Essence is Gasoline

This essay was written for the catalog accompanying a show of new work by Michael Zwack at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York. The exhibition runs through February 26.

At first, I simply admired Michael Zwack’s eye. That’s still the principal pleasure I take in his work: I like the way it looks. But its depth has held my attention for years. Sometimes I feel like I’m listening to it, which is the highest compliment a musician can pay.

The word I hear him use most often when he talks about his work these days is “essence.” But that makes it sound more somber than it is, especially in English.  It could mean he’s fueled up: as I learned reading the self-serve instructions on the service station pump during a visit to Quebec this summer, essence is gasoline.

Zwack’s professional training was in sculpture.  Though the largest part of his output has been painting and drawing, his work on paper and canvas is so three-dimensional that it seems sculptural to me. There seems to be a tendency in our mediated age for artists to create their work pre-shrunk, if you will, with an eye to how it will look in a magazine, or on a screen. Not Zwack. He’s old school: small, flat reproductions don’t do his work justice.

He likes to compose in layers. Image goes on top of image, sometimes complementing the previous layer, or possibly covering it up; meticulous drafting vies with impulsive action. As layers accrete, he may sand back down, erase, or touch up to bring out what’s underneath. After all the adding and removing, the finished work is multi-planar, rhythmic, and not easily definable except as a Zwack.

Cindy Sherman — a colleague of Zwack’s from the days of Hallwalls, the Buffalo artists’ cooperative of which they were both co-founders in 1974 — recalled her first encounter with his layered style: “It looked like he was just erasing it, and I guess I didn’t quite understand: ‘Well, what are you working on, if you just keep getting rid of it?’  But then of course I realized that that was just part of the process of the layering.”

Over the years, Zwack built up his own visual vocabulary, using elements of landscape, symbol, and language drawn from all over the world. His landscapes function as what musicians call the basic track, the underlying performance that controls the rhythm. These landscapes can be populated by lattices of symbols and bits of language, floating superimposed in the air or lurking beneath the surface.

At first the landscapes were no place specific. Robert Longo, another Hallwalls veteran, recalled: “I always remember Michael taking these images from magazines that were like you know, German travel magazines, or something like that? He couldn’t read where the places were. So they were images of places that he didn’t know where they were. And I always have felt that . . . when you draw these images, they happen again. They’re reborn. So those places that Michael was drawing, he wasn’t copying the images that he saw in a book, he was making a new place. So these places become fantasy locations, but they have a reality to them. It’s like the difference between looking at a portrait photograph and looking at a Rembrandt. A Rembrandt’s like a vodou object. You know what I mean? The investment that’s put into that painting, into the spirit of that picture. Michael’s pictures have always had this kind of like — mysticism to me.”

The interpermeability of cultures is a given in the poetics of Zwack’s work: it’s a universalist vision. The language in the picture? Whether you know what the language says is beside the point; what language it is doesn’t matter. You’re seeing language. Writing once again becomes magical, the way it is to someone who can’t read, reminding us that everyone is illiterate in all but one or two or a few of the world’s variety of languages.

* * *

I’ve known Michael since the days of Hallwalls. I spent six months in Buffalo in 1976, then moved to Manhattan; Michael made the same move the following year, and we’ve lived walking distance from each other the whole time. I’ve watched his work transform over this period, so I have some perspective on what happened during the last ten years, when he became drawn to Haiti.

Cindy Sherman described the Hallwalls atmosphere: “Some of us were living there. Some just had studios there, and then there were all these other people that would just show up. Sometimes they would show up for the art, and sometimes they would show up just to watch TV and hang out where we lived. Zwack had a studio there, and the gallery was right in the middle of all the studios. It was not exactly communal, but definitely was this kind of family of people that had these roles.” Zwack in those days had an “archaeological approach mixed with dark mystery,” said Charles Clough. For him, Zwack “was our Keith Richards.  He was from the Catholic German-Polish east side of Buffalo and its street-fighting, Greek-letter-named gangs, and he hung with blues musicians in ghetto bars.”

“Michael’s stuff always seemed like hallucinations to me,” said Robert Longo. All three of the Hallwalls veterans I spoke to mentioned Zwack’s early work of casting toy soldiers in cement so that “some of them looked like they were being swallowed up, or coming out of, the substance,” as Sherman put it. And they all cited his latex castings: “I remember him pulling latex off of trees,” Longo said, recalling Zwack’s work made for Artpark in 1976. “They looked like skins. He’d painted latex on trees, then pulled it off, and hung them on the wall. They were incredible. They looked like skin, or hides, [though] they were the bark of the tree.” Clough told me that the “richness and magic” in Zwack’s castings “became more concentrated when he moved to rubbing raw pigment into paper to form ghostly images.”  This was a powerful series of giant portraits of faces with intense expressions perhaps orgasmic, perhaps in anguish.

