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Zoe Barcza is a positively perplexing freak of an artist. She exudes equipollent amounts of brash confidence and slippery self-awareness. She crushes snus pouches with an Arctic coolness, yet she maintains a generally warm, inspired energy.
The world is fucking dark, and the art world can sometimes feel like a magnified, exacerbated reflecting pool of this darkness, in which we participants are subject to sink. Barcza seems to recognize and process this more astutely than most young artists I’ve gotten to know thus far in life. Her individualized installations often double-down on said darkness, but the inherently gnarly or dystopian tones elucidate her biting sense of humor—a quality that is more than necessary for us all to get by, regardless of time or place.
Keith J. Varadi: You were here in Los Angeles a few months ago for your solo exhibition, DR AWKWARD, at Ghebaly Gallery. Upon seeing the grouping of new paintings, I found the title to be strangely fitting. The work is not expressly clinical or surgical, nor is it overly laborious or meticulous. By that I mean, the paintings appear to be made with a compulsive process, but their slickness in part materializes from the fact that they actually are not fussy in the least bit. Is this an appropriate read?
Zoe Barcza: Well, the medical/hospital vibe sort of coalesced when the mental image I had for these horizontal supine body triptychs intersected with the title DR AWKWARD, which was a palindrome I had heard on the radio that got stuck in my ear. I knew I wanted the bodies to have cartoony heads and feet with a mixed-up abstract puzzle for the guts. And while I was envisioning this, it coincided with me reading these palindromic sentences; the structure of these palindromes somehow suggested the logic of these painting bodies. There’s sort of an internal charge or closed circuit looping head to toe, or a snake eating its tail. And I also get this nerdy glee from palindromes. The scenarios and stories they arrive at can be so random or rude or surreal, because the subjects are completely tied to the formal structure. That relates to painting for me—that you can end up creating a story that you would never imagine outright to complete and serve the requirements of the picture. Like first you’re painting a gondolier, but then you mess up one of the hands, or the picture doesn’t seem balanced, so you add a chorizo sausage or something.
Here are some examples I like…
A slut nixes sex in Tulsa.
Age, irony, Noriega.
I maim Miami.
Satan oscillate my metallic sonatas.
Trafalgar rag: La Fart.
So it was thinking about the body and its relationship to palindromes that I started with, but then having the floating bodies suggested patients on gurneys lined up in a hospital corridor or in a morgue, and that created this narrative of who is the doctor and who is the patient. There was a quote in the MoMA Picabia show—on one of the didactic panels on the wall— where Picabia was like, “Perhaps I made painting sick. But how entertaining to be a doctor.” I tried to Google to find the original source, but the only thing that comes up is Jemima Kirke from Girls’ Twitter account, where she posted the quote. Haha.
KJV: The millennial normalization of Francis Picabia—ha!
Another thing about these paintings is that the frames were rather peculiar. From afar, they really just looked like standard aluminum frames. But they were actually strips of aluminum screwed into the sides of the paintings, and none of the strips were quite the same heights or widths of any of the pictures, making it appear as if the depicted imagery was on the brink of an outburst. I found this framing design to be such a well-considered decision, and I honestly find that many artists often overlook these details.
ZB: Thanks. Well, sure…all those decisions are super fun, and you are only limited by the physical properties of materials and the amount of money you have to spend. But that was an intuitive choice—it gave the paintings a mechanical and slightly sci-fi impression. I was thinking about Jack Goldstein’s airbrushed paintings of lightning and bomber jets—I had seen some in person and had a vague recollection that the edges were finished in a similar way, giving them a slick commercial light box feeling. And also, there was a whiff of Paul Thek’s Technological Reliquaries, with organic body stuff encased in inorganic shiny vitrines.
KJV: The figures you had painted for this show seem to be illustrating the manic dichotomy of solemnity and outrage, with the horizontal ones appearing to have more or less resigned themselves to their current state, and the vertical ones looking ready to erupt. There is a lot of optical play, labyrinthine motifs, and a sense of hopelessness gleaned from these exercises. What do you think about this oscillating confined hysteria in the work, and how do you think it might relate to what’s happening in the world right now?
ZB: Yeah, totally. The subject matter—the body, my body—is not something that I can be detached from. Literally! Hehe! Body-horror is the basis of most of my personal anxiety and hysteria. The maze as guts, and a metaphor for all murky interiors, reflects my own fear and confusion with what’s going on inside of me. I’m a mega hypochondriac since as far back as I can remember. Anxieties and thoughts can create physical sensations and acute discomfort that mimic the horrendous imagined ailment. If I think too much that there might be a hole in my heart, my legs can go numb just to cooperate. It’s a stupid loop.
And, of course, there is nothing special about me; this is a symptom of existing in this world, and it comes out in different ways, depending on the person. And North America is a particularly tumorous and crazy-making place to grow up in. Existential dread is a pretty legit feeling all the time, though…of course in light of the world today, but any year since we evolved the capacity to worry would work, too. The paintings are also silly as heck.
