Peter Zokosky: The Nature of Being

by Gordon Fuglie


Serpent, Peter Zokosky's painting from 1988, makes an intriguing visual analogue for the fate of representational painting during the some fifty-year reign of High Modernism and its successor, Post Modernism. In this period serious representational art in all media was either condemned, dismissed or just ignored. It seemed that the historical ascent of Western art - especially painting - as the ongoing conquest of the world of appearances lost its momentum and fell to earth. Some critics and philosophers of art even announced the end of the art historical model that originated with the Italian artist and historian Giorgio Vasari in the mid-sixteenth century.

Nevertheless and like Zokosky's water snake, representational painting persisted by swimming and slithering above and below the waters of the American art scene, which had become a feverish, generative swamp of movements and trends (most of them non-representational and non-painterly) since the 1960s. But by 2000, serious representational art had returned in force to break the surface of the morass of contemporary art. Throughout the U.S. and especially in Southern California, representational painting was being made by a critical mass of artists, enjoying exhibitions, press reviews and sales.

When he was a student in the Master of Fine Arts program at the Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles, from 1979-81, Zokosky did a group of paintings called "The Boy Saints." To some this appellation also described the personality of the artist whose youthfulness and affability gave him the air of a sweet Franciscan. And to a certain degree, Zokosky's paintings then and now give off a pleasing quality, even an aura of perfection. But like his dark snake, they also delivered mystery and revealed the artist's search for what lies beneath the water's surface, occasionally offering glimpses into darker, troubling realms.

Serpent is a part of a body of strong paintings that Zokosky had completed at the end of the 1980s. These works included vast landscapes that were simultaneously naturalistic and fantastic; profile views of loping rabbits and stolid goats accompanied by their flayed or skeletal doubles; and loopy undersea panoramas that slyly suggested that a plethora of wide-eyed marine animals could induce a psychedelic experience. They were painted in a style that fused academic realism with the visual hooks of the kind first seen in the well-crafted, hip illustration of Esquire magazine in the 1960s and 70s.

What made Zokosky's paintings rather unusual in the late 1980s was their comparison to other representational work that was getting attention in the American art scene. Who can forget the inflated rhetoric that responded to David Salle and Eric Fischl's overblown, fragmented and coarsely rendered figurative canvases? Or the dense theory that inspired and sometimes was actually painted (as text) into Mark Tansey's huge photo-based narrative pastiches? Or Leon Golub's life-size, scabby scenes of police state torture? Or Robert Longo's towering, contorted figures in monochrome? Then there were the Germans, including the deadpan, out-of-focus works of Gerhard Richter, and the "neo-expressionists" - Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jorg Immendorff - with their murky broodings on European history. With occasional exceptions these works tended to project their unedited, unresolved and layered imagery out at the viewer rather than pull you into them.

By contrast, Zokosky's work, even the large landscape triptychs and panoramas produced briefly in the late 1980s, invites the viewer into the painted realm. This is partly due to his (at first glance) "gentler" subject matter, and partly the result of his commitment to portraying a unified environment ordered by a faithful naturalism, rather than derived from disparate photographic sources or the bricolage of a perplexing symbol system. In addition, his works are usually done in a viewer-friendly, even intimate, scale, ranging from 12 inches to 60 inches in their maximum dimensions. Moreover, his mastery of traditional oil pigments and related media enable him to build up convincing illusions in the grand tradition of Western easel painting between 1450 - 1900.

Serpent, then, is the resultant masterwork of an artist whose craft is equal to the image first imagined by him. Via the device of atmospheric perspective, the scene is horizontally composed of bottomlands suffused with a golden haze, suggesting both a dawn and the presence of the divine. The serpent, however, is symmetrically rendered and serves as an abstract foil to the artist's naturalism; its reflection literally casts a shadow upon the tranquil waters. The image is vintage Zokosky: a landscape pleasing in its warm color and gentle curves, in which is also found a portentous animal and a hint of meandrous menace.

The animal realm has always yielded rich and layered inspiration for the artist's paintings. Zokosky admits to a sense of wonder while studying animals at zoos. Their "otherness" from the human realm encourages in us a desire to connect with them, to comprehend animal instincts within a human framework. Hence, in Serpent the reptile isn't just swimming but communicating symbolic meaning. Such works are iconic, images through which we can apprehend mystery.

Standing Sheep from 2001 is in this category. Humans who have worked with sheep almost always bemoan their stupidity. So it is all the more surprising when one suddenly walks erect in a kind of solitary, purposeful diginity. The glint in its eye clues us to its vitality, but betrays no intelligence. What does this portend? Like the biblical Balaam's ass, will it speak? (left: Standing Sheep, 2001, oil on canvas)

More subtly unsettling are Zokosky's intimate and pleasant portraits of monkeys, chimpanzees and hominids which have become a sort of series for the artist. On the surface the portraits use the conservative conventions of the genre: bust length composition, 3/4 head positioning, neutral or dark background, and a tendency towards flattering the subject. Yet it is these conventions that seem to allow the "sitter" to acquire a human sensibility. Like other primate portraits in this exhibition, Bonobo (1998) appears to have acquired sufficient inner awareness to deport himself as an artist's client. These small paintings make us laugh and give us pause.

