Art star Etienne Zack hits home turf again
The scene in Etienne Zack’s studio resembles the return of the Prodigal Son. Hugs, kisses, and exclamations of delight shower down upon the acclaimed painter as he reestablishes himself, at least temporarily, in Vancouver. “Etienne, hello, bonjour!” his friends and colleagues exclaim. “Etienne!”
A few days after leaving his base in Los Angeles with his wife and toddler son, Zack has moved his tools, supplies, and canvases into a big, bright room in an old warehouse in False Creek Flats. It’s the same building where once, young and impoverished, he worked out of a small, crowded corner of someone else’s studio. The Straight interviewed him there in 2005, just before he won a prestigious national painting competition—just before he was launched into the art world’s collective consciousness,
Tacked to the walls of this newly claimed space are half a dozen recent works, created in L.A. and shipped north for exhibition at the Equinox Gallery. Removed from their stretchers for transport, they await remounting and installing. In the meantime, they command our considered attention. Their subjects, delivered in a surreal fashion—in a style Zack describes as “trompe l’oeil, but slobby”—range from dark matter to forensic science, and from global warming to landscape-painting traditions. In his art, the Romantic sublime is translated into ice cubes and drinking straws. Microscope slides hover like spaceships over the debris of a long-lost civilization. Prehistoric campfires flicker in front of Baroque paintings and fluorescent tubes pierce old, cloth-bound books.
The inanimate objects in Zack’s paintings often take on the roles of actors, staging mysterious scenarios, posing metaphysical questions, articulating his wide-ranging and scholarly interests. He reads through volumes and Google-loads of science, history, philosophy, cultural theory, and astronomy. He examines war and popular culture and the hyped-up art world. He addresses the machine age and the information age and the relationship between photography and painting. He wonders how it is possible to make sense out of chaotic experience. And he talks about the relationship of style to content.
There’s danger, he observes, in painting things too realistically, in nailing down meaning rather than allowing it to be expressively suspended on the canvas—and in the viewer’s imagination. “When you start being more precise, you’re trying to suggest too much,” he says. “Some people can make paintings that way, successfully, but I’m always trying to be in that middle where things are slightly mysterious, where a cloud looks perhaps like a cloud but it also looks like a piece of rock.” Then he adds, “Where things are destabilized.”
Zack has arrived in Vancouver in time to celebrate a trifecta of his destabilizing art: Vision Machine, a two-person show with Marianne Nicolson at the Surrey Art Gallery; In Itself, a solo exhibition of new work at the Equinox Gallery; and the launch of Daytime Motion Picture, a hand-painted digital print created for Artists for Kids, an organization that supports children’s art education on the North Shore. In a sense, he’s also here to explore whether he can be based in both L.A. and Vancouver—whether he can spend six months of the year in each city and sustain his creative momentum.
In the past, Zack has spoken about how important it is, for his paintings, that he immerse himself periodically in a completely different environment and bounce his ideas off a new and unfamiliar set of circumstances: “When you move to a new city, you kind of reinvent yourself. You can be who you want to be.”
He laughs about searching out a studio in L.A., that notoriously sprawling (and public-transit-challenged) metropolis. “Where you are in Los Angeles doesn’t mean anything, because everybody drives everywhere,” he observes. “In a way, you can live far—but far from what? It’s all in relation to nothing.” He laughs again. In the end, he says, he found a “decent” workspace close to L.A.’s downtown.
Although he grew up a francophone in Montreal, Zack established his painting career during his 11-year stint in Vancouver. Our city has continued to embrace him as its beloved son—even after he began exhibiting his work in Europe, with solo shows in London, Madrid, and Bergen. Even after he moved back to Montreal in 2008 and was honoured with the Pierre-Ayot painting prize and an acclaimed solo show at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. And even after he and his wife relocated to Los Angeles in 2010, to be close to her family while raising their own.
His recently uprooted life has, again, proved useful professionally, as a way of dislodging himself from the familiar. The strangeness, the isolation, the sense of living on an unknown edge all suit the surreal and unsettling quality of his art. They also, he admits, free him from sometimes onerous professional and social obligations, giving him time alone in his studio. “Painting is a solitary thing,” he says. “But at the same time, you want to see what’s happening and support the things you like and the people you’re close to, or whose work is of interest to you.”
The building in which Zack is subletting a studio is a fabled one. Over the past 25 years, it has provided workspace for some of the city’s most accomplished artists, many of whom drop in during our interview with Zack and, again, hug, kiss, and exclaim over him. They tease him about his long, sun-streaked, surfer-dude hair, part of the self-reinvention, it seems, of life in southern California. Jokes are made about the green streaks of mould and moss he might cultivate in rainy Vancouver. For a moment, it’s easy to wonder if this scene is too familiar, too comfortable, too filled with social and professional connection and obligation. But then, Zack will be heading back to L.A. in September—back to that place of strange distance and creative solitude.
Vision Machine runs at the Surrey Art Gallery until June 10, with a public reception and artists’ talk on Saturday (April 14). In Itself opens on Wednesday (April 18) at the Equinox Gallery, and Daytime Motion Picture will be launched the same evening.