Michael Zansky Aims for the Stars with His Exhibit at UT's Ewing Gallery

Seeing artist Michael Zansky's reality, it's hard to fathom how intense his dreams must be. Descriptions of the southern New York artist's work are peppered with adjectives like "hallucinatory," "dark," "perverse," and "enigmatic," and indeed, his circular tondo and grayscale multimedia paintings, kinetic sculpture installations, fire drawings, and oil paintings can be all of those things. While he revels in surreal subject matter reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys, and his work is chock-full of references to everything imaginable, Zansky's pieces are nevertheless quite distinctive. In this postmodern era of symbol-obsessed works that tend to look alike, that's saying something.

Of Giants and Dwarfs, Zansky's current exhibition at the Ewing Gallery—on display through Feb. 26, with an opening reception from 7-9 p.m. on Jan. 24—references phases in the life, death, and afterlife of a star. Perhaps too simply described, a giant is a very old star that has depleted its hydrogen supply and will inevitably explode into a nebula or supernova; giants then become white dwarfs, neutron stars, or black holes. What Zansky makes of that stellar jumping-off point is as quirky as the mnemonic device—"Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me"—for remembering O, B, A, F, G, K, and M types of stars, the letters designating diminishing degrees of temperature.

Zansky's many pieces shift in size, content, and media as viewers traverse the large space of the gallery. There are 14 tondo paintings, some as wide as 54 inches in diameter; two attached wood panels with slices of stumps and channels like rodent burrows gouged into layered plywood; a series of identically sized canvases with otherworldly scenarios as tightly rendered as works by Hieronymus Bosch and Jan Van Eyck; burned drawings on a long stretch of wall; huge painted tarps; and a spot-lit, driftwood-like object with tangled extension cords that is perpetually rotating, resulting in an exploded 3-D spectacle when seen through the plastic Fresnel lenses attached to tall stands. I can honestly say that Zansky's exhibit presents what might be the greatest breadth in terms of scale that I've seen in any solo show.

Zansky's range of work encompasses actual and depicted orbs, all types of lenses, brackets, screws and staples, imaginary creatures, crudely carved wood, human body parts and disembodied heads, electrical cords and wire, and tripods. His boundless tondo paintings give infinite macro-form to what often seems to be micro-matter. They simultaneously resemble petri dish experiments and views of the universe through a telescope—bacterial plate cultures and plate tectonics. Balancing composition within a circle without gimmicky distraction is no slight accomplishment, either. Compared with the precision of his round tondos, Zansky's battered pieces—whether riddled with crooked screws or marred by repeated blows from a hammer—look like the work of a drunk uncle new to carpentry.

As prolific a fine artist as he is, Zansky is also a set designer who has worked in film and television. He also incorporates photography into various exhibitions. The son of a comic-book illustrator, and a 1969 graduate of Boston University, Zansky might be expected to produce work with roots in psychedelic, Pop, or Op art. Optics certainly play a key role in his oeuvre, yet Zansky is nothing if not original. Cartoon-like paintings with eyeballs from a taxidermy supplier and creepy beasts morphing into blobs or biting at one another are nightmarish, but they're frequently funny, as well.

Large fire drawings—with scorched lines, hung as a dozen diptychs—remind us that from ashes, the phoenix rises; rich sepia tones appear where paper has been torched. Time and again, Zansky finds spirit or beauty in disarray, destruction, and disjointedness. It's as if he's staring, unflinching, into the gaping maw of nothingness and finding his being. And through contradiction, a kind of raw truth is revealed.