ROGUE FEATURED ARTIST: WILLIAM ZDAN

On October 1, 2014 by Evan Senn

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From the chaotic and metropolitan Detroit, Zdan emigrated to Southern California for higher education and the chance for a wider audience to appreciate his work. Luckily for us, he’s been drawn to this place ever since. Very few artists can embody the kind of emotion that Zdan is presenting, in their work. Zdan is not only technically proficient in his medium and style, but his work always feels full, rich and meaningful. His paintings are dark and powerful. They can be jarring, but they always evoke an emotional, guttural reaction. His use of the human figure in a morbid fashion takes away the traditional pretenses of beauty and superficiality from these gorgeously perfect human specimens and brings multitudes of stories, feelings and full lives into the glimpses of these subjects, torn apart for one reason or another. The crass and sometimes grotesque depictions of the people in his paintings infers deeper damage within the essence of his subjects, lending the notion that these wounds, tears, scars, cuts and seemingly self-inflicted dissections are not actually on the surface but are inside the person, letting us feel special as we get to peer into the very soul of these people, and not just their appearance to the rest of the world. Zdan plays with the human form in many ways, often calling upon references to ancient and well known techniques, iconography, and styles, Zdan is fluent in the language of imagery and symbology. His latest series, Humors tugs on our heart strings ever so gently, but with consistent force. Dissecting the human body without torture or brutality, and display each and every piece with delicate care and special adornment, all while evoking the spirit of ancient masters of art and stylistic nods to the great movements in art history–definitely our kind of art. Luckily, we had the opportunity to pester Zdan about his process and his recent series as he prepares for his next show, “Knackers Yard” at The Egan Gallery in downtown Fullerton.

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In your most recent series, Humors, you explore medical illustration, the human body and secular style artwork. Can you tell us something more about this series? How does it differ from previous series?

In my mind, artists have always been at the front line of cultural development…with the message being their currency. Artists have been utilized as the barkers of agendas to either help hinder social development and impose control…or launch revolutions in in thought. My series focuses on paying homage to the latter. Heavily influenced by traditional religious paintings, “Humors” re-imagines a history of cultural development involving a secular worship of humanism, medicine and science. I believe we’re circling back to a time when science, art and human development are at odds with cultural hangovers and governing bodies. I’ve chosen to portray the Humors as a nod to the fearless artists, alchemists and physicians who (despite now absurd approaches), sought to provide an earthy explanation for the human condition. The Humors (the preponderance of body fluids, respective organs, earth elements and corresponding human temperaments) are found in each of my paintings, along with bloodletting tools, leeches and other (now debunked and rightly marginalized) medical conventions like phrenology.

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You often use religious iconography, poses, references, and Gothic style adornments. Where did this come from in your practice? What inspired this style in your work?

The use of religious reference is me conveying irony and admiration at the same time. I’m trying to honor the style and conventions that came to be associated with the greatest art of all time (in my opinion)…yet secularize them by morphing the message, tones, themes, etc. So, yes…I’m inspired by the works of Dürer, Caravaggio and Van Eyck. But it is because they brought brilliance and unfettered progress forth, regardless (and possibly in spite of) the governing conventions in theme.

Styles and movements like Gothic or Baroque are often connected with Christianity. But I think that religion was just an ancillary vehicle upon which those art developments rode. Theocracies (or near-theocratic governments) were the commissioners typically and, hence, the work is forever associated with a paradigm. One of the most moving moments of my life was visiting Notre Dame Cathedral during all-souls evening for mass…but only because of the human achievement in art that it represented to me.  Gothic spires can beautiful to people regardless of whether they’ve even heard of Jesus.

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Were you artistic as a child? When did you first start making art?

Yeah. I’ve always made art. I started with pudding paintings and I might go back to it eventually. It’s a difficult medium. Ten years ago, I began working in oils.

What’s your background like in art?

As early as high school I studied art-specific curriculum. In metro-Detroit, where I was growing up, there wasn’t a high-school arts academy as a realistic option (the notable Interlochen Boarding School was five hours away). I was lucky enough to be selected for a state-funded artists’ program that took me out of high school curriculum for portions of the school year in order to develop under a resident artist. After that, I studied art while attending the University of Michigan…and then classes during grad studies here in Southern California. I still go to workshops whenever I can and consider defining my style as a never-ending process (and one that cannot occur in a vacuum).

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Tell us about your process in starting a new piece. From conception to completion, what’s the method to the madness?