None in this series, however, is as arresting as Habilis (1998). Completely fanciful, it suggests an imagined encounter between the contemporary painter (Homo sapiens) and his evolutionary predecessor (Homo habilis, "tool user"). The simultaneous sparks of animal instinct and human intelligence in Habilis' countenance is uncanny, as is the unsettling vulnerability about the eyes. Is the painting a kind of memorial to our forebears in the development of the human species? (left: Habilis, 1998, oil on panel)

Zokosky further stretched the notion of perceiving a glimpse of humanity in surprising contexts when he turned his attention to the vegetable realm. He painted a number of semi-trompe l'oeil panels depicting tubers and potatoes that resemble human bodies or seem to have the face of a historical personage. Here he (like fellow L.A. artists Michael C. McMillen and Sarah Perry) probes the sort of popular superstitions that recognize, for example, the "miraculous appearance" of the face of Jesus on a tortilla. To these phenomena (and also mummified human remains) Zokosky confesses to a blind and uncritical attraction.

Perhaps this is due to a basic contemporary human yearning for some sign of the miraculous or the transcendent in our secular age. But Zokosky tends to give his images in this vein a quirky and perverse twist. His Potato Head/Hendrik Verwoerd claims to have discovered, of all people, the stolid visage of the assassinated (in 1966) South African Prime Minister and architect of apartheid. Yet with its crudely inscribed memorial frame and hushed hovering presence, it has the earnest aura of a cult shrine of an obscure sect expecting the return of their leader.

The presence of dualities - the tedious and terrifying, life and death, physicality and spirituality - are most often the driving forces in Zokosky's painting and, more recently, sculpture. Both as a child and adult, he remembers visits to natural history museums and his fascination with glass-covered dioramas that depicted wild animals in their "natural habitats." Of course, the once-alive animals within had been transformed into the objects of the taxidermist's highest art. For a child there was the wonder and terror that the stationary ibex might suddenly break his pose and leap from his rocky escarpment to press his nose against the glass.

Something of this sensibility informs the paintings that Zokosky has made of rabbits, sheep, goats, camels and monkeys for nearly fifteen years. In these works it is the animal skeleton - the jointed structure with its vital organs, muscles and skin removed - posed as if it were animate on its own. Two recent paintings, Monkey Skeleton (1996) and The Monkey's Bones (2000), create forest dioramas on canvas, placing the bony frameworks of crouching primates on tree trunks, poised for action. Skeletons, the last remains of animal life, are always regarded as signifiers of death; in Zokosky's world, the dry bones live again.

That elusive spark of vitality that makes animals and humans alive is probably the most profound question Zokosky ponders in his work. In a 1999 interview with writer John Gunnin, the artist concluded the session by wryly observing: "We'll all be dead soon, so let's experience the miracle of being animated meat for these 70 or so years." Zokosky was being a bit flippant and grinned as he spoke, but just under the surface of his remarks is an earnest and near reverent regard for the mystery and variety of life, especially in its human manifestation.

In Beneath the Surface, a recent film on Zokosky's career, a wide range of the artist's works is shown. A number of them are figurative: animated skeletons; flayed figures, their vivid red musculature exposed; and fully fleshed humans - including a number suspended in water and observed from below. These are in one degree or another embodied states, visual metaphors for existence and being. In one work, Three Graces, which uses that old saw in Western painting - a harmonious trio of idealized cavorting females, Zokosky has placed his subjects in three anatomical stages: enfleshed, flayed and skeletal. The composition prompts the viewer to question at which of the three stages our humanity is present. Is it only (and obviously) when we are "in our skin?" Or is it more likely, deeply, mysteriously in all three?

These questions are more drastically posed by the artist in a pair of small bronze sculptures completed during the last two years. In relaxed contrapposto and oblivious to what in reality is a fatal condition, Flayed Figure I depicts a man in his physical prime, completely skinned. Zokosky takes his anatomical striptease even further in Flayed Figure II. With resigned calm, a man removes the musculature from his thigh and left arm, revealing his bones.

Anyone with knowledge of 16th century Renaissance art would cite the historical precedent for these bronzes: Andreas Vesalius' illustrated anatomy text from 1543, and for which Titian is thought to have provided inspiration for the beautiful linear woodcuts. Unlike the detailed and highly aestheticized woodcuts with their air of theatrical heroism and tragedy - a true fusion of science and art, Zokosky's flayed men call forth compassion for the fragility of our condition as "animated meat." The aesthetic of the bronzes is inspired by their quiet capacity for sentience.

The 19th century art and social critic John Ruskin is renowned for his remark that the greatest thing a human being can do is see, that is, contemplate the object of one's attention from the depths of one's being, and then, convey that experience plainly to another. Throughout history deep seeing, reflection and the authentically responsive act have given us great art. In his way Zokosky joins this tradition by pondering the surface of the world and the layers beneath, validating them all in the truths they reveal. As a disciplined representational artist he finds joy in his engagement with the multifaceted and simultaneous nature of existence and the freedom this affords. And as viewers, our joy is in receiving his visions of hidden realities, cloaked structures and dormant mysteries.

© Gordon L. Fuglie, Curator, The Nature of Being, Director, Laband Art Gallery

Peter Zokosky: The Nature of Being is vol. I, no. 2 in the Laband Art Gallery series, "Contemporary Art Currents in Early Millenium Los Angeles," and is a continuation of the previous series, "The Art of Greater Los Angeles in the 1990s" which was presented in eight volumes from the Fall, 1989 to Spring, 2000. Since 1997, the catalogs for these exhibitions are supported by an endowment from Mrs. Francine Laband. An exhibition of Peter Zokosky's work, "Peter Zokosky: The Nature of Being," is being held at the Laband Art Gallery from September 12 - November 17, 2001. For additional information on Peter Zokosky, visit the artist's website: The above essay is reprinted with permission of the author and Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University.

rev. 8/17/01

Read more about the Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University in Resource Library Magazine.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/7/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.