Deep in the Shallows of the World


Max Weintraub

Visiting Professor of Art History, Hunter College, New York

Published in of Giants and Dwarfs, Ewing Gallery of Art and Architecture

University of Tennessee, Knoxville


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 enigmatic universe: inscrutable, claustrophobic, and 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 nonsequiturs, 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 disquieting 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 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 parsing the debris field of his bizarre, absorbing worlds for clues to unlock the riddle of Zansky’s compositions, nor escape the nagging suspicion that these poetic paintings must somehow ultimately be grounded in accessible allegorical themes. But they remain stubbornly inert spaces, which foreclose any attempt to discern deeper symbolic meanings beyond surface appearances. In many ways this foreclosure of meaning might be said to be the theme that has become the central preoccupation of Zansky’s art, namely that our personal and collective search for definitive order and purpose — eschatological, ontological, psychological — always remains elusive, but our quest for answers endures. In Zansky’s paintings the elusiveness of signification becomes a sign itself of the artist’s deep sense of uncertainty about the fundamental nature and meaning of the world around us. In this sense, his characters and the spaces they inhabit are not so much specific symbols within some broader, knowable narrative but instead furtive symptoms of the artist’s vividly idiosyncratic expression of the absurdity of the human condition in the face of what might best be called an existential void.

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 the satiric bent of 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 disorder.

“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.2 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 the 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 interconnected 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 brink of the disintegration 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 where perhaps none exist. The artist nevertheless injects elements of dark humor into his nebulous commentary on humanity, 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.

Without question the most ambitious work in Zansky’s oeuvre is 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 nebulous worlds unstructured by celestial design or ideal forms. Devoid of any sense of divine order or teleological weight, Zansky’s panels break from the centuries-old convention of giving purposeful 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.” 

When confronted with the vaguely dystopic imagery of Zansky’s woodcarvings and his related Fire Drawings (a masterful suite of works on paper made from 1995-2003, in which the artist used only a torch to compose his imagery) one cannot help but feel that this is a universe in which modern man clearly will find no firm purchase or safe harbor. Rather than a Renaissance master’s ordered representation of a world guided by theological, intellectual or moral law, Zansky’s Giants and Dwarfs express a largely rudderless, unstructured universe. “No matter what we come up with [to represent the world around us],” Zansky concludes, “it is always going to fall short of what the actual thing is. There is always something that eludes us.” As biomorphic forms and suggestions of loosely 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 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 definitive representation.

This notion of a universe 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.7 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 universe, Zansky’s Giants and Dwarfs reflects a much less tidy world, whose intricacies remain well beyond our comprehension and for which representational models are woefully inadequate. 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 nearly impossible for the human mind to imagine, let alone faithfully represent. 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 probing 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.

In 2011 Zansky began a series of tondos, circular paintings whose form has its origin in Italian Renaissance painting but which for Zansky embodies the shape of a lens. Continuing the artist’s engagement with optical devices, these still lifes of reflective surfaces and distorted objects present perspectives at once real and illusory. According to Zansky, his use of lens-shaped panels as the support for these static compositions is an attempt on his part to halt the restive movement created by the optical lenses in his kinetic pieces: an effort, in other words, to foreclose the shifting perspectives and fleeting moments of an unstable world.

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 the shallows of the world.