There’s much less madness than you might think. It’s actually a relatively formulaic and focused process. From concept to execution I am constantly planning, plotting thumbnails, utilizing studies, etc. The concept can change several times throughout this planning stage. I also use photography, especially when the painting is involving figures. As a bi-product, I also have some photographic work that I like…but I’m not a photographer, in my mind.

The piece itself starts with priming in a specific manner. I work almost exclusively on panel and I prime with a deliberately toothy set of coats. I usually use a rudimentary under-drawing, which I fix and use for basic mapping. I try to incorporate as many base compositional elements as possible with the under-drawing and pay a lot of attention to line, space, and form in a way that it presents correct visual flow. I pay attention to the math in my paintings as much as I do the emotion.

When I distress the panel, the underdrawn cartoon is already in place…that way it complements the composition instead of interfering with it. So, the gouges and scrapes are deliberate, albeit seemingly random. To me, a successful painting has rhythm that feels intuitive and natural, despite the fact that maybe I’ve, for example, paid as much attention to the “rule-of-thirds” as I have engaging content.

I then apply an underpinning/wash…usually burnt sienna. I use a subtractive approach to that part and work paint into the distressed parts and tones, while wiping away for highlights.  Then I apply thin layers of paint. Usually three or more layers.

What kind of music do you listen to while you work?

I like to listen to classical music when I paint. I used to think that non-vocal stuff would keep lyrics from influencing things too much…but I decided that was bullshit. So, I also now listen to everything from Mozart to The Stooges to NWA while I paint too. I even like to listen to movies, just for background. I re-watched a whole series of American Horror Story non-stop while painting over a weekend earlier this year. So…pretty much anything.

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Why are the frames such an important part of your work? What does the frame add to your work, in your opinion? Who makes these intricate frames?

I’m kind of hoping that the framing is not coming through as too important, but frames can have an effect that accentuates a piece if done correctly. When you see the classical masterpieces in museums, the frames are typically weighty and ornate whether they originally were framed that way or not. Just like painting styles and content, framing is a convention. And, it is one that I use to mimic the entire production of classic style. And, I think I choose to use frames that somehow can also comment on the theme. I refurbish old frames that I find through church salvage or antique shops, or I repurpose items to make frames out of them myself (like the gothic alter pieces in my most recent series). I have two enormous Stations of the Cross frames from a church in Paris that I’m eager to refurbish and use for my next series.

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Much of your work over the years revolve around the concept of portraiture—what is it about this style of work that draws you in? Why do you go back to it, time and time again?

I love painting people. It helps tell a humanistic story to incorporate human form. My story usually involves people and or populated environments. On the other hand, in a way, it’s really just a somewhat cheap dive towards the easiest method to engage the viewer. People respond to images of people.

I think that people are also the most challenging thing to paint because our minds are wired to recognize even the smallest deviations in human form. It’s why Mannerism was beautiful and subtly absurd…because it was a very delicate distortion of the human form. I try to incorporate that as much as possible, too. I’ve also learned that my figure subjects have become important to my story, too. My paintings work out best if I can develop a connection with the models with whom I work (imaginary or not).

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Why do you make art—this art, your art?

It’s the best thing I think that I can contribute. And, I feel like it is the language that I need to use to communicate the most important things I have to say.

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If you could go back in time to any era, in any place, where and when would it be? 

If I could go back to a period of painting, it would be Baroque. But I wouldn’t really want to be a part of that society in time…just the art. Maybe the 1920’s? We had developments in medicine and social structures and Surrealism was being born. And the distribution of wealth was just as bad as now, but there seemed to be greater hope for the future. I think the future is where I really want to live…hopeless or not.

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Occasionally you talk about social justice in your interviews, do you feel much of your work has an additional component relating to activism? Is social justice important to you?

Social justice is important to me. But, I don’t want it to always be the sole purpose of my paintings. It does influence my work as a whole.  Most of the work I’ve done does have a message relating to social commentary or even my subjective concept of “justice”.  I’ve examined environmentalism, big business, police brutality, religious oppression and even more intimate topics like suicide prevention/empathy and mental illness awareness. They all have a purpose greater than just conjuring beauty.

I think that art created for only the purpose of advancing a specific cause can be too obvious sometimes. So, I’ve tried to take a more shrouded approach. In my last series, I was painting the humors as a feather for secularism by worshipping human development in absence of traditional religion. I doubt that this was immediately apparent to most viewers though.

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What are you working on now? Do you have any upcoming shows/projects you’d like to share?

I’m working on a piece inspired by Tim Burton films. It’s a theme show and I needed something fun. Not everything has to be heavy. But, I’m sure I’ll find a way to drag that into the depths, too.

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