic
star quality. Warhol was able to combine the object and the star.
So much art, and cinema, does not convey a sense of something remarkable or
compelling. It is contingent upon the individual—director, artist, whomever—to
have an overarching view, which enables that individual to discuss ideas in
relationship to aesthetics, culture, psychology—all of it. When I’m driving down a
highway, I see reality flashing at a very quick speed; the music is on, and I'm sort
of in one great concert hall. It’s a fascinating thought that such a thing didn’t exist
a hundred years ago. You couldn’t listen to music going down a highway. These
cultural artifacts are now continually available to use in multiple configurations.
The overall effect is one where my consciousness drifts from trees going by on
the roads to any thoughts I may be having. It's automatic. It is very hard to have a
continuous look at something. There are all of these constant shifts in the
unconscious, both subtle ones and obvious ones. In historical film, for example,
the references usually have to do with fine art of the time; and they have some
idea of how people dressed, what their tastes were.
The way I see the culture now is that it is democratic. Almost any form can see
the light of day. But only a handful of them will survive a cultural cutoff. The
others will always be there to be mined, maybe to be used by someone else to
get to a place of greatness in the future.
In conversations I’ve had with a friend, performance art was discussed, and he
said he found it rather boring. I think it's a generational thing. It might have had
credibility, but so much of that has been diluted by continual practice with a
declining amount of conviction. It becomes a stylistic system that is no longer
relevant for most people and lacks the integrity that was inherent in its original
practitioners. This is something you see with every art movement.
Art needs a sustainability based on its own internal constraints. Much of what is
happening now will fall away, overwhelmed by specific modes and styles that
somehow supersede it. And this isn’t always for the better.
For several hundred million years dinosaurs dominated the earth, and they were
replaced by little mammals that eventually became us. I keep looking over the
horizon to see if the dinosaurs are coming back. That is the history of art.