Arts & Culture, FROM THE DIG

Interview: Zach Horn

The artist’s new show, ‘Cookout,’ looks at life (and heaven) through the lens of shared meals

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“In Conversation on Matisse,” oil and acrylic on canvas with plaster and acrylic in mugs, 48″x72″,
2021. Artwork by Zach Horn. Image courtesy of the artist.

Dorchester-based Zach Horn is an artist, critic, and educator with an impressive list of multimedia exhibitions to his credit. He’s got a new show up at Cambridgeport’s Gallery 263 this month called “Cookout” that “contemplates the artist’s spiritual relationship with food.” So, I asked him to answer a few questions that folks can spin through on their way to check out his latest creations for themselves.

Jason Pramas:You’re doing an art show about food… in the middle of a pandemic. Any connection between “Cookout” and the ongoing global health crisis – given that you’ve done works about political themes like labor struggles in past shows?

I started working on food pieces back in 2016. So, the short answer is that when I began I never dreamed about the pandemic, the social isolation, or the contemporary definition of insecurity. That being said, the moment inevitably changes the art.

I began “In Conversation on Matisse” as a way of communing with my grandmother. She was a brilliant AbEx painter who loved Matisse (along with Joan Mitchell and Die Brucke). My grandmother would invite me over in the mornings for a visit and I would get to have one-on-one time with her, which is not common in a big family like ours.

Now, intimate moments, a shared cup of coffee or a quiet conversation about painting, feel different. In this new context, I think we are enjoying human contact with a little more appreciation. We went without for long enough.

What led to your decision to present several works in a variety of media that are meant to function as a single installation?

I think all exhibitions function that way whether they mean to or not. When I look at a show I find it very difficult to focus on individual paintings without seeing them as a continuation of what is to the left or right.

My fantasy of heaven, which probably ain’t happening, is a big long outdoor table filled with home cooking and surrounded by my people. In “Cookout” time is mutable. “Spaghetti” is what my mother makes for me. “Peanut Butter and Jelly” is what I make for my kids. Those meals are decades apart (I am old), which makes walking through this show a looping atemporal experience for me. But other people probably don’t see the work the same way that I do. That is why I organized the show at Gallery 263 as a single day from “Breakfast” to “Last Call.” The meals are markers of time from sunup to sun down, or more spiritual touchstones if you’re into that kind of thing.

Your gallery’s exhibition statement links you to the works of classically trained painters—Seurat, Manet, Poussin, Lorraine, and Titian—who produced individual paintings on similar food-related themes. Do you think of your show as a painting that people can walk into?

Poussin, Lorraine, and Titian were definitely classical, but I bet Seurat and Manet were pretty iconoclastic in the early 1880s. Manet still feels a little abrupt even now. I love those paintings. Speaking of Titian, perhaps this is an opportunity to say go see the show at the Gardner Museum. Wowzer!

To answer your question, yes, by taking the figure out of the paintings, we, as the audience, have an easier time seeing ourselves in the exhibition. As an installation, it is similar to how the bifurcated panels combine in a comic book to make a continuous narrative.

That being said, the pictorial space in most of these paintings is intentionally shallow as a result of the flipped-down perspective. That pressure up against the picture plane (along with the three-dimensional elements) keeps the paintings on the precipice of being objects.

Many contemporary artists are indifferent about how audiences encounter their works. But the exhibition statement says you would like to make each viewer “the protagonist of the scene.” Please elaborate on that thought.

I am not indifferent about how the audience encounters my work, I just don’t think that I can predict it. I am not trying to predetermine a response—emotional, conceptual, or otherwise. What I meant by “the protagonist of the scene” relates more to the removal of the figures from the paintings so that the exhibition becomes, as you say “a painting that people can walk into.”

I like imagining a work like Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” or Florine Stettheimer’s “Picnic at Bedford Hills” without the figures. Keep the blanket. Keep the food. Then it’s our cookout to visit.

Anything else you’d like readers to know about “Cookout”?

Two things. One, this was fun to make. My studio is not a sanctuary it is a mad laboratory. In it, I get to mess around with paint and other exotic materials to see what the mixtures do. If I want to zap a painting with a lightning bolt under a full moon, that is where I have the space to do it.

Second, I follow my gut. I do not plan the work, I let each painting take itself where it wants to go. I often do not know why I did something until after I’m done. It’s like self analysis. Why did I want to make 108 peanut butter and jellys? Oh right, my kids eat that every day and I have made 800 a year for five years in a row. I am not the quickest.

“Cookout” A solo exhibition by Zach Horn. Gallery 263, 263 Pearl Street, Cambridge. On view: Sept. 30-Oct. 30. Gallery hours: Wednesday–Friday, 4-7 p.m.; Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Reception: Thurs., Oct. 7, 6-8 p.m. Artist talk: Thursday, Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. gallery263.com/exhibitions/cookout/.

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