Etienne Zack is suddenly in unfamiliar territory. The Montreal born artist has just landed in a curious little outpost most of us think of (if at all) as a place to buy cheap gas or pick up duty free parcels. It’s a place borne of a 19th century border dispute between England and America, an island really, only recently joined (in geological terms) to our lower mainland. I’m referring, of course, to “The Home of The Breakers”: Point Roberts, Washington. USA.
After spending some time in Vancouver in the early noughts (We featured one of his paintings, Comers and Goers in our Centrefold feature in VR#11, Fall, 2006) Etienne spent the Obama years in LA as his career reached critical mass. But since the fall of 2016, he’s settled with his young family into this quiet rural setting to our south just as we enter the era of The Great Orange Mussolini.
Etiennes’ more recent work has frequently consisted of dream-like structures made of books or bound and/or redacted documents often supported by truncheons or bare fluorescent tubes. They are like the interiors of rooms built by a delirious prisoner out of the detritus of a mysterious book repository incident.
Settings oil on canvas 77” x 60” 2016
The effect of seeing the larger canvases reminds me of The Comb, a dream-like, stop-frame animated short by The Brothers Quay in that the film frequently conveys that dream sense of shifting rapidly from one familiar place into another, unrelated space where the exact point of transition is blurred by the mind to the point of being seamless. But The Brothers Quay used a time-based medium (film) and shifting mirror boxes to achieve the effect. Etienne does it with paint.
There are also echoes of French artist Christian Boltanski’s installations which evoke the scale of loss during the holocaust via dangling, dimmed bulbs, and rows of out-of-focus portraits suggesting a dark, bureaucratic organization. Threads of Gerhard Richter’s soft B&W portraits and his scuffed, layered abstraction also hang in the air. Phllip Guston once said ”When you’re in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you – your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics… and one by one, if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting YOU walk out.” It seems to me that Etienne has walked out of the studio and what remains is truly unique.
MM: How are you feeling about the move ?
EZ: It’s been a very intense experience for me because we moved here in November and as soon as I started painting, I sensed a break in the work. We’ve spent so much time going through the process of the nomination and then the actual election (of Trump).
I’ve moved around a lot and since 2011 and my studio was more in my head than physically in a space. So working spaces kept changing because I was always moving around a lot. I think many artists can relate to this because real estate is always a very real problem in terms of securing studio space. I took a month and a half to just to establish a solid foundation for myself.
But then came January and there’s a shift in the work. Trump is in power, Brexit has happened and it’s now like a different world. But the situation here in Point Roberts is very strange. In a way it exists on its own terms. It’s not even illustrated on US maps! It looks like an island! And it is, because Canada doesn’t exist for the US and neither does Point Roberts! But it’s an interesting place to be because of its detachment from so many things. I’m trying to figure out what it means to live here. It’s not charged politically. It’s a weird, neutral space. Americans here rely on another people’s economy to make it run, which is unusual for most Americans.
MM: What’s been your response to all this on the canvas?
EZ: I think what’s happening is that there’s more of a “covering” so with the “architectural” structures I usually paint, there’s something covering it. And the writing and text is becoming more present but not legibly integrated into the painting. But there’s still space there for integrating text and really juicy painting!
MM: But you’re in a rural setting now. That’s surely going to make itself known through the work.
EZ: Yeah. I’ve never been close to nature before. I grew up in cities so this is all new. I can spend days not even going outside. I was operating like that in LA where the sun is so brutal you just stay inside and create your own little cinema. I’m still in that mode, in an artificial reality so nature might be good for me. It’s something I’ve wanted to explore more, trying to understand the patterns of nature. The work is just opening up to me so I’m not sure where it’s going. Usually I come into the studio with a pretty good idea. There are some paintings where the rags I’m using or covers that are folded pieces of cloth end up becoming “mountains”. And all of a sudden it’s interesting because there’s text on top of these materials. It might be my way to tap into Canadian landscape painting. I’m not sure what direction things will go.
MM: You’ll have Emily Carr and the Group of Seven “in the room” with you now!
