Zack Zdrale

Photo by Zack Zdrale

“A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between their contradictory answers.“

- Leonard Bernstein

Some literary scholars tell us that the least reliable interpreter of a text is the person responsible for its creation. When confronted with powerful, provocative images, it’s virtually instinctive to ask, “What’s the artist trying to tell me? How do the attributes and symbols resonate with my experience and knowledge?”

Gestures, objects, actions, and figural placement all conspire with history, memory, and emotion to elicit an understanding—an attempt to decode that which confronts us. This search for meaning is universal and enduring. Artists construct narratives and align iconography which reveal to themselves their identity, values, and spiritual and moral quests in a pictorial form that satisfies an internally carried mystery. Viewers who genuinely engage with the artist’s experience cannot but help to filter those images through their own nature, beliefs, and empirical development.

For many figurative painters throughout the history of Western art (American and European), a premium has been placed not merely on craft or fidelity of likeness, but, even more importantly, the artist must convey something of the personality, psychological force, and emotional conduct of the person portrayed. From hyperrealist painters, such as Jean Dominique Ingres, to protoabstractionists, like Paul Cézanne, we measure their success not just in their accuracy, but their ability to close the temporal gap which separates us from the subjects of their work.

Photograph by Zack Zdrale

One drift of American figurative realism has concentrated on the expression of physical torment, stress, exertion, and the consequent state of physical alienation. In paintings such as Thomas Eakins’ depleted boxer in Between the Rounds, complete with the thousand-yard stare of detachment, perhaps foreseeing his impending loss, and the crouching fighter in Taking the Count, we witness the artist using the precision of posture to convey a moment of affecting experience, presaging a moment of truth. Likewise, George Bellows’ Stag at Sharkey’s and Dempsey and Firpo, depicting Dempsey being knocked from the ring, are examples of artists celebrating the physical limits of male action and aggression.

Zack Zdrale confronts us with paintings of powerful, aggressive, seemingly impassioned or angry men who are often alone, sometimes competing or cooperating with other men in obscure, ritualistic, or synchronized actions. Crouched, twisted, leaping, grasping, screaming, tortured bodies contorted by passions that are not defined, but appear signified without clear crystallization of meaning.

Zack is very much a painter of his time. He came from Neenah in the mid-90s to study at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. After briefly working for Wildwood Studios in Madison, an opportunity to restore frescoes in Austria fell through, and Zack decided to relocate to the West Coast. As the economy stumbled post 9/11, he took a number of low-paying jobs screen printing snowboards, bussing tables, and working for a doggy daycare business. When his now wife, McKenzie, relocated to San Francisco, Zack saw an opportunity to restart his artistic career by entering the animation program at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

Photograph by Zack Zdrale

Serendipitously for Zack, this was the moment when animation was transitioning from hand-drawn to digital production. Reconsidering his options once again, he happened to walk by the John Pence Gallery, renowned for its stable of realistic figurative artists. Immediately, he realized, “This is what I want to do! I don’t care how much ramen I have to eat.”

Transferring to fine arts painting, Zack found teachers and mentors who embraced his classical yearnings and sensibilities. Painters like Mark Tennant and William Whittaker exposed him to the practice of working from a limited palette (five or fewer colors) to build discipline utilizing grisaille (a full range of greys) to develop value and light control and painting from direct observation of the figure rather than relying on photographic resources. Gradually, his mature style began to emerge.

Zack’s figures have stepped out of a foundry, working bodies shaped and strengthened by demanding physical work. These are not men with hot house muscles grown in gyms without any purpose other than vanity and exhibition. The chunky, sculpted, masculine bodies create more opportunity for the exploration of light on form than an equivalent female body might offer. The gestures, often frozen incidents of extreme physical action, seem like moments in a proletarian ballet. Stripped to the waist and wearing denim work pants in lieu of the tight-fitting leotards seen in traditional dance, his actors push and pull, strain against unseen forces, confront, cooperated, conform to abstract symbols and numbers, stand in awe or resignation, emit primal screams, and reach for the ineffable. Their physicality is enhanced by dramatic chiaroscuro lighting—descending or creeping darkness—and often violent sweeps of paint that obscure portions of the figure or physiognomy.

Photograph by Zack Zdrale

Zack’s work was recently included in a major art book entitled Disrupted Realism, by John Seed. Seed defines disrupted realism, saying that it is “made by artists who have deviated from the norms of realism.” And later, “It is a subjective approach … that favors perception over seeing and embraces subjectivity.”

What is inescapable in Zack’s work is the physical force or manner of his painting. Often using brushes with handles over two feet long, Zack applies the paint with a range of marks, from light, delicate, softly blended passages to slashes of impasto pigment that stand in relief to the surface. Not unlike his contemporaries, Jenny Saville and Odd Nerdrum, Zack invests his surface with an insistent physical presence that mimics the fleshiness of his subjects. This physicality echoes his belief “What is image without empathy?” while at the same time remaining detached from exegesis. “It should affect the viewer without programmatic intention.”

This fall, Zack started bringing his artistic philosophy to the students at the UW–Whitewater, where he now teaches drawing. It’s a continuation of a life that has taken no shortcuts to excellence. Zack says, “You must prove yourself as an artist every single time.”

Chris Gargan is a landscape artist and freelance writer working from his farm southwest of Verona. You can find his work at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton. He is seen here with his dog Tycho Brahe.

Photograph by Larassa Kabel