Pretty on the Inside, the Art of Peter Zokosky

by John Gunnin

At age six, Peter Zokosky peeled the outer layers off a dead bird to learn about its anatomy. What he discovered fascinated him and sparked his lifelong quest of probing layers to reveal the underworkings of the swirling universe.

The painter chooses observation over interpretation. He suggests possibilities rather than answers. He contemplates, but never assumes. The resulting images, although garnered through a scientific approach, are strangely poetic.

Monkey Skeleton - oil on panel

Monkey Skeleton - 16" x 12" - oil on panel

Zokosky lives in a quiet, suburban neighborhood on a knoll overlooking Long Beach, California. His enigmatic paintings hang on his walls. His bookcases are filled with editions on science and anatomy. His reading chair is inhabited by The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov's The Human Body. Lying open on the floor is Next of Kin, What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me About Who We Are by Roger Fouts. Zokosky introduces himself with the sparkling eyes of a 10-year-old. He's affable, handsome, and unassuming-traits that belie the roiling waters of imagination that must churn inside him. He answers questions with more questions and enjoys the ensuing discourse.

A review of Zokosky's paintings begins with the Harvesters, an allegory of the life/death cycle composed of two skele-tons harvesting fruit from a tree. With the X-ray vision that Zokosky imparts to us, we see a young woman picking fruit, her bleached bones merely hinting at the full-fledged and voluptuous creature she would be with skin. What's the essence of this simple act underneath the flesh and muscles? The mythical possibilities here resonate as death reaches out for more life-a motif that sings to us from deep within the realm of the archetypes. Even the act of grasping high, for the biggest and ripest fruit, conveys the bittersweet longing that is life. Zokosky considers living to be a miraculous event. He's the kind of person who laughs in the morning just because he has ten fingers and they wiggle the way he wants them to. "We are both matter and spirit," he says, "and exciting art expresses each of these elements"

A pair of other works, Hare and Hare After and Monkey Skeleton, expresses a similar concern of the artist: what is beneath the surface? What does life look like with the outer layers peeled away? Where have we come from and where are we going? Monkeys swing regularly into Zokosky's cast of characters. Their significance derives from the artist's childhood, when his family kept a pair of rhesus monkeys as pets. Jessie and Jezebel were like Zokosky's siblings; they even took baths with him. Zokosky recalls gleefully the day they escaped from their cage when the family was away. Running wild, they smeared butter on the walls and dumped out the contents of every container in the kitchen. His parents were petrified, but the slapstick debacle forever endeared these simian pals to the young Zokosky.

Zokosky ponders primates lovingly on each link of the Darwinian chain, and emphasizes their sense of individuality to underscore their place in the world. One is made to look sexy and coy; the effect is disquieting. Another reveals the wisdom of age. A mother and daughter display great dignity and beg the questions, "Are they something more than apes? And what are we?" The artist searches for the transitional evolutionary moment when primates became humans, and portrays that un-certain event in his portrait Habilis. In addition, Zokosky studies the role of monkeys in myths and folk tales, especially those of India and China, where the animals frequently symbolize unrestrained genius and instinctual life force.

Stripping away layers of meat is another recurring theme in Zokosky's paintings. Like Leonardo DaVinci, he prefers direct observation over the anatomy manuals that favor generalization. In art school, Zokosky's anatomy class was often invited to the morgue to observe cadavers.

He found himself to be the only repeat customer on these chilly excursions and could not understand why his classmates freaked out in the company of the dead. "Maybe it was the strong smell of formaldehyde; it takes some getting used to," he quips.

Zokosky grew up in Long Beach and Indio. His parents took him regularly to natural history museums, where he spent hours musing over various skeletons. After undergraduate work at UC Riverside, he earned an MFA degree in 1981 from Otis Parsons Art Institute, and is now a professor of painting at the prestigious Art Center School of Design in Pasadena. He also lectures occasionally at the Getty Center. He has traveled throughout China, India, and Thailand.

Zokosky doesn't court fame; although his work is collected enthusiastically, he doesn't care to work with a gallery and is disaffected by talk of sales. Zokosky is an expert in the realm of oil painting and frequently alludes to the old masters when discussing both style and content. He refers most often to the Baroque artists: Vermeer, Velasquez, and Rembrandt. Of all the modern artists, he admires Lucien Freud most. Sometimes he makes direct allusions to the masters, as in his recent canvas Brownies, a tribute to Goyas The Dummy. In the latter work, a ring of girls tosses a male dummy back and forth in a seemingly innocent game. As in the Goya piece, Zokosky's innocent girls toy with a hapless man, but the artist darkens the drama by rendering the man—perhaps the girls' father—a deflated authority figure.

Zokosky marvels at struggles between the sexes. "Its amazing to witness the power that emanates from women. I'm in awe," he claims. Zokosky approaches the female form with reverence, breaking out of his role as scientific analyst and entering the realm of mystical inspiration. Here, there is no hope of grasping rationally the mysterious qualities of femininity. Treading Water is a paean to the female, and perhaps the realm of the archetypal feminine, a liminal dimension where the sleep of reason gives way to the dreams of the collective unconscious. We watch from beneath as a woman floats in a viscous field of cobalt blue. The head, unseen, governs the temporal world of sound and light. Underneath, we hover in the steely silence, the wordless domain of nature. The story seduces us and leaves a wake wrapped in questions. In Two Saints, holy men (Bartholomew, sans skin, and Sebastian, pierced with arrows) cross paths on a country road. Each is absorbed in his own holier-than-thou saga of spiritual achievement. This narrative—becoming mired in the pride of past successes—alludes to the grand tradition of morality plays throughout the history of art. "This piece illustrates the pitfalls of knowing and pride," says Zokosky, "and how people will always try to top each other." Yet there is sufficient ambiguity in this work to call up questions about what these figures represent in the artists own interior landscape. He works intuitively and is sometimes reluctant to articulate his own symbolism. "Art has all the components of idea, feeling, and spirit. I look for the source water where the archetypes bubble up and try to tap into it without defining it." Zokosky's works are a haunting treatment of some of the more traditional themes in art: death, sex, and our place in the universe. Zokosky mounts a gentle invasion of our psyches and plants a bomb upon arrival. The images resonate and let us ride alongside the artist for a little while. "We' ll all be dead soon," he says with a smile, "so lets experience the miracle of being animated meat for these 70 years."

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Source: Juxtapoz, Vol. 7, Number 1, Jan/Feb 2000, Pretty on the Inside, the art of Peter Zokosky by John Gunnin.