Etienne Zack: Merging Fact and Fiction

Etienne Zack, Double Press, 2016, oil on canvas, 188 x 269.2 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Equinox Gallery, Vancouver. Photo: Joshua White

In his first major exhibition in Alberta, Etienne Zack explores the mutability of information — and how information is treated by control systems such as institutions and governments.

Born in Montreal, Zack currently lives in Los Angeles. His work has been shown in solo exhibitions since the early 2000s at such venues as the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, Bergen Kunsthall (Norway) and ARCO Madrid (Spain). It can also be found in the collections of major museums — including the National Gallery of Canada — as well as in corporate and private collections around the world.

In the past, Zack tended to paint his everyday surroundings, such as studio spaces, in odd juxtapositions and with art historical references built in. This new exhibition, at Esker Foundation in Calgary, is a departure. It features a series of recent paintings and collages (created starting in 2013) that merge fact and fiction with depictions of books and documents stacked, slotted together, or carved into letter-like forms to create walls, floors and rooms. Titled Those lacking in imagination take refuge in reality, the exhibition is an intense study of Zack’s ruminations on the relationship between information and institutions.

Etienne Zack, Buoyant, 2016, oil on canvas. 121.9 x 106.7 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Equinox Gallery, Vancouver. Photo: Josh White

In an interview with NGC Magazine, Esker Foundation curator Naomi Potter noted that the exhibition explores systems of control. “It’s a consideration of architecture, institutional power, rethinking history, rethinking text.”

Zack told NGC Magazine that the Esker Foundation exhibition distinguishes itself from his earlier work, in part by showing a continuous research process. “Before, every painting reflected its own research, in a way. This body of work is like one large piece of research that uses similar motifs — stacks of paper and books — to delve more deeply into something I wanted to capture.”

As Zack explains it, that “something” is the idea of surveillance. He says the idea came about when the world was hearing about Edward Snowdon, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. “It started to make more sense to follow up on the idea of papers and redactions, and how that relates to society’s subjectivity about history.”

Zack has also explored the idea of creating a central space within each piece, giving viewers a vantage point. He traces this intellectual construct to French philosopher Michel Foucault’s interpretation of the panopticon. In a panopticon, a person placed strategically within a space can observe everything going on within that space, implying control over those who do not necessarily realize they are being observed. “The work also considers the reality of my own subjectivity in the process of painting and writing within the paintings.”

Etienne Zack, Withdrawn Titles, 2015, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 106.7 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Equinox Gallery, Vancouver

Zack points to a work called Withdrawn Titles (2015) as an example. The compositional premise appears to contain or encompass something — excluding outside realities, according to Zack. “The written text in Withdrawn Titles was chosen to have some kind of relationship to a certain gathering of a group — an inclusion, an ‘ism’ of some sort, or a shared experience.” Zack covered certain letters with black paint, thereby suspending or deteriorating the meaning of the words. “The writing is thus allowed to change itself and propose various meanings, if different letters are inserted on the redacted black squares.”

Buoyant (2016) uses more straightforward poetics. “I make lists of words sometimes in the studio,” says Zack, “and I let the words slip into other words and create a kind of current or loop of sounds and meaning.”

Potter points to Double Press (2016) as exemplary of Zack’s current work. The painting depicts books carved into letters with Zack’s characteristic inclusion of fluorescent tubes, naked bulbs and wires (standing in as the work’s “nervous system,” as Zack puts it). The work has a darkness, says Potter, while also being illuminated from the inside, pulling the viewer into this other world. 

“For me, Zack’s work is doesn’t give you a single answer or tell you what you should be seeing,” she says. “It presents a fictional space where you don’t know what happened. You find yourself asking: ‘Is this the work of a mad person or a genius?’” 

Those lacking in imagination take refuge in reality is on view at Esker Foundation in Calgary, Alberta until August 28, 2016.

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