The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2014

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FEB 2014 Issue

MICHAEL ZANSKY: A Vacation on Mars with God

On View
Stux Gallery
November 21, 2013 – Janurary 25, 2014
New York

Michael Zansky’s solitary voyage into the depths of the subliminal psyche resembles Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait on the Road to Tarascon” (1888), a work the artist has quoted for a decade. Zansky’s road leads into Freud’s unconscious (Freud’s “archaic remnants”) to Jung’s collective unconscious, and ends with man’s primordial origins. Jean Gebser, the Bernese philosopher, described new permutations of consciousness as being laid over older layers like stratigraphy; Zansky’s work similarly begins on the most archaic level, progressing through a personal ontology and battle of cosmic proportions. But the figures of these nether regions are inhabitants of his personal pantheon and don’t fit into any catalogue of neat archetypes. Zansky’s Gigantomachy stumble along the road, questioning their existence. This has been a difficult voyage, and the artist’s vulnerability is mirrored in his self-referential figures. Few artists today work from a direct link to the unconscious; theory, politics, and spectacle rule the day. This is no distanced, mechanically-reproduced world; we meet the artist’s alter ego in “FLATLAND XXVIII” (2013), flayed and dragged by his skin like Michelangelo in The Last Judgment.

Postart looks to ideology and, more broadly, theory for a foundation–and significance—and attacks the unconscious by reducing it to an ideology more particularly, a phenomenon of bourgeois society. The Marxist critic Benjamin Buchloh thinks only the bourgeois are paranoid and depressed, not the proletariat. Dreams are trivialized and feeling dismissed- subjectivity as a whole is demeaned.

Donald Kuspit, The End of Art, p.94.

The Stux Gallery exhibition contains roughly three periods of Zansky’s work. The carved plywood works from Study for Giants and Dwarfs and large triptych “Giants and Dwarfs III” (1900 – 2013), are a microcosm of the artist’s 5,000 square foot 2013 installation at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City. These works rise from the primordial ooze, biomorphic and raw. The figures are amorphous and anthropomorphized only by the occasional inserted glass eye.

Michael Zansky, "Flatland IV," 2013. Paper burnt with propane torch 76 x 52". Image courtesy of Stux Gallery.

Michael Zansky, "Flatland I," 2013. Paper burned with propane torch 76 x 52". Image courtesy of Stux Gallery.

The 2013 series of burned torch drawings on paper are from another series. Zansky’s Cabalistic scholar grandfather would have heated theological arguments with a blind Rabbi over obscure texts. The artist has no religious persuasion, however his large burnt drawings are filled with figures locked in conflict, as though they are debating some mysterious ontological argument. “FLATLAND IV” and “FLATLAND XIV” portray a godlike figure with pages falling from a book that can’t be deciphered. The giant hand in “FLATLAND IV” points back like the hand of God from the Sistine Chapel. In “FLATLAND I,” the tripping, bombarded figure is perhaps a metaphor for the artist, and again references Van Gogh’s “Self portrait on the Road to Tarascon.”

The theme of the ocular lens and inward gazing eye has long dominated Zansky’s work. The newest paintings resemble the artist’s constructed environments with giant lenses from the last decade. Zansky’s artist-kin might be the Quay Brothers, El Greco, or James Ensor, who have used dolls and constructed models to recreate interior landscapes, combined with Goya’s late dark paintings. “Departure 1” and “Crossing 5” (2009 – 2010) feature figures on boats. Zansky says this voyage is Pharonic, like the one Egyptians took through the hours of the night to the land of Osiris. His barques float on black seas, but the Ogdoad inhabiting this timeless landscape are figures in the artist’s personal creation myth. In “Departure 1,” tiny flecks of light descend; the alchemists called these “soul sparks” scintilla. The viewer begins to see the dawning of a mysterious light falling over the deck of the ships and their silent inhabitants.

Michael Zansky, "Departure 4," 2009. Oil on canvas 32 x 32". Image courtesy of Stux Gallery.

Michael Zansky, "Departure 1" 2009-2010. Oil on canvas 28 x 36". Image courtesy of Stux Gallery.

“Full Stop 2” and “Avalanche 3” (2009 – 2010) both feature dark figures with a light filled portal behind them, suggesting the presence of a world of light at the perimeters. In “The New World 5” and “Valley of the Kings 5” (2009), the skies take on a lighter cast, and figures with raised arms seem to be directing the voyage. In “The New World 5,” a polished funnel surrounds the composition’s one large face like a halo, hinting at an epiphany and giving this Self-figure a feeling of divinity. The last several works in the exhibition, “Departure 4” and “Colossus 5” (2009 – 2010), both feature an ascension scene of sorts with dolls floating against bright orange skies—a lift off from the land of the black seas.

The unconscious is dynamic, producing a constant parade of images announcing stages in the individuation process. This is not a voyage lacking transformation and hope after a difficult passage. Michael Zansky’s technical range is masterful, and his courage to delve into the depths is impressive, a rarity in today’s art world.


Ann McCoy

Ann McCoy is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019, for painting and sculpture.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2014

All Issues