EZ: But what a different reality they were in. They were so close to the landscape with a deep level of understanding. And you need that to make successful paintings so I’m not sure I can even properly look at their paintings right now. Maybe this new local landscape might help me with that.
MM: I love the idea of projecting outwards from an interior setting, to imagine landscapes and make them with disparate elements. You’re now here with fewer distractions.
EZ: There’s a lot more coming at us while we are making things. What does it mean to be connected to the entire world in a studio now? If you look at a Rembrandt painting of his studio it’s got maps, carpets and things from all over the world in it. It’s a representation of that time, of an outside world. Now you have millions of heads poking into your studio from your phone/computer. There are different moments in my production that I’m open to receiving information through podcasts, music and things like that. There’s a lot of time spent alone so I’m always trying to find the right recipe.
MM: It’s like you can reconstruct these images in dreams and they’ll become endlessly unfolding. The paint seems encouraged to leave the canvas in the mind of the viewer.
EZ: It’s important for me that the paintings seem to unfold and duplicate beyond their borders, basically beyond the frame where I’ve “edited” them. With the previous series, the canvas was first stretched on the wall and then on the frame afterwards so the edges actually continue around the piece. It was another way of indicating that the paintings should continue perpetually up, down and everywhere. Scale has something to do with it as well. When I first started the series about documents and books, the stacks of books were a lot bigger. I liked that because I could imagine looking into the content of each page but when I reduced the size of the books and enlarged the paintings then you get more of a landscape feeling so it enables the painting to go further at its edges.
MM: Our minds create structures on the fly during dreams with unfamiliar places coming into being and merging with familiar places. You represent this in two dimensional form and create it over time, consciously. It seems they can then get into peoples minds and seed a new dream space.
EZ: The paintings come from reading and imagining structures in my head where they slowly resolve into images that are still blurry but there’s real structure. And then I paint them. And when I do that I let go more and more of the first imagined architecture and bring them into the painted world. Maybe it’s because they’re completely imagined. Maybe that’s why they stay in the realm of the unfamiliar, yet familiar, where you want to know “where is this place”?
MM: So the architectural aspects, the structures, are derived from literature?
EZ: Most of the time, yes. The way I structure things is very idiosyncratic and it has to do with what I’ve been reading and how I compile information. Sometimes there’s writing on the paintings and even though I obscure it, I’m still thinking about how to place it in the structure of the painting. Everything comes together through a certain logic that’s my own but with the help of notes I’ve taken. It’s very abstract. In the end, it’s just a way of making paintings! (Laughs)
MM: There is some connection in your work to Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Library of Babel, where there is a world of rooms and books and characters that seemingly make up every permutation of everything ever written. But it’s a strange world where it is also a random jumble and there is always a quest for ordering.
EZ: I like the idea that a world in literature can be an actual world. The fascinating thing about that story is the idea that every possible thing has already been written. And he’s incredible in terms of stretching and collapsing time. He’ll bring you into a different century with amazing images. He does this by blending fact and fiction and it’s so compelling that he brings you along on these amazing travels and you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not, but you end up believing in the whole thing. So I feel quite close to his work and maybe my paintings try to function in that way too. I try to take on a lot and my interests are quite diverse. So there’s a convergence there that is rendered into an image.
The paintings are also about themselves and about their own structure. Maybe the viewer is compelled to figure out what these structures are. They’re systematic. Synesthesia is also a big part of it. I’m interested in how a two dimensional image can trigger so many other senses within a person.
As I’m painting I’m projecting myself constantly into these spaces. So they’re very evolved from the head but also through gesture. I’m very much there in every corner of these paintings. They’re quite crafted, very involved in terms of me figuring out every square inch of these spaces. They’re the most involved paintings I’ve done and they’re done quite traditionally by applying thin layers of paint. That’s so the light is very considered and there is an effect of transparency so the lighting effects seem plausible yet still artificial. And the human hand is very palpable in the work too. I try to be quite generous in that way in terms of keeping a human sensibility so the senses can go beyond what you’re looking at.
MM: So when my eyes first hit the painting, what process do you imagine happens then?
