Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Abstract Exposition

Montreal painter Etienne Zack is not afraid to put Jackson Pollock in his place--in this case, a VHS cassetteRecently, a visitor to New York's Met Museum accidentally ripped a Picasso painting valued at $130-million. But what if an artist sets out to poke holes in art's values? The crazy canvases of Montreal's Etienne Zack offer a few ideas. With a new show at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, Zack tells Leah Sandals about the ruptures that make his art rad.
Q Where do your paintings come from?
A I guess they come from where I'm from -- past experiences and the kind of education I had. They come from reading and thinking about art, and also about everyday-life topics like politics, philosophy and history. In each painting I set out to explore one idea or a spectrum of related ideas. Q Your paintings can be disorienting; with so much to look at, it's hard to focus on any one thing. Where's the focus for you?
A I used to use clutter to distract from the main subject of my paintings. But I don't use it that way anymore. Still, they're charged images with a lot going on.
Some of these paintings I've had in my head for years -- sometimes it's just parts, and then the parts come together after a while, when I understand what it means to put this idea and that idea together.
Most of the settings for my paintings are studios or interiors, places where a sculpture or model is set up, or a performance or happening is about to take place.
For example, Spills in a Safe Environment is about making abstract paintings. In it, a set of glass plates that have holes in them are covered by brushes and a bucket of dripping paint. The paint drips through holes in the glass and tints a rag at the bottom. It reminds you of land art, like when Robert Smithson stuck glass in the ground. But it also reminds you of abstract painting, or even environmental disasters. That's what I mean by different ideas coming together.
There's also a painting called Dialog, which is about Jackson Pollock and films about Pollock that looked at painting as fetish. There's a paintbrush, a canvas shaped like a profile and film cassettes with shots of Pollock and pornography streaming out of them.
Finally, there's a painting called Thorough-- on its fringes, it looks like a classical portrait of a head. But as you go towards the centre, it disintegrates into veins under skin, microscopic hairs, brushstrokes and finally a big gouge. To me, it's about different ways of seeing the body, from classical portraiture to dissection to MRIs.
Q One of your old paintings, Model for Success, seemed to poke fun at art-world status games. How do you see that piece now that you're having your first big museum show -- what some might identify as that kind of status? A When I made that painting, it seemed like everybody was making art for a certain idea of success. I wanted to talk about that in my own way, to make a structure that speaks to a certain attainable stardom.
It's not that I'm against success --I work really hard, and almost have no choice in doing so. But I also know there's a whole system around art, and a lot of my paintings are about that, too--about art objects and how they are presented in institutions. They're about the systems that aid and diffuse art after it is made and how those affect the value of art. Q What's next for you?
A In the past I've usually set up sculptures and made them into paintings. But for a new show in Vancouver I'm transforming a painting into a sculpture.
This new sculpture/painting is about a sort of assembly line for art. In it, there are lines for art making and art writing and art magazine printing. So again, it's about a system. But it doesn't have to just be about art. I think the same distribution systems are applied to more and more things in our society, like sports or merchandising.
Overall in my art, there's a system and an aesthetic that I hope people try to follow a bit. I hope they get something out of it --almost like a strange, satisfying puzzle.

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