For our exhibition The Past is Present, on view until September 22nd, APG's Esther Griffin will be talking with the participating artists about their entries to the show and the way they reference histories and memories. Next up is Zachariah Szabo.
As a native of the Midwest and a former competitive figure skater and dancer, Szabo uses visual cues from the early 80s and mid-90s to compose images and installations that often provoke thoughts of nostalgia and memory. Szabo received his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in 2013. He currently works and resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Some of the objects in your still lives are a bit kitsch, for lack of a better word. Why did you choose those (type of) objects?
I chose those objects because they have a certain glazing, they have an iridescent shine, and I was initially attracted to it for its photographic qualities. I wanted to see how it floats under photographic lights in my studio. I wanted to see how that would record. When it comes to the figurative side of the objects, they bring back a memory from my childhood. I may have seen a similar object as a child in other people’s homes that I visited. My mom was an after-school tutor and I would go to the houses with her. Joining my mother during those after-school tutor sessions, I was supposed to do my own homework, but instead I was looking around and taking it all in. That way I would see a whole lot of different interiors: in the Slavic area I would see a lot of floral wallpapers and china, and in the suburbs I would see clean, white, marble and chrome interiors. I was in awe of the different types of aesthetics, but when I would go home I could not understand my own house’s aesthetic. There was a lot going on looking at the interior, there was nothing cohesive. Each room was different.
The colors and shapes almost make some photos look like they were painted, especially the ones that have a patterned background. What were your criteria for selecting your materials?
The objects had to provoke memory. The selection of objects and the materials they were made of went hand in hand. Most of the objects came from resale, so I would be looking for a certain object or I would be looking for a certain pattern that would go with the object. The object/material relationship came first and then I would think about why I was attracted to that combination. People can’t always figure out what the final product is straight away, that is something that I have always done in my work since undergrad. For instance, I did an abstractions in architecture project where I would frame building elements of post-modern buildings in such a way that space was confusing. In this case I think there is a relationship between painting and photography and I think that relationship comes from the patterns, but also that confusion of space: something is flattened out. That is deliberate due to the lighting, I didn’t want to have any harsh shadows.
The objects are chosen from your memory, a memory your viewer does not share. What do the photos mean to you?
Nothing that I photographed actually came from my own house, from my childhood home. They are constructed from objects and colors and patterns I liked because of a certain memory, as it turned out. For instance, there is an image, “The Sleeping Bear,” it has a tall obelisk and a flowery pattern in the background. It is very linear. That pattern reminded me of a wallpaper that I would see at the place where I took piano lessons. It is not necessarily the same, but similar and this is my way of documenting that. You can see there is a difference between the still life images and stand-alone objects with the white backgrounds. Those single objects somehow didn’t make their way into a still life, but I still would like a memory or archive for them.
Can you explain the title of the project Rare As A Winter Rainbow?
Each image is kind of unique in itself, I don’t use the same object or material twice. So, these images represent one experience during a shoot that will not happen again in the same manner. One day I was driving, the sun was shining and there was this colorful rainbow and I was, like, when does that happen? And the answer is: not that often. I struggled with the title for a while, but eventually it fell into place.
In your work, you investigate personal identity and memory, among other themes. What sort of outside influence has an impact on your art?
For this work it really did start with color and shape and how they can come together. I had visions of geometrical shapes that interacted pattern-wise, and I think that was influenced by a resurgence of the popularity from the 1980s design aesthetic or the early 1990s, where you have muted colors and weird square forms or squiggly lines. I was interested in those kinds of geometric relationships. In my work I have also been influenced by glitz, I have images where there are tinsels throughout. In a past body of work, I did a series of self portraits based on my childhood photographs, and in one I had this whole pageant photo-booth set up. My mom had me participate in pageants when I was growing up. So, I have always been interested in these glitzy spaces and relationships. I am always looking for moments of color and glimmers of glitz.
And if that is part of your continuous inspiration, do you see a certain development in your work?
I didn’t start investigating my childhood before grad school. Before that, I took more straightforward photos of architecture and spaces and so on. When my partner, that I met in grad school, went home with me to my childhood home one night and he saw the photos of me on the wall, he was, like, “This is weird, not what my childhood looked like.” That was the point where I realized that I could talk about my childhood in my work. I have always known my childhood was a bit different, but I was never able before to talk about it. That moment was the start of an opportunity to rediscover and investigate my past.
Who do you collect yourself, who is on your walls?
Both my partner and I are photographers, so we both have different tastes and have a mix at home. We have a small piece of Liz Cohen, who was our teacher at Cranbrook in the photo program. I have a piece from my undergrad teacher from the University of Akron, Melissa Stallard. I have a painting from an artist that I did a trade with; she wanted me to document her work and I ended with a painting from it. We have mostly photography, with a little bit of painting here and there.