The Subversive Paintings of Zokosky

by Pierre Picot

It's a clear and transparent day, slight breeze, blue sky with a few puffer clouds. There is a sense that nothing at anytime could be more perfect, yet, in spite of this extreme accord, something is not right. It has to do with the surface of the thing; it is so perfect that you look for, and even want, a flaw. Peter Zokosky is a painter of pure worlds, of unflawed surfaces. Yet he paints very odd, very sweet and humorous, very creepy and beautiful paintings. Like the perfect day with the off-key note, the work of Peter Zokosky is somewhat deceiving. They are not what they appear to be; seemingly one thing but really another, humorous and serious, dumb and smart, all at once.

There are seventeen paintings on view at Newspace, their dream-like subject matter somberly framed in the Dutch manner. See the serpent slither above, below and through the water's sunset-colored surface a ewe looks out from her straw-filled stall, a child's skeleton casually stands in a bucolic landscape, a nice couple waters and tills the garden perhaps on a Sunday. An eel and a squid do a dance in the depths, and so do some gibbons in the jungle trees. There' s a little still life with only a pot and one plant, and rabbits, and goats and fuzzy white monkeys and a portrait of a young Asian girl, etc… There is a sense of mystery about the whole endeavor. The paintings are in part beautifully glazed, the patina and color suggesting old master work, while at the very same time some of the pieces look as if they had been produced by an enlightened naïf privy to a twisted view of life. These are elegant, stylish, resolved paintings, which are getting a very popular response from the public. Such a response indicates a fairly uncomplicated first read, but there is more and there is time. See the serpent and its reflection form an odd abstract fish-like image, completely at odds with the initial naturalistic quality of the work. The sheep is hooded, head to toe in canvas with eyeholes, as if on inspection tour of some chemical disaster. The skeleton smiles, standing in a panoramic landscape which turns out to be a very convincing backdrop.

The man and the woman face each other in their backyard, the man with a hoe, casual in his shorts, and the woman wearing a skirt with an x-ray like print of her cervix and spine (in designer pastels). She holds a hose and is watering a cross-section of below ground garden, with roots and worms and strata made quite visible. The eel and the squid are suspended in the greenish water, plant life thrives below the long, plump, and sinuous eel, traversed and penetrated by the horizontally moving squid. The gibbons in the tropical jungle trees sit in pairs and cavort. The vegetation is dense, the light brilliant, but what are those two long limbed apes in the upper branches doing as they synchronize and mirror their respective swinging from tree to tree? There is more to this vision than meets the eye.

If we were to look at this work in a casual manner, very little of an unusual nature would be noticed. There is, at first glance, not much to be threatened by; the subject matter is absolutely natural, close to banal. Objects of daily use, events which occur without notice, have the quality of being modest and precise, casting slight shadows and projecting very little beyond their isolated identities. The unusual therefore is to be found in what is hidden and suggested. It is when looked at closely and slowly that these paintings begin to truly assume a life beyond their initial impact. They do have an afterlife, and it is one that is not as pleasant as our first glance might suggest. There is a disturbing presence which lives beneath the reassuring initial layer of the ordinary. This hidden and suggestive agenda has to be addressed. Peter Zokosky is at work on something which is greater and more demanding than what his latest work immediately gives the complacent viewer. This is a picture of the world that is laced with dissatisfaction and foreboding. There is a manifestation of death in these initially uplifting images. They manage to disturb after having been easily absorbed. To think of this artist as a pleasant entertainer would be to miss the point and indicates a lack of critical incisiveness on the part of the viewer. Zokosky uses a very sharp knife, handling it like a skilled surgeon, leaving no scars, a charming subversive.

Peter Zokosky, through November 4, 1989 at Newspace, 5241 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.

EXHIBITIONS, Artweek, October 28, 1989 by Pierre Picot