This is the first time I've used the blog as a space for a review, and it feels like it needs an introduction. However, the lead is buried. Not to worry! A description and review of Michael Zwack's opening at The Suburban in Oak Park, IL commences after paragraph five or so. The rest is worth reading, too.
On July 12th Michael Kozien will curate a show that pairs regional artists with others from overseas. It is part of an ongoing project called Operation France, and was started because Michael felt the art world in Chicago was too insular and lacking in cross pollination. I've heard the same about Portland, New York, and other arts hotbeds.
Leave aside the conversation about regionalism's place in a persistently post-modern cultural space and consider what that insularity in major metropolitan areas means for smaller cities. Point being, it takes some effort to get out and see things, so when I do get out I'll try to share what I find. I'm particularly interested in smaller spaces. The ones that operate for the love of art.
I've made a few trips recently to Omaha for various shows at the Bemis Center and at Theaster Gates' new extension of the Bemis, the National Carver Bank. More to come on these, and on Mitchell Squire's excellent work, We're Gonna Have to Do More than Talk at the latter location after upcoming return visits. I'm very excited to see Plug Projects' Sum of Us" at the Bemis' main location, and if you can get up and leave this afternoon, you can get there in time for artists' talks. You should do that.
The Suburban is the first inspiration for Transient Gallery and any number of similar art spaces arriving and fading. I knew it in 1999 when it was barely a year or two old, and found it–the idea of it–mesmerizing. It is not a household name (and what, in the art world is, beyond annual gasps over auction prices), but the steady work and expansion and consistent vision has made it a significant force in the art world. One of its two founders and curators, Michelle Grabner, is co-curating the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
Michael Zwack is a fine example of the sort of artist often found at The Suburban. Associated with the Pictures Generation, and a co-founder of the Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, he is no stranger to the higher echelons of the art world, yet he was divorced from it for some years, not engaged in making work nor other things. He spent a significant amount of time living in Haiti, and became involved in the culture and religion there. It is following his efforts to bring his stepdaughter to the US following the devastating earthquake of 2010 that he began making work again.
The Suburban is a small space, 17 x 9 feet. Entering it from the bitter cold brought a warmth and a very sweet, pleasant smell. One small painting held the short wall to the left, another was straight ahead. Ritualistic drawings in sand covered half the floor away from the door, also holding bowls of what looked like leftovers from noodle dishes, and bottles of wine and spirits. On the short wall butting that section of floor were twenty or more works on small panels and paper, layered, brightly colorful, and filled with inscrutable marks.
These were beguiling, beautiful, and full of depth, but their first sense was one of being impenetrable, and frustratingly so. Especially combining them with the aftermath of the Vévé, and its deteriorating sand drawing symbols. The mark making had an undeniable relationship, but not one that sufficiently pointed me anywhere. In truth, I did not see an immediate point of entry, though I am embarrassed that I didn't recognize it because it has roots in pre literacy and is exactly what my four-year old is doing all day every day. The student hired to discuss the work with gallery-goers was entertaining her family, visiting to see her new job. She tried to show phone video of the Vévé, and I tried to listen in. Enter Michael Zwack.
The Vévé was not exactly a part of the work. It was simply an attempt to bless the paintings and the exhibition. To bring luck. He ladled some of the juice from one of the bowls of noodles, fragrant and perfumed with some sort of floral essence, into the hands of anyone who wanted, and we were told that it would bring luck. Lucky sauce, lucky juice, I don't remember what was settled on, but it doesn't have a proper name. "The spirits last night," he asserted, "were very happy," but the residue was not specifically a part of the exhibition. Also, it was done, and we were encouraged to ignore it and not worry about disturbing it if we wanted to get closer to the paintings.
After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Michael had worked many months to bring his wife's daughter to the US to create a safer environment for her. She arrived as a third grader (I believe) in the New York City schools speaking only French and patois. Amidst the understandable tumult of this change, she tried to be a good student. When it was time for everyone to bend their heads down and write in workbooks, she followed suit, but did not know the language, so her writing looked like purposeful symbols, but were unrecognizable and disordered. Michael thought they were beautiful, and so he transcribed the first one he saw into a painting. Having been out of the habit of making artwork, he painted over an old canvas. It just felt right to him, so he made more. He tried to reject them because they were alien to everything he knew about making work (except that it his work is typically rich with translucent layers). He showed them to a few people who, he said, loved them. Then he showed them to people he knew would hate them. They loved the paintings, too.
It is important to reflect on how these works communicate. They are not mimeographs of preliterate scribbles, nor are they recontextualized religious symbology. They are born of the human need to overcome hardship by adapting to and joining community. Rather than showing the frustration of an inability to communicate, their colors, their alternate exuberance and steadfast gravity root them in their ability to relate on another level.
Michael Zwack is on display by appointment at The Suburban in Oak Park, IL. until March.