| Victor Coleman
A Lot of Good Guys Went Down
Walter Redinger and Ed Zelenak
artscanada, April, 1969
[ 1,575 words ]
To what must a man apply himself to realize a dream? The application of reality to each image; what shapes and sizes; the physical/imaginary, like echoes.
Walter Redinger and Ed Zelenak and their families live not too far from London, Ontario, in a small town called West Lorne. It is disquietingly unurban, and very radical, for them to produce on the scale that they produce, living as they do in a rural environment. Tobacco country.
Both Redinger and Zelenak have been supporting themselves and their work by, each summer, working a tobacco farm. Redinger has been boss of his father's operation since he was fourteen. Fred Redinger gave him the job knowing that it was indeed hard labour; what better thing was there for a boy. 1955.
'It's a dream — it's a dream. I wouldn't have thought it possible a few years ago to start off in January and by March have 30-32 pieces staring me in the face.'
Zelenak and Redinger have been friends since early schooling; and in 1965 they started out to build something together. Neither would be quick to say a life; each accustoms himself comfortably to the possibility of change in his world. The structure they built, back from the road on an acre of land, is large and plain. The road in winter is pretty uninteresting. Flat with few trees or other forms; little relief; evergreens unnoticed in their very simplistic practicality. Southern Ontario I guess. Isolation?
'No, I don't like it; but you can get a helluva lot of work done. I have to have a certain amount of work flowing out of me ... We get lonely ... I get tired sometimes and just say "shit".' (Redinger)
They built their house/studio themselves. Fred Redinger helped with the squaring of corners, the accuracy, not affluence. They have not yet paid him back. The place was built in 1965. It is a very small town.
'Building the studio gave Zelenak and me a sense of determining our own direction.'
Neither man was ever really involved with the 'scene' in Toronto, going to the Ontario College of Art, but living apart, then dropping away, back into the solitude of those emerging forms.
'I was blackballed — My dad? Oh, he just thought I was going through the shits phase — later on I'd get down to business.' (Redinger)
Many sculptors, working for the first time in fibreglass, have told me how difficult it is to live with the material. Fibreglass itself a metaphor for the barriers constructed between us and our reflections. The degree to which a sculptor can control any given environment is just beginning to be tapped. Enclosed. Though I'm sure both of these men are aware of Moore's moors; the geography we shape each day, defining it with our presence.
The limited place of men who decide that work is where they want their bodies to be engaged; the four walls identical. Somehow, they cannot, will not, join the dance they see going on all around them. Which tells me maybe that the severity of a man's space is not necessarily the form of his expression; though certainly there is a regular tension in the sinew of Redinger's figures and forms. He'll colour them white until someone comes along with a better colour.
'I just said, Shit on it, I'm gonna hang in. I had to be aggressive. It's only been in the last two years that I've been thinking as a winner.' (Redinger)
His terrier barks high-pitched at us as we enter the studio. We are struck with an immediate resilience. The dog is obviously innocent, unlike Zelenak's shepherd, who is announced 'Beware of the Dog' on the door of his studio, but is a quiet dog, not a particle as vociferous in his aggression.
As we come into the driveway, out of sparse rural traffic, Zelenak's huge (35' x 22') Traffic sits taller than the studio beside it. The snake, swallowing its own tail.
On the proliferation of his own work, Redinger says: 'It embarrasses me,' and of Zelenak's: 'This huge thing out there — supersize — the audacity of an individual, building a fucking piece of sculpture that big.'
Zelenak is not an outwardly aggressive figure. Small, almost alien in size to the forms he entices. He works quietly, regularly.
'It's almost an industrial type of appearance. We start out in the morning; I know what I'm going to do in the next month. We make new moulds....'
Zelenak, with a red no-peak paint cap squatting comfortably on his curly head, gestures little; but when he does there is a certain smoothness to the measuring of what he says in the movement of his fingers through the air to make shapes any one of us could understand, given the vision.
'A very definite positive space that reacts physically to your visual senses.... It isn't ambiguous, it has only one meaning.... It happens within its own area.' (Zelenak)
These shapes, all over his studio, like bright huge penises ('a pen is a penis' -- bpNichol) (or, you've heard that song before; which is not to say we're afraid to hum it when the spirit moves us) smoothly circumcised and unobstructed by the trunk of a man. Extrapolations from the body. The nature of the work.
Both these men live, and are the living signatures of, their work, the manifestation of just that much energy as the body affords us.
'It's funny what's happening in the arts today; it's nestling down to activities....' (Zelenak)
His new work, just now being realized: Serpent under glass, dish-shaped forms inverted on the wall, shielding a worm shape, no colour except in the viewer's sensibility. We will invent the colour and apply it, for the sake of good taste. The original conception is: line, and the three dimensional emer-gence of line, through clay or plaster into fibreglass.
The environment that both these artists have chosen is cooperative. The cooperation goes beyond the two of them into their families. Marion Redinger's brother, Bob, works steadily. Zelenak's helper is a young painter; they recently built an addition onto Zelenak's studio to accommodate him. They do everything but sleep in the studios. Redinger jokingly suggests to his wife that they should move their bed in.
'For awhile there we thought we had lice,' says Zelenak, relating the itch of fibreglass when it gets, as it does, into the skin. So they work with their bodies covered; Redinger and Zelenak with their sleeves rolled; Redinger's shaved head.
'With this gang,' Redinger gestures towards his wife and brother-in-law, 'you can't go wrong.'
One difficulty they have found, working together, is that people are pretty uneven about how much 'art' can come out of an acre of land in West Lorne, Ontario. Galleries particularly balk at showing both men in the same show. Neither says he really cares; but I felt some undercurrent of bitterness in their lack of apology.
'... they want to keep us separate; they don't want people thinking in terms of Redinger and Zelenak ... although ... it didn't hurt Picasso and Braque, eh?' (Redinger)
Which says to me that there's a much wider range of excellence in the world today; or the only reflection of its narrower stance is in professional criticism. But then there is the marketplace; and one needn't be a farmer, in anything but reflections of