Paying homage to the tradition of storytelling
BY STEPHANIE BUHMANN | Looking at the work of Balint Zsako compares to reading a novel or studying a map. In his exploration of complex narratives by means of figuration, the eye travels from detail to detail, from color accent to definite form.
Born in Budapest in 1979, he immigrated with his family to Canada in 1988 (growing up in Hamilton and studying in Toronto). After graduating with a BFA from Ryerson University, he settled in Brooklyn in 2007. In the context of these geographic changes, art was always a constant. Both of his parents are artists (his mother, Anna Torma, works in embroidery — while his father, Istvan Zsako, is a sculptor). For Zsako, thinking in visuals is natural.
This month, his recent drawings are the subject of two solo exhibitions in the Lower East Side. Sharing the subtitle “Appetite.” Mulherin + Pollard and The Proposition Gallery feature a selection of work that introduces a unique world spinning with layered storylines.
Although Zsako’s art practice encompasses sculpture and photography, he currently works primarily on, and with, paper. In the past year, he has focused on creating drawings and collages that are rich in minute detail — reflecting an ongoing investigation of formal and psychological relationships that can form between unlikely characters and objects.
His drawings are populated with single or multiple figures that engage in eclectic actions, ranging from everyday to somewhat plausible, obscure and utterly bizarre. They hold, carry and pull at each other, draw themselves or shed tears into another person’s mouth. They fly, explode, turn within themselves, drag skeletons and carry trees that are chained to their head.
While the figures always take center stage in each composition, it is nature in the form of animals, plants or trees (as well as mechanical objects) that fill out the fantastical landscape. The resulting images are hybrids — part science fiction-earth song and part remnant from the machine-age.
A kneeling woman holding a flock of birds in flight while light bulbs dangle from their necks like overripe crops fits as naturally in Zsako’s democratic realm as a Frankensteinian monster made of wooden planks and trapped inside a vehicle that is pulled by a green-skinned woman. Sirens, nymphs, men from whose amputated limbs’ tree branches grow and figures made entirely out of hair are among this enchanting group of unusual protagonists.
Each revels in his or her individuality, accentuated by a wide spectrum of skin colors (translucent or opaque pink, brown, blue, yellow, green and purple). The figures’ ethnicity is non-descript, insinuating that in this dreamscape, it is of no importance. Though heritage does not matter, their emotional temperature and general mood does. These characters can be curious, tentative, red with aggression, ambiguous, evil, warm or cold. “I want to be as broad as possible and show body types as different as possible,” explains Zsako, who views them as strong personalities. “Like in this world, my figures sometimes do good things to each other, some do their own thing, and some are difficult.” Zsako is not illustrating the world but rather reflecting on it, which bestows a sense of symbolic abstraction upon his work. He is not a portraitist, but a storyteller of various aspects of the human psyche.
Zsako’s renditions, which can include spectacular obsessive patterns made of leaves, birds or machine parts, evoke an array of references. Western fairy tales, folkloristic illustrations, Indian Ledger drawings, Greek pottery, Medieval illumination, Hieronymus Bosch, Brueghel and Inuit art, are immediate associations. He might distill elements from sources past and present, but it is his concern for finding unique connections between elements that reveals his contemporary urban outlook.
When asked if city life has had an impact on his work, he replied that though his approach is not literal, the daily experience of sheer masses of people, “when taking the subway and being smashed against them,” surely resonates in his new work.
In the past two years, Zsako’s drawings have increased in scale and complexity. The Proposition Gallery will present “Untitled (Appetite).” his largest drawing to date. Made of nine sheets of paper mounted together, it will measure 66 x 90 inches. “For ten years,” he explains, “I’ve been making small works because I did not want to be the person who simply works big because he is expected to do so.”
As Zsako works close to the surface, allowing him to pay attention to each detail, it took him a while to work large. He did not want to lose the integrity or precision of his work by simply blowing up figures and details. One big challenge was to create density without altering the rhythm of positive and negative space, another, to accept the characteristic confines of his materials (translucent watercolors and matte opaque inks would run if applied while standing up). Zsako found a solution by assembling several panels into one cohesive epic. He worked the panels separately, carefully pondering how one thing could lend itself to another. They grew one after the other, as well as with each other side by side. None was completed before being reviewed in context — which allowed for various storylines to evolve, span out and morph.
While browsing Zsako’s encyclopedic tour de force, one slowly traces recurrent themes. A group of large figures is sprawled throughout the composition. One is made of birds, another of wood; one consists of geometric patterns and one of negative space. Light bulbs dot the composition like musical notes, some switched off while a few illuminate their environs. There are several spaces within spaces. There is a tree in a box, for example, that is buried underneath a tree with plants growing underneath. Things can be free-floating, or contained, boxed and encapsulated. There are birds and a group of outstretched arms that lift skyward like eager birds. Growth, death and sex function as a hotbed for people’s relationships, which can be loving, indifferent, submissive, dominant or outright violent. One couple is connected through their hair, another through their touching tongues. In another place, a yellow woman has a head growing out of her stomach, which she is promptly feeding. Here, touch and taste are as definitive a connection as eye contact or a link of chains. Zsako’s stories might be rich in operatic drama and include a sense of tragedy, but they are always invigorated by the lighthearted humor of an optimist.
Zsako’s moves are never arbitrary. Each compositional element is thoroughly contemplated. He often paints the figures without their hands first, allowing himself to decide on what they should be holding later. As watercolor is unforgiving when fixing mistakes and one can only add but not subtract color, this paced process is crucial. “I am happiest when I figure out a problem. You add a character and another and you have to figure out how they can relate and what they engage in. It is the most satisfying part to find that connection and missing link. At least 50 percent of the work is figuring out color and geometric problems.”
In addition to compositional concerns, it is important to Zsako that the narrative makes sense. “If a tree is buried underground it needs to have water. It has to function logically.”
In “Untitled (Appetite),” one can choose to focus on sections and chapters, or the overall whirlwind of life. There are many things to discover, among them some tongue-in-cheek moments and witty art historical references. The latter include tributes to Abstract Expressionism, Agnes Martin’s lines or the blue women of Yves Klein. Furthermore, on the upper left, we find an abstract, gestural triangle made of many colors. It was the actual painting palette that Zsako had on his desk while creating this particular work. By making it part of the final composition, he allows a bi-product of his process to become part of the work itself.
As we absorb the language that Zsako is setting forth, our minds become entangled in the intricate narratives of a world rich in spun tales. Paying homage to the tradition of storytelling, they sprung from an imagination that seems boundless and were captured with evident joy.
BALINT ZSAKO: APPETITe
Through April 21, at Mulherin + Pollard
End of Freeman Alley, off Rivington (btw. Bowery & Chrystie Sts.)
For info, call 212-967-0045 or visit mulherinpollard.com
April 14 to May 27, at The Proposition Gallery
2 Extra Place, at First St. (btw. Bowery & 2nd Ave.)
For info, call 212-242-0035 or visit theproposition.com