Contemporary Artist, Michael Zansky and ‘The Saturn Paintings’

Millree Hughes
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What’s attractive to artists about quantum science is that on the subatomic level, matter is in flux. Art is the imitation or the distortion of a thing in another substance. It imagines that all its elements can, if they want, change, swap and mutate characteristics constantly.

Michael Zansky began making art in the late 70s. He showed in Boston while he was at college at For 40 Years his paintings, drawings and models have addressed the protean character of the human condition. From then to his recent show at the Herron Gallery, University of Indiana, Michael Zansky has been mutating.

His work often features a figure, or figures; objects that work like stage props and a background–as if in a Beckett play.

Zansky is an existentialist. His work asks questions about the character of being. Are we really alone? What is the nature of the observer? In his paintings the gaze threatens the stability of the image. The Danish physicist Neils Bohr discovered that the act of looking can change and destroy a particle. In Zansky’s world the gaze can tear the subject apart.

Installation piece, Saturn Paintings (2017-2018),
carved & painted plywood, 16 x 12′

This is because the materiality of what is being represented is not fixed. Flesh is permeable, more like ectoplasm or cigarette smoke than skin and bone. And it acknowledges that sometimes the act of looking and by inference, the looker, is destructive.

The way that a Modern art work elicits a response is always complex. Envy, desire and identification are muddled into the emotions that it produces. It could be that Zansky wants to reveal the underlying tension that is generated between the work and its viewers.

Modern art never meant to accommodate its audience. Arnold Schoenberg created the Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna in 1918 because he feared the response of the public. A provocation must expect a concomitant retaliation. This is not an unusual position for Zansky, a Bronx born, Jewish artist to take. Art was a witness and a commentator on the earth’s bloodiest century Perhaps Zansky creates an image that looks as if it has been shattered and then reassembled randomly as a way of imagining the effect of revenge on a painting. Modern art is frequently the subject of attacks by a conservatively-inclined public.

Below: Installation of Michael Zansky’s, Deep in the Shallows, at Herron Galleries, Indiana University. Photo courtesy: Indiana University.

Michael incorporates this threat of retaliation into his work. He gouges and laser cuts the surface undermining the stability of his own picture. He uses an oxyacetylene torch to burn into the paper to make drawings. Sometimes immolating them in the flame. Collapse is a necessary function of the giant sized works at the Gallery of the Herron School of Art and Design at the University of Indiana, curated by Max Weintraub (from Jan 10th to Feb 24th)  The exhibition featured 16-by-12 foot, carved plywood paintings and a series of burnt drawings on paper. The outline of the figures and their support have been carved by a combination of laser router and hand tools. A white painted ground loosely covers the background and eats into the figures.

Detail, showing incised surface.

The characters are an amalgam of references; children’s book illustrations of animals. Zansky grow up within audible distance of the Bronx Zoo. Freakish cut off limbs, fingers and faces teeter totter on a broken Assyrian cornice. Grotesque re-workings of living mutants. His father Louis Zansky was a great Golden Age comic book artist, drawing for titles like the Crypt of Horror for AC comics in the 40s and 50s.

Plywood works like geological Strata. It gets drilled, blasted and ripped until the image is excavated. It’s not ‘painted on’ but discovered ‘under’. The figure is vibrating, in a state of mid mutation from one form to another. Large and small play off against each other. Giant hands teeter on mouse ears and elephants heads. Everything’s precarious, seemingly close to disappearing but at the same time baldly stated like a well told black joke.

Michael references the ancient world too abutting pre-European decorative motifs with newly discovered/invented cellular and genetic super structures. Ancient and modern might just as well be one. After all ‘Man’ is still as he has always been: ‘a quintessence of dust’

But to go back to quantum theory again. ‘The observer effect’ has more to do with the intrusiveness of the means used to observe the phenomenon. The instruments of analysis have been far too clunky for the delicate particles. Even when it’s not being destructive the gaze can also be fallible. We can’t always see what we are looking at. Zansky allows our eyes and expectations to be not up to the task. He freezes time just at the point of contact between vision and object. The moment of mid-crumple.

By Millree Hughes, Contributing Writer

Most recently, Michael Zansky’s show, “Deep in the Shallows,” was on view at Herron Galleries, Herron School of Art + Design, Indiana University, Indianapolis, Indiana. All images courtesy of Indiana University.

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