Zahar Vaks

Clothing as surface yields a harmonious fluidity between my use of painting, drawing, and collage. At times one may wonder where the clothing and the painting begin. Both glean from one another. Collage here becomes the keen negotiator allowing the surface to retain its specificity while persisting into the mysterious. I am intrigued by the prowess of hiding and revealing. If people get close to my paintings, they may find the viscous sap texture of balsam fir resin with a piece of moss pressed into it. Sculpted clay objects dipped in beeswax. Lost lighters, found meteorite, and 3D printed gestures. The chromatic greys of oxidized cherry juice clouding around shaped cherry skins, pits, and stems sealed in gelled mediums. Different kinds of fabrics, types of paper, plastic, metal, magnets, and wood. You come across cut outs of drawings. The cut in harmony with the inscribed or carefully torn line. A small cutout of my old passport photo hidden in plain sight. If you are close enough to smell the painting, you will experience the scent of smoky beechwood tar or the fading sweetness of clove oil. 

I am painting on t-shirts, button downs, jackets, along with other wearables. These are garments that I wore in my every daily life, now stretched into square or rectangular forms. The themes of alchemical empathy, emotional architecture, body as space, structure vs formlessness explored through the lens of a Russian and Ukrainian Jewish immigrant processing Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. This conflict has deeply affected me. I am livid towards Putin and the system that allows him to continue these heinous crimes. The angst and trauma in learning of my grandmother’s home being blown up in Zhitomir. These thoughts along with the vexation towards Putin are constant within this work, distilled into their materiality. Apparel that once lived in my closet has contorted to the shape of the stretcher. While these reflect variant forms of the way I dress, the paintings can conjure me as a kindergartener in Uzbekistan. Or the paintings can be activated by a sensory recall of me smoking dried grape vines when I was a child. The way the spiraling vermillion embers glowed as I inhaled the tangy smoke into my lungs.

The works on stretched canvas are started by mapping islands of gesso or primer onto the surface. The rest of the canvas is left raw. Water based materials such as watercolor, cellulose pigments, dispersions, or shellac ink seep into the unprimed area while oil-based paint is layered on to the island of preferred primer. Sometimes the island is the raw canvas surrounded by an ocean of oil. At times the shape of the stretcher is shifted into subtly transforming into a parallelogram or a trapezoid.

The compositions of these works yield figures that may also be read like openings to caves. The forms in these paintings channel experiences from my childhood. Vivid visions of Nadia, the downstairs neighbor. Specifically, the time she banged on our door. I was seven and ran to climb the stool to look through the keyhole. I saw her face framed by freshly dyed red hair messily pulled back and exposing grey roots anchored into her skull. She was wearing a pink summer dress and held an axe while glaring back at me. Nadia slammed her axe into our door while screaming “I will kill you fucking kikes”!  She struck our door multiple times before drunkenly walking back downstairs. I am still traumatized by this. My mother’s retelling of this story got my family asylum after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.           

I can’t forget the way my grandfather bribed Russian soldiers to drive us from the train station to the airport in Moscow. He did this so that we didn’t get pulled over by the Russian mafia. Later at the airport seeing him give away his watch to corrupt officials who were threatening not to let my mom take her violin with her. Finally sitting on the plane while the stewardess gave out small cans of Sprite. That was the first time I ever tasted soda. The smell, sound, and the feeling of the citric effervescent fizz briskly coursing through my bloodstream. We were still grounded in Moscow, but I was thinking “I am American now”.

The work in part is amalgamating versions of myself from different moments of my life. The act of stretching the canvas has become the dressing of a shirt. Although these retain a rectangularity, the clothes on the stretcher invoke the body. Utilizing my own clothing makes the paintings a record of sorts. Worn in the everyday they now have a second life as a painting. The way I stretch the clothes over time now imprinted with my scent and physicality on the surface. This is the foundation of the painted structures and spaces. Memory is embedded in clothing. Attire becomes a material metaphor for memory.