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In Conversation with Balint Zsako

Balint Zsako’s (b. 1979) artistic language is a curious blend of psychological, mythical, spiritual and sexual narratives that express his devoted exploration of emotional complexities and somatic configurations. Although Zsako creates in a range of media including watercolor, collage, painting, sculpture, drawing and photography, his ongoing series of works on paper demonstrate his preoccupation with human interactions and intensities. Within the environs in which his characters engage in imaginative activities, Zsako orchestrates an existence that is both playful and mysterious. His focus on figurative elements reveals his ongoing interest in humanistic qualities coupled with semiotics.

Zsako was born in Budapest, Hungary, grew up in Canada, and currently lives in San Francisco after many years in New York City. He studied fine art at Ryerson University in Toronto. Zsako has had solo exhibitions at The Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago, IL; The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Toronto; The Proposition Gallery, NY; and Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects, Toronto, Canada. His works are featured in Phaidon’s Vitamin D2 drawing anthology and are included in the permanent collections of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, KS and The Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, Australia. Having recently relocated to the Bay area, ARTPULSE writer Taliesin Thomas conducted this interview via Skype.

By Taliesin Thomas

Taliesin Thomas - Please tell us about your background as an artist and how you started making art.

Balint Zsako - I was born in Hungary and both of my parents are artists. My mother Anna Torma is a textile artist, but she is more in the fine art world than the craft world, and my father Istvan Zsako is a sculptor. Both my parents were successful visual artists in Hungary but my father wanted to leave Eastern Europe because he didn’t know how the communist experiment was going to end. We left before the wall came down, so we ended up in West Germany for about two years and then from there we went to Canada. I grew up in Canada. I have been making art and building things from a young age, and I was surrounded by my parents’ artist friends, so a life in the arts seemed natural. I was good at math in school so I was seriously considering studying Industrial Design but instead I started studying new media in college and finished with a fine arts degree in photography.

Balint Zsako, Untitled (Blood Orange #1), 2016, watercolor on paper, 30” x 22.”

T.T. - Most of what I know about your work is your watercolors on paper. Do you still work in a variety of mediums these days or mostly drawing?

B.Z. - During college I was making these thick journals that contained everything I did-drawings, paintings, photography, writing-like Peter Beard sketchbooks, you know, just cram everything in them. The journals stopped after college but I have worked a lot with photography, I have built my own cameras. The last photographic series I did were cyanotypes, and I have done series where I draw or collage the negatives and then print them in a traditional c-print enlarger. I have always loved the medium of photography but most of my time now is spent drawing and making collages. I like to rotate the mediums I work with to make it exciting to come back to after a break.

T.T. - Your drawings often exhibit gorgeous and sumptuous color combinations.

B.Z. - I figured out the way I like to paint watercolors isn’t in washes of colors combined but more in glazes, painting thin layers on top of each other. If you paint a red on top of a green, the kind of rich brown you get is not a color you can get with any single pigment. I lean toward saturated bright color instinctively, so sometimes I have to stop myself and tone things down or try and pick unpredictable color combinations instead of easily likeable ones.

Balint Zsako, Untitled (Blood Orange #32), 2017, watercolor on paper, 30” x 22.”

T.T. - The figures in your works seem to either agree in their actions or struggle for control through open-ended narratives. I am curious about your influences or ideas for the stories in your work.

B.Z. - The open-ended part of it is important. People are complicated, you never know someone’s motivations in either love or war. Somebody’s heroic action is somebody else’s war crime. I don’t like to make illustrative or declarative works, where it’s airtight and where it’s like ‘I am saying this’ and if you don’t see that then the work dies. Most successful artwork is like that. If you look at a Caravaggio you are not excited by the religious content, you are looking at it because of the humanism and the humanism is always complicated. And that is why the question of political art is really interesting to me, because you want to be engaged with things that are going on, but it’s difficult to make something-especially with ink and watercolor on paper-that will change somebody’s mind. So what you do is show what people are and show who people are and that goes a lot further in opening someone’s minds than sloganeering.