That sense of looking for the unseen side of something persists through all of Zwack’s work, whether sculpture, rubbing, drawing, or painting. And if you’re in search of the unseen, Haiti’s the place.

* * *

An article I wrote for Bomb (Winter 2003/4) told the story of how Zwack began attending Haitian parties and ceremonies in Brooklyn, then traveled once and again to Haiti, making a place for himself in its structure of ritual and community. Though he never stopped creating new work, for several years his main emphasis was less on creating than on learning learning the Kreyol language, the culture of Haiti, the complicated, demanding, sacred arts of vodou. The result: this Polish-American guy from Buffalo has an intimate, scholarly knowledge of Haiti, with its deep links to 18th-century Africa. The courage of that commitment is visible everywhere in his work.

But then, his work always went its own way. If you don’t know about the Haitian side of Zwack, you’re missing something important. But if you only see that, you’re ignoring the art. Though there’s a before and after in Zwack’s life, Haiti wasn’t so much a left turn for him as a full speed ahead. He’s arrived somewhere he was always going. The progression is steady, not convulsive. As Cindy Sherman put it, “I don’t think if people didn’t know about it, that they would look at his work and say, ‘Oh my God, what’s happened to him? Something’s going on.’ Because it was in his work before.” Haiti expanded him, giving him a new vocabulary with which to be himself.

After Michael began going to Haiti, he began painting and drawing landscapes from photographs he shot there. A single view of a country road in Haiti serves as the basis for a number of complex drawings. His paintings began gazing out at the sea, most spectacularly in large canvases that oppose sky to a texture of waves, interpenetrated by mystical symbols or writing. These pictures emphasize the horizon in the horizontal. Between the blue of the water and the different blue of air is what the Kongo called the kalunga line: the crossover between this world and the other one, on the other side of the water. Human figuration has become tiny: a small fisherman, on a vast sea, easily pulled over to the land of the dead should the water want him. It’s recognizably a continuation of the work Zwack was doing long before he went to Haiti, as in “Heaven and Earth” (1994), in which he erased the central, solitary human figure out of the drawing, leaving a whitish void in a golden, oil-washed landscape, turning a figure into spirit.

As Zwack became confident in his new spiritual home, his art entered a new stage of creativity. At times he had been so stymied by the contradictions of integrating his life in New York and his life in Haiti that the pace and decisiveness of his work suffered, though he never stopped working. But in January 2005, he was at last able to get his fiancée Michelle, now his wife, through the difficult United States immigration process to come live with him in his loft in Manhattan. It was as if the major obstacle to his completeness had vanished, and he began painting and drawing something new into existence. I saw it happen. For years now I’ve been going over every so often to Michael’s place — now Michael and Michelle’s place — to drink beer, listen to kompa, and watch the pictures grow.

Zwack has been slowly moving in the direction of abstraction. In a new series of paintings, he dispenses with the landscapes. He refers to these intense works as tablo mistic (in French it would be tableaux mystiques, but this is Kreyol).  Elements of the vévés of Haitian tradition — a system of pictorial writing with deep Kongo influence that embodies writing as mystical power secret — are visible in them.  Michael has made very complicated vévés, in cornstarch, on the earth floor of a peristyle in Port-au-Prince. But these tablo aren’t vévés, and they aren’t about vévés. It’s more like, the vévés live there, too, one of the realities in the artist’s field of vision, coexisting with everything else.

This show, Zwack’s first in four years, finds the artist in a prolific moment. Don Metz originally proposed this exhibition as a retrospective, which would have been beautifully appropriate in Michael’s home town. That still needs to be done, but it will be a complex undertaking, requiring the loan of key pieces from all over the world. Meanwhile, Zwack is moving forward urgently. He’s recognizably the artist who’s been fascinating me for thirty years, but he’s doing something new and inspired. It’s flowing out of him as fast as he can put brush to canvas, or pigment to paper, faster than he can say what it is, faster than I can write.

“I’m painting the essence,” he said to me one day a couple of months ago when I visited his loft. As I was leaving, Michelle put on a video by kompa group T-Vice, featuring a big hit of three years ago: “Helicopter.” To do the helicopter, you take off your shirt and whirl it above your head like a rotor. Full of some kind of essence, a huge, partying crowd in Port-au-Prince was helicoptering on the TV screen, achieving lift-off with their shirts in the air, as I made my way down the stairs to the street.  Michael went back into the other room to work.

NED SUBLETTE is a musicologist and author who lives in Manhattan. He was a 2004-2005 Rockefeller Humanities Fellow at Tulane University in New Orleans. He can be reached at: