Balint Zsako: Demons and Ecstasy
Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects, Toronto Jun 7 to 30 2012
POSTED: JUNE 28, 2012
Strolling down Queen Street West in Toronto on a summer evening, you might find yourself wandering into the Drake Hotel and upstairs to its posh second-floor patio. Settling into a couch with a beer or a martini, you have little choice but to contemplate a bright wall-length mural that looks like a hybrid of Egyptian hieroglyphics, European surrealism and the obsessive, virtuosic doodling of a daydreaming teenager. It’s whimsical and metaphysical, and the longer you look at it, the darker and more perverse it becomes.
For this 2010 work Untitled (Romance), Balint Zsako has painted huge, liquid, black-silhouette figures with trees sprouting from their bodies or leaf veins growing through them, floating—dancing—across the wall. There is a woman with blue liquor pouring from her breast; there are half-empty bottles and stray dogs and scuttling mice and bright orange birds. The mural exists in a space somewhere between the Garden of Eden and Sodom and Gomorrah; it’s innocent, lighthearted, orgiastic and apocalyptic all at once.
Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1979 and largely raised in Canada (he received his BFA at Ryerson University in 2002), the Brooklyn-based Zsako is at this point best known for his quirky, vaguely sinister drawings in watercolour and ink on paper, and for his collages. His career has been on the upswing for a few years now—in 2009 the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto published a monograph of his drawings titled Balint Zsako: Works from the Bernardi Collection based on an exhibition of the previous year—and this spring he had overlapping New York exhibitions of his work at Mulherin + Pollard and the Proposition.
A small selection of his drawings are currently on view at Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects in Toronto and his collages are part of a group show at Oakville Galleries, “Freedom of Assembly,” that runs through September 2. His art is also featured in Sarah Polley’s new film Take This Waltz, which opens in Canada this week. Zsako’s work is used as the art of one of the film’s protagonists, played by Luke Kirby, and he created a portrait, Zsako-style, of Michelle Williams for the film.
Zsako’s ink and watercolour drawings have the direct simplicity and lightness of touch familiar from illuminated manuscripts, along with their strange combination of innocence, perversity and cruelty. (The primitive surrealism of the great illuminated manuscripts had a remarkable influence on 20th-century art: both Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall explicitly imitated them.)
In Untitled (Self-Portrait), for instance, a nude woman holding two long, thin paintbrushes, her head swathed in brown, stands in the foreground in front of a portrait of a woman with a smouldering red face, one of her eyes a striking blue; the portrait is framed by a latticework of branches with little red and green leaves.
In the intricate Untitled (Red + Yellow), a man is splayed atop a rickety scaffold, a knife held behind his back; red droplets of blood spurt from a gash in his chest into a bottle, and canary yellow urine arcs from his penis into a decanter held by a dusky blue and purple woman reclining below. Behind her, two other nude women are half-embracing and seem to be holding the brittle scaffolding together.
And in the wonderfully macabre Untitled (Microphones), a dark, hairless, naked man and a man who looks like he is made of sticks balance themselves on a contraption rigged with old reel-to-reel tape recorders, microphones and miles of cord. At the top is a row of potted flowers with microphones hanging over them, and below is a row of skulls with microphones hanging over them as well: both the sound of life and growth and the sound (or silence) of the long dead are being meticulously recorded. Life and death are held in impossibly unstable balance.
Zsako’s drawings might be compared with those of his slightly older contemporary Marcel Dzama. Dzama’s drawings and collages have the same quirky, folkloric perversity as Zsako’s, like Grimm’s fairy tales filtered through surrealism and pop culture: there are animate trees sprouting flowers and swarming with bats; there are mutilated men hovering around melting snowmen; there are crazed girls in old nurses’ uniforms gaily slaughtering boneless ghouls.
But Dzama’s work has as its source a more specifically graphic tradition—a cross between underground comics and the violent fantasies of Henry Darger with a dose of dour Winnipeg humour—and almost always seem part of a larger narrative. Zsako’s work, by contrast, is more straightforwardly symbolist, the figures and scenes standing in less for tales than for forces and processes like life, death, generation and decay. Zsako’s approach is, in a way, comparable to the self-consciously naïve visionary works of French symbolist Odilon Redon.
Seamlessly fashioned from reproductions of anatomical drawings and cut-up fragments of art history, Zsako’s collages are denser, more layered and less intimately lyrical than the drawings, but they share with the drawings roots in surrealism, in this case the dazzling collage work of Max Ernst.
In one collage, a skeleton stands next to a skinless body, all muscle and sinew and inner organ, which gradually transforms into a tropical flower; behind is a pale green etching of some prehistoric beast feeding on the forest floor. In another, a woman in a pale blue crinoline dress standing in front of a twilit scene at a lake, her pug dog trotting in front of her, has had her head taken over by a huge, fierce, glowering owl; in still another, a courtly gentleman, daggers affixed to his belt, slides his finger into the cleft of a split melon that looks unmistakably like a vagina.
Continuing in this vein, in the creepy and magisterial Monolith, which is featured in the Oakville Galleries exhibit, he cut out every bone in a book of 19th-century engravings and reconstituted them as a vertical assemblage, two small, heraldic nude figures on either side presiding over the great white tapestry of bones. Even Zsako’s most morbid works are tinged with gaiety and humor.
We already knew from his mural at the Drake that Zsako could work on a large scale. At 1.6 metres by 2.3 metres, Untitled (Appetite), which was on view at the Proposition this spring, is by far his largest work in watercolour and ink on paper to date, and it is a spectacular, psychedelic extravaganza.
Untitled (Appetite) brings together styles and themes familiar from Zsako’s drawings and collages, but in an encompassing, dynamic form. In the side of a dark hill is a view of a kind of fiery, underworld workshop, and bursting out the top is an inverted triangle full of frenzied activity in the middle of which is a large, floating silhouette of a man surrounded by garlands and red, yellow and green figures. There are wild, coiling lines and odd contraptions; a woman drips blue liquid from her eyes and breasts into a captive man’s mouth; the outline of a figure filled with brightly colored birds lurches up as a woman with streaming black hair descends toward him. To one side, a radiant blue woman stands on the tip of a tree holding trees in either hand, another tree growing from the top of her head.
Art-historical references abound in Untitled (Appetite) as well: Yves Klein takes his famous dive into the void, Joan Mitchell pushes paint, Philip Guston twists on a light bulb. By turns demonic and ecstatic, extending from hell to a goofily happy bright yellow sun, his palette weirdly upbeat and life-affirming in spite of all, Untitled (Appetite) is Zsako’s Boschian garden of earthly delights and horrors. It’s also a work that confirms that even his slightest, most charming drawings are fuelled by a larger vision we’re only just starting to get a taste of.