KJV: The press release was written by your boyfriend, the Swedish painter, Alfred Boman. In it, he talks about the pointlessness of art, the existential crisis of parenthood, premonitions of violence, and national healthcare, among other topics. He also describes you and your work in an equally sincere and sarcastic manner, which is kind of his way, no? It’s a playfully honest and brutally ominous text…
ZB: Haha! That’s a good synopsis. Umm, yeah. Alfred’s a funny guy who writes in a very particular way. There is no point, really, in trying to direct what he’s going to write, because he only does one thing and it’s a great thing—like how Jack Nicholson only plays Jack Nicholson in movies. He was also spoofing the whole press release thing. The text was super satirical. I wasn’t sure if that was going to come across to someone who wasn’t necessarily familiar with his deadpan tone and might read it straight. But it like oscillates between the two, and that’s a quality that’s interesting to me, and something that comes up in my art, too—when you can be ironic, but also mean it.
KJV: Also, as we both know, it’s pretty common in the art world for two artists to be romantically linked. How would you say being involved with another challenging thinker and maker affects the way in which you participate in these endeavors, yourself?
ZB: Well, it’s impossible to separate the two; like…do I like this person’s art because I’m in love with them, or vice versa? I’ve only really ever been involved with people who are arty in one way or another, so I don’t know what it would be like otherwise. There are certain understandings that you don’t have to bridge. And of course, over time, you mutually rub off on each other. I’ve for sure been influenced a lot by Alfred, but that’s a good thing, not something to be guarded against. Like in one of Jonathan Meese’s videos, he’s talking about making art with his mom, and he says something like, “Art should be a family business,” and I agree with that.
KJV: I’d like to discuss the press release a bit more. There is one line right at the beginning that goes: “Will there be a total war here or what, like w’zup with the politics now and so on…these people, really?” Your show actually opened on November 12th, the Saturday after the recent election here in the United States. Would you mind talking about what it was like to experience such an epic fail within an unfamiliar government in a foreign land, surrounded primarily by strangers?
ZB: It was harsh, Keith! I guess it made for a memorable opening? I mean, what a nightmare! I don’t know what to say, and I don’t want to repeat the same anti-Trump things that get said a million times, and contribute to the entropic sprawl of Guardian articles and think pieces spilling out to a state of stupefaction!
KJV: During the days that followed the election, I kept thinking about the especially particular perspective you must have had on our situation, given that you are a millennial woman who was born and raised in Canada and who now currently lives in Sweden. Canada does have a reputation, as so many of you Canadians joke about, of being kinder and more diplomatic than your neighbors to the south. And Sweden, like the other Scandinavian countries, has a reputation of being a wealthy nation that takes care of its less financially fortunate. This approach could not be any more different than the one typically implemented here in this country.
ZB: It feels impossible for me to write anything about Donald Trump right now without feeling trite. It’d all just be stale hindsight blather. And I can’t generalize about Sweden’s opinions without risking being hazed here. But one thing I would say is maybe there’s a vague resentment, like, “Why do I have to pay constant attention to this ONE country, all the time…whose people think that Sweden is the same thing as Switzerland”? And maybe people here were not that surprised about Trump. Like perhaps having a deranged billionaire cowboy at the helm was not a departure from what was expected of the U.S.A., based on their actions as a geopolitical entity. And at the same time, while perhaps it is easier to judge with this critical distance, I don’t feel that people here fully understand what it’s like to live in the U.S. Like they maybe think they do because they grow up with American TV and movies and music, but that is not the same as living there, which at times can be so impossible and hellish for most people I know. So I guess I often feel stretched between different ideologies, but grateful to be somewhat removed.
KJV: Do you think more artists might now be compelled to respond to what’s going on around them? Do you think communities will more actively pursue engaging with art? Can art actually do anything of cultural significance other than “contributing to culture”?
ZB: Yeah, that’s a humdinger. I don’t know. I hope so. I mean, I think often straight-up political art is a bit of a misunderstanding; like…it is often way less subversive than it intends to be. Like, in the UFC reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, there’s a recurring trope of a mom or dad who have quit all their jobs to train MMA full-time, and at some point in the season, he or she says, “I’m doing all this for my family, for my son, for my daughter.” But they are fighting for money in a cage! If they wanted to ensure their family’s security, there could be more direct ways to do so. It feels similar with art…like…it might work, but maybe there would be more efficacious routes than making installations in project spaces? I’m not putting down MMA—I love MMA. And I’m not putting down art—I love it more than anything.
I do like to believe that art can do something. When everything is increasingly corny and homogenized, and suggested content from algorithms makes everyone read and think similar things, maybe art has a place to break through all that in little eruptions of non-assimilable weirdness. And then it can make an impact on anyone anywhere, if you’re alienated or isolated. I mean, that happens to me. I just had that experience at a Kai Althoff show—it totally fucked me up; it affected me so much. It was like falling through a wormhole to a different world. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it can happen.
Zoe Barcza is a Canadian artist based in Stockholm, Sweden. She graduated from Städelschule, Frankfurt in 2013. Her work is currently on view in the group exhibition, The Love Object, at Team Gallery in New York. Previous solo exhibitions include DR AWKWARD at Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles; Texas Liquid Smoke at LOYAL, Stockholm; and International Loner, Shoot The Lobster, New York. Other places her work has been seen include 3236RLS, London; Hole Of The Fox, Antwerp; Cooper Cole, Toronto; Sandy Brown, Berlin; Seventeen, London; and Carl Kostyal, Stockholm.