Under the Skin: The Art of Peter Zokosky

by James Scarborough

The best thing about Peter Zokosky's art is not his startling technical prowess (it takes your breath away to see details and plays of light).

But that is significant. Consider Cypress and Lotus, oil on canvas. The surface is built up as systematically as any major construction project. With magisterial assurance. Each brush stroke conveys layers of meaning. He imparts light that shimmers off the various plants; it dances and darts across the surface of the canvas. Nor is it the sheer humanity that fills each piece; but that, too, is significant. Consider the enigmatic Memento Mori, oil on canvas. A snake in a tree is pierced by an arrow shot by a savage below. The point of view is interesting. We look from behind the perforated snake down through the foliage, to the wild man on the ground. The piece describes the tension, if not belligerence of various creation myths: the theory of evolution, in the person of the savage, takes a shot at the creationist myth's serpent in the Garden of Eden. As with Cypress and Lotus, the artist paints luscious leaves and foliage, perpetual dawns and daubs of paint on canvas.

No, what I like best about Peter Zokosky's show is that it is a conversation that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. One in which you feel that, upon entering the gallery, that you haven't entered in mid-conversation. Much art today requires that the viewer be in on some inside joke before they even enter the gallery. The Curse of the Ironic. That explains why, when one goes to an installation, or even a lot of painting and sculpture, one is said to "complete" the work on display. To reconfigure the fragments. As if the Big Bang theory of Cubism's shattering of the picture plane requires the viewer to play Humpty Dumpty. And, earlier still, because such work parallels Impressionism's contention, allegedly backed by science, that we initially perceive things as daubs of color and form and reconstitute them like adding water to instant coffee.

Peter Zokosky's achievement is anachronistic and grand. Anachronistic because he paints in a dated style: he is a retro Old Master after the fact. Nothing stilted and ironic about that. He has absorbed the lessons of the Old Masters. Reverence for technique. Piety for skill. The craft of these things is startling; they look like Renaissance paintings and will probably last as long as them. Quality of the craft, what a unique concept in this age of disposable works of art. Grand because he lets us come to the work, any work, and share in a conversation. Initiate it. The work is full of ideas but they are ideas articulated in and by the paint itself. There is no knowledge of insular art world debates on style and inside jokes necessary to experience the show. It creates the terms for its engagement with the viewer. The most amazing thing about the show is that it communicates something of substance in a style that is just as substantial. This message begins and ends with the paint. As it should.

He fleshes out topics of substance. Skin is important to him. Skin as the organ that covers our bodies. It can be human or animal. See his self portrait, Self with Beard. Skin that gets peeled away to reveal the muscles underneath. It's our mask. Or the Diligent Ape. Beneath which lie the skeletal structure. As in Small Clearing, Harvesters (very odd pictures of monkey skeletons picking oranges from a tree), and The Monkey's Bones. There is one piece in which all three stages of skin-ness — flesh, muscle, bone — are revealed: The Three Graces. Given the attention that he lavishes on each work, he treats the surface of the canvas or the panel as skin, too. Something protective peeled back to reveal something emotional, personal, profound. The defenses let down. Skin — and paint — to be worked through, to the depths of expression. There is the surprising piece, Man With His Skin, oil on panel, 2002. The flayed person stands there and literally holds the outer layer of his existence. The boneless skin resembles a ghost. Similarly with Forearm, oil on panel, 2002, and Trapezius, oil on canvas, 2002. Parts of the body are peeled to reveal what lies underneath. But this is not an anatomy lesson. The import of this is such: bare, under-the-skin communication, raw emotion, the substance of which portends an art as expression, as communication. The Naked Artist.

Under the Skin: The Art of Peter Zokosky
Grand Central Art Center
California State University Fullerton
Santa Ana, California
October 5-December 31, 2002

by James Scarborough