EZ: Human beings are built for survival, right? So the biggest thing that we want to find is…pattern recognition. If you look at studies of people who’ve been through trauma, in severe cases they can only function in very organized cell or prison-like structures, extreme structures. What they’re really good at is discerning patterns and often you’ll see that they’ll be really good at things involving technology, that demand a certain way of organizing and decoding things. Human beings are good at pattern recognition because in nature things are chaotic and that’s what you need to do, so that when X happens then Y happens and you get food …or have to run! Artists are quite good at that, at finding patterns.
MM: We come from similar cultural backgrounds. We both admire similar painters and writers. We come to these already having puzzled out Borges. What does someone without that roughly similar education make of these?
EZ: That’s why it’s important to exhibit in different places as I’ve done with this series over the last three years. Everything is open to interpretation and I think there are a lot of entry points to the work. I think somebody with no background in anything would enter these spaces quite easily. I’ll always remember the experience I had (when I knew pretty much nothing about art) being in front of a Rothko painting when I was 17 or 18. It was the deepest experience with an artwork I ever had. I keep thinking about that because it was so deep and yet having learned through doing it myself, how do I tap into that again? I can’t maybe.
MM: You’re making it possible for others then.
EZ: Yeah, hopefully, but it’s always the problem with knowing. It cuts you off from other things. We don’t purely see anything after a point. It’s always mediated by our own personal histories, by our understanding of what it is before we even see it. So knowing about art and everything else I’m interested in, can I capture that time again, when I was open to an experience like that, a purely sensorial experience? I don’t know.
MM: I’m fascinated by the instabilities, the precariousness, the rickety, Byzantine, house-of-cards feel to some of your large paintings.
EZ: In painting you can invent your own laws of physics. So you can completely change the plausibility of how structures should function. So how does that work, that the mind projects itself into a painting to convince you a certain kind of physics are operating? Old painting was often about creating the illusion that physics actually exist.
MM: Did you see (sci-fi blockbuster) Interstellar, where a black hole is represented by an endlessly refracted library where the lead character reaches through time and space?
EZ: I didn’t know that scene was tied into the idea of a black hole and voyage through time. My interest is in history and literature and processes of understanding through texts and reading. But now how do we represent the internet, or data in general? That’s what I’m really interested in.
MM: I was reading in EYE magazine about the function and design of the status bar and folders on computers. It was about the ways in which we access data that tie in with our basic needs for simple representations of complex, technological data ordering systems. So with all that randomized, fragmented data in our lives, we still need to see representations of folders to contain it all and proceed! And the status bar ties us to our need for a sense of time, as though someone is running around in your computer doing all these tasks and will be with you shortly!
EZ: We still live in a physical world and the physicality of things has always interested me. But I like twisting that a bit where you can have different senses going. I’m reading “The Art of Memory” by Frances A Yates (1966). She explains how people used these mnemonic systems in the past. There are stories where people who are really good at memory will invent whole architectures in their minds. They walk into rooms and there will be all these objects and each object will relate to a certain memory or certain words. So they memorize incredible amounts all by visualizing these architectural spaces and objects within them. I think it’s an ancient Greek technique. There are also many rules governing it. It was used by lawyers to remember certain facts, and by orators for speeches.
It was lost for a long time but revived during the Middle Ages, though in a different way because the first rules were lost. For example you had to choose a certain kind of architecture with rooms that are not too lit, but lit enough. They have to not have too many columns so there could be more rooms and so on. It’s meant to create all this form for memory to work within. And it’s all done in your head! What‘s fascinating about this is that it’s almost describing virtual reality; visualizing things outside of our own minds. Memory was highly valued in certain professions. But now we’ve subcontracted it all to our devices. Our processes of recall are constantly mediated.
There’s a flattening of our lives in this society and we need to deepen our lives, to make them three dimensional again. Flat is much faster for capital to flow over. Distribution is flat. When something’s been flattened it’s been reduced to a lower, functional medium and there’s a history and reason for that. We need to make everything a shape, and now we need to re-introduce depth instead of all these facades.
Sitter oil on canvas 48″ x 42″ 2017