Do I Know You? Zach Bruder Interviewed by Sara Roffino

Paintings rich in reference and interpretation.

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A square collage painting featuring the facade of a house in a circle and individuals sitting at a table titled, Coffer, by Zach Bruder

Zach Bruder, Coffer, 2020, acrylic and Flashe on linen, 50 × 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Magenta Plains.

There’s something equally gripping and disorienting about Zach Bruder’s paintings. They stick in your skin like tiny, invisible barbs; they hit you like a scent you know but can’t place. Trying to pinpoint what parts are familiar and why ends up being an exercise in sorting through your own internal image database, the memories you’ve constructed and stored—disjointed, inaccurate, possibly someone else’s creation entirely. It’s a bit like holding a conversation with someone you’ve met before but don’t remember the person’s name or anything about them. And yet, you’re enthralled.

Bruder works out of a studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where he researches and mixes and matches, starting always from some pre-existing visual form to create paintings that sneak up on one’s sense of knowing via questions and clues that span the history of visual experience—from ancient folklore to spam advertising. His current show at Magenta Plains continues his exploration of American history and its present, contextualized within ideas of empire at large and mythologies both ancient and modern. 

—Sara Roffino

Sara Roffino You’ve titled this show Gone to Fair as a play on the phrase “gone too far” as well as a way of touching on the multiple meanings of the word fair. You originally used the title Gone to Fair for a painting that was an interpretation of an Ambrosius Bosschaert work you found in the Aby Warburg photo archive. Tell me more about this work. 

Zach Bruder The Bosschaert is a still life from the Dutch Golden Age, which is one of my favorite periods of art history. When I was at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam a few years ago, it really hit me to realize that the creation of all of these incredible paintings was dependent on the Dutch empire. The magnitude of splendor, and understanding the sprawling economic system it was built on, further focused my attention on our own empire.

Growing up in Ohio, every summer we would visit the Champaign County Fair. We would spend time with relatives and view the animals they had raised via 4-H. While this contrasted with my suburban reality, I found it to be very matter of fact. It shares something with those Dutch still lifes. It’s the point at which something turns into something else—and I think that’s part of making art too. You make an artwork; it’s a thing you’re dealing with or working with; and then when you’re done with it it’s a painting, and then other people have a totally different relationship with it than you do. It’s gone to market, gone to fair. 

A black square painting with rows of different cats titled, Company II, by Zach Bruder

Zach Bruder, Company II, 2019, acrylic and Flashe on linen, 56 × 56 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Magenta Plains.

SR You’re an avid reader and podcast listener, and I’ve come to think about your work always in relation to your politics and whatever is happening in the world. Perhaps that’s also because of your 2016 La MaMa Gallery show, which prominently referenced the Gadsden flag and explored what now seems almost quaint conflicts around ideas of “America.” It’s quite startling to realize how much has changed since then. How did your current body of work—featuring houses and customhouses—evolve, and how does it engage with the things you are thinking about outside of the studio?

ZB The houses have their own identities and act as portraits. One of them, Coffer (2020), is under construction, or maybe it’s being renovated. It’s a treasury that’s being built to protect or store what one holds of value, whether property or ideas. Another one, Decorum (2020), is sort of like a tomb. That one reminds me of depictions of Christ’s tomb, with the rock rolled back. There’s something in there that doesn’t exist anymore. It has left this world, and time has either stopped or it’s frozen. 

And then there are the customhouses, which are about transaction. Customhouses used to be found on toll roads and at the city’s entrance or other ports of entry; a tax collector would inspect your goods and decide whether or not you were allowed to enter whatever the next space was—going into a city or crossing a border. There were different qualifications for entry, and duties would need to be collected. There are a few works in the show that deal with the underworld, Orpheus, and customhouses in which I’m asking: What is the price to gain entry? In Ancient Greece, there wasn’t just heaven or hell. There were different levels of the underworld that you could end up in. In a way it relates to the contemporary world where your life is totally determined by whatever door you came through. In the La Mama show a central theme was: When does one’s freedom supersede another’s freedom? I don’t know if there’s a clear answer, but it’s an important question to pursue.