T.T. - Your recent body of work, Blood Orange exhibited at Foley Gallery in New York, those pieces are notably absent of landscapes or objects. The sole focus is figurative, so the isolated realms in your work seem wholly devoted to the complexity of the human being. Please elaborate on those figures.

B.Z. - I find that by focusing on the figure it makes you look at interactions and the subtleties of those interactions. The last series at Foley Gallery was the most concentrated in terms of just paring down: there are no objects, there is no landscape, there is no ground, and there is no sky. It just makes you look at the figure. This is the first time I have worked like this-in previous works I would add a bottle or add a tree to make the painting work compositionally or thematically.

T.T. - Those works suggest a kind of pleasure, power and negotiation among men and women. Figures often share an organ or other bodily part, such as two figures who divide one eye. Is this merging of bodies psychological, physical or sexual? Is it a combination of all that?

B.Z. - These paintings show physical metaphors for personal interactions. Are the figures working together or working against each other, being in love or having hate-how do you show that with just the physical body, how do you show that with just color? Possession of a body seems like a direct way of representing who has control over a sexual relationship or emotional trajectory. Are they trying to get away from each other or closer to each other? I want that to be unclear.

T.T. - I am really intrigued by that sexual element in your work, this idea about overlapping bodies that suggest poly-amorous or non-monogamous behavior. Is that an accurate interpretation or is there something else that you are saying with that?

B.Z. - I think the world is amazing in the spectrum of genders and in the spectrum of desires and in how people relate to each other. People are complex and not binary, they always have been, going back to the Romans and to the cave men. This makes its way into my work.

Balint Zsako, Modern Dance, Series 1 (#95, #71), 2014, watercolor and ink on paper, 12” x 9,”each. All images are courtesy of the artist and The Proposition Gallery, NY.

T.T. - I’m a huge fan of that ‘open-ended complication’ in your work. There are so many sensual moments in your work where men and women or figures of the same sex melt into each other in erotic ways, yet there is also an underlying tension in some of these assemblages. For example, one of your works from the recent Foley exhibition in NYC included a piece with two men whose penis’ becomes one. The work is explicit without being pornographic. Please describe what you think viewers of your work might experience in a moment such as this. What do you want them to feel?

B.Z. - I have several sketches for that work in which I incorporated the arms into the touch, like thinking about the fingers touching the face or the hands being linked. But once I painted the bottom part with just the penis’ being linked it was such a strong and gentle gesture at the same time, it didn’t need anything else. You can look at it as a metaphor for sexual desire but not desiring any other part of that person. But it can also be read as the figures pulling apart, where they used to share a lot of things but those things are no longer relevant and all that has left is that single touch. Or it could be like soldiers in war where conflict makes camaraderie in a very specific way. It represents strength and brotherliness without being sexual, an intention to move forward with strength and power to victory.

There is a multiplicity of directions in painting and I find it satisfying when the viewer comes to a conclusion or a reading of it that is personal. What happens to me during a day is completely different from what happens to you. When I look at that picture, it might make me happy but its probably different than what it does to you. That reaction is what the artwork is, and that requires the viewer to bring a lot of their own life to it. It’s not telling you ‘this is a fact’-it’s telling you the world is complicated. Is it war, or is it sex, or what is it?

Balint Zsako, Untitled (swimming cage), 2006, watercolor and ink on paper, 16” x 12.”

T.T. - There are obvious sexual narratives in your work, and sometimes blatant sexual overtones that suggest sexual intensity or even the so-called violence you are speaking of. What inspires the sexual element in your work and has this evolved over time or has it always been a part of your practice?

B.Z. - It’s been there for a very long time. I don’t know if it’s a direct relationship with the kind of work that my father makes, he makes abstracted but sexually explicit sculptures. His work was always in the background so I never thought the theme was unusual, it was just always a part of the landscape of my house. In my own work I find that you make one drawing and then the second one follows from it, so it wasn’t a conscious decision-if anything it was more a desire for the figures to be timeless and have no clothes. Once there are no clothes it’s an easier access to sexual metaphors. Looking at prehistoric art, Australian art, Indian art, paring it down to the body and simplifying the bodies-how much can you communicate by simplified bodies? What do they do to each other?

T.T. - I love what you do with bodies in your work because your art is so dedicated to the physical form and the delightful, allegorical stories that evolve. Your works express a kind of fluidity that I equate with modern dance movements, where isolated figures partake in personal scenes and act out moments that define something indefinable. When you are finished with a piece, do you stand back and often see something else than what you intended? Or do you always aim to say something specific through these vignettes?

B.Z. - It’s fascinating that you bring up modern dance because for a long time I was not a fan of it at all, but once I started becoming familiar with the work of Pina Bausch and going to contemporary performances in New York, it really made me think: ‘Oh, that could be one of my drawings!’ I am speaking the same language that the dancers are speaking. It was a real wake-up call to see this completely different art form that I didn’t have an interest in become such an important part of the things I look at now. Being concerned with what bodies can do and how they interact with each other is a direct comparison to contemporary dance.

T.T. - I loved hearing you speak at the Foley Gallery in NYC where you described the levels of complexity in your work and these ideas about struggle, control and conflict. I am curious to hear what you think is the difference between the sexual versus the psychological aspect of your work and what are the motivations?

B.Z. - They are getting more and more refined. When I first started making these drawings more than 15 years ago, the bodies were simplified and the faces were without expression. The bodies became less chunky and the expressions of the faces show greater psychological depth now. The compositions have also become more complicated. I love abstract art and that’s always in my head when I’m thinking about blocking or positioning. So even though the figures look like they are in motion, or they are in action, compositionally I am thinking of Miró or Ellsworth Kelly. Even though one person is standing on the other’s head and it looks like something is going to happen, they are also very still. Most of my pictures are stable, they don’t look like they are falling over, it doesn’t look like someone is flying across the canvas-it looks like its captured in a moment that could go either way but it’s not in a hurry to do so.

T.T. - I recall a few years ago The Proposition showed your work at the Art on Paper fair in New York and the smaller drawings could be rearranged, the little chapters could be moved around to tell different stories and that seems to describe that very idea-these slices of relationships and they way they can intermix. I feel there’s a certain meta-narrative in your work with respect to human relationships. Do you agree with that? If you had to describe that meta-narrative what would you say about it?

B.Z. - There are not that many lone figures in my works and if they are by themselves, then they are directly speaking to somebody who is just off-stage. So it is about the relationships and people speaking to each other. You picked up on it really nicely, that meta-narrative. In one series the same theme is presented by the layering of bodies, while in another it is addressed by the ability of the audience to re-arrange the actual sequence of artworks. Changing the scale was a big part of it as well, when you go from something that is very intimate to something slightly larger, how does that narrative carry through or change? … [Balint had to check on his infant son and then returned to the interview with Felix in his arms]. Felix, do you mind if I talk on the phone a little? He can stay here and we can continue to talk if this is not too distracting.

Balint Zsako, Modern Dance, Series 1 (#41, #38, #65), 2014, watercolor and ink on paper, 12” x 9,”each.

T.T. - Of course! So these storylines, these ideas contained within the work or sort of underneath the work, would you say that is an accurate intention of yours as an artist, that you are infusing these pieces with these hidden stories?

B.Z. - I try to do that by mining so much of what I see in the world. I want to take everything I experience or hear and be the filter to turn it into a work on paper, from news to art. I love Matthew Barney’s work but don’t make films, so the question is, what is my version of those types of narratives in the form of works on paper? I look at the world of Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” that examines superstitious or traditional practices from all over the world and how amazing they are and how they make logical sense on their own terms but they are also magical in their thinking. That leads you toward Italo Calvino and Kurt Vonnegut. There are all these rich underlying stories in the world and they come out in my work.

T.T. - I really delight in your mysterious, hidden storylines. They are truly captivating and curious and even strange. There are some very beautiful moments in your work that I think are, as you were saying before, these universalisms. The raw elements of your work-just watercolor and paper-it’s not trying to be anything more than that.

B.Z. - It’s also that I want to surprise myself. When I start working, I usually start with painting a figure, often sourced from an old master painting or from a vintage photograph. I will use that as a starting point and add objects and other figures later. It’s like writing a short story-you have a character and you see where they take you, and they tell you what they are going to do in the world. I don’t want to take the same direction twice. If it feels like something too familiar then I want to change directions and surprise myself.

T.T. - It truly comes through in your body of work, and even a Google image search of your art offers an incredible narrative of related themes. Do you have any favorite philosophers or a personal philosophy that inspires you?

B.Z. - What humanity is capable of is what I am really interested in. There are terrible things in the world, but in a way they are often necessary for the beautiful things in the world. You try to fix all the terrible things and you end up making a lot beautiful things along the way. I can’t say I want the terrible things to continue, but the Renaissance was the bloodiest time in history and the most amazing art came out of it. In my mind those things are linked. Of course in a purely humanist way you don’t want hunger, war or conflict, but then what would you have in terms of culture or the beauty of people relating to each other under duress? There is a richness that comes out of suffering and hardship.

I know what it’s like to have very little and to live in a country where you don’t speak the language, and you’re not necessarily welcome. The world influences who you are and what you do and what that means in other people’s lives. What are you allowed to say as an artist? What are you allowed to say as a white artist? I have been thinking a lot about that, when you see delicate, attractive female nudes painted by a Middle Eastern woman, it means something fundamentally different than if a white man paints the same picture. I find it fascinating how context is such a rich world for painting. Sometimes you have paintings and it’s enough for it to speak for itself, but sometimes knowing who made it makes it’s either empowering or exploitative. I have no idea what the answer is, but I think about what my position should be.

Balint Zsako, Untitled (two emissions), 2008, watercolor and ink on paper, 16” x 12.”

T.T. - Yes, like Nietzsche says, there is wisdom in pain. Just curious, what are you reading these days? I know you just moved to San Francisco and you have your hands full with your beautiful baby, but are you reading anything noteworthy?

B.Z. - I really love reading anything by Aleksandar Hemon. His descriptions of what it’s like to be an immigrant are beautiful and accurate. And the Russian constructivist-surrealist, absurdist 20th century poet Daniil Kharms is marvelous. In the art realm I just finished reading Chromophobia by David Batchelor and frequently dip into Philip Guston’s collected writings.

T.T. - What are you working on now and what’s happening for you in the near future?

B.Z. - I am very interested in language right now. I am making my kind of paintings with the repertoire of objects I have used often, and building words and sentences that I collect into it. For example, a stick and twine construction spelling out a phrase, or a swarm of flies in the shape of letters. Finding the right image to go with the right phrase is the challenge. I am trying to use language in the same way that I use narratives-they are open-ended but they are powerful to the right person at the right time. You don’t want the relationship of the image and text to be obvious but you don’t want it to be too cryptic either. The friction has to be just right.

The second part of this project is focusing attention away from the face to other parts of the body.  There is a problem with faces, they are naturally the first thing we look for, it’s a basic human reaction. People want to relate to a face but this might mean that other parts of the image get lost. John Baldessari solved this by covering up faces in his work with colorful dots. I’m not doing that but it’s the same idea. How do you take the focus off the face and how do you emphasize written language? I am also having an exhibition of the Blood Orange works in Toronto, at Birch Contemporary, from September 7 to October 14, 2017.

T.T. - I love your ideas and I love your work! Your work truly speaks on its own terms. Thank you so much.

B.Z. - Thank you, it’s always a pleasure to hear somebody else’s take on what I do. Having to articulate what I think about is a good thing.

Taliesin Thomas is an artist-philosopher, writer and educator based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is the founding director of AW Asia (2007 – present). She has lectured widely on contemporary Chinese art and has published in Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art (JCCA) and ArtAsiaPacific magazine in addition to regular reviews for ARTPULSE. She holds an M.A. from Columbia University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in art theory and philosophy at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts.

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