An orange painting featuring small houses around its border and a larger upside house in the bottom half of the painting titled, The Lesson, by Zach Bruder

Zach Bruder, The Lesson, 2020, acrylic and Flashe on linen, 60 × 50 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Magenta Plains.

SR You worked in an art library in college, and you have worked as a registrar in galleries for more than a decade. These experiences of indexing, cataloging, listing, and recording have been fundamental in the development of your relationship to images and the way they function in your paintings. What is your process for deciding which images to work with and how do you see them functioning in your paintings? 

ZB Being a registrar and a librarian has made me think of artworks as images in a system, which is very different from the work itself. Those images are placeholders for the thing, and they have their own lives, and the artworks have their own lives, and artists have their own lives, and viewers have their own lives with artworks. It’s like a multiplicity of systems in which an image means different things to different people.

In terms of sourcing images, wandering is a really big part of the process for me. To walk around and happen upon an image that has been left behind for you is an incredible feeling of discovery. Whether the image is serendipitous or someone actively made the decision to place the image, they live on as ciphers or talismans—a piece of vital information. I experience this both in the real world and in the digital realm; it can be advertisements or even spam that is obviously there to sell something to you, but there is also art in it. When I see these little bits of art, something might hit these key words in my mind, and I will want to capture or record or archive it in my own database, my own system. I have a lot of image files, and there are a couple different platforms where I’ve saved things, and from there I work on the computer and figure out which ones I respond to most before I go to the studio. I’ll collect maybe like twenty images that are connecting in some way on a subconscious level, and I’ll go into the studio with that folder; and then when I am working, I might expand on that as I’m trying to see what image fits into the picture plane with other images. The way the images come together is sort of an ecosystem where things are reacting to one another, and it can be straightforward where one image is the base and there might not be other interventions, or it can be an interpretation of the image, and then other times they are built together in groups.

A pink painting with a row of houses around its border and an exposed house in the middle titled, Made Ready, by Zach Bruder

Zach Bruder, Made Ready, 2020, acrylic and Flashe on linen, 50 × 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Magenta Plains.

SR Much of the imagery you work with has roots or connections to folklore, mythology, or some sense of other-worldliness—histories and stories that offer rich perspectives for understanding our own times. Are there particular myths or tales that you return to repeatedly in your life and work?

ZB Yes, for sure. I think a lot about the Greek myths of Prometheus, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Hermes as well as religious histories like Exodus and the Book of Job, and things like American Civil Religion, Robert Caro’s books on Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, Adam Curtis’s Century of the Self, Margaret Atwood and Philip K. Dick’s various dystopias, and the film Children of Men.

All of these stories are interesting on their own, but what I find most fascinating is how they come together with shared archetypes. We have all these mythic cognates. For instance, Prometheus, who is the bringer of knowledge, to me relates to the snake in the Garden of Eden—a trickster that for better or worse leads the group on a path. The late German art historian Aby Warburg is also important to me. He was collecting myths and themes and the primary symbols that show up again and again in art history because they’re so potent. When I think of these myths, I think about humans in this moment of late capitalism, and I think we’re not really that different from other humans who existed before us. We might have a different societal structure, but the motivations aren’t that different. No time was easier or simpler; all times are complex. Part of what is interesting to me about the Torah is that it is a tool for people to codify their lives. Religion can help people navigate all the things that can happen to a human. And these myths and images are a big part of that.

I also love medieval tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, and early printmaking; these are signals that have been sent to us from the past. They were images that had an immediate reading, and they functioned as propaganda since most people weren’t literate, but major figures could be recognized. I don’t want anyone to think art is any sort of therapy, but it is a way that I can look at my own existence, feelings, thoughts, and where I am and then hopefully share those ideas with someone else. Who knows what will survive when this civilization ends, but I would hope that there is something in these things that could be interpreted or sent onward for future interpretation.

Zach Bruder: Gone to Fair is on view at Magenta Plains in New York City until October 21.

Sara Roffino is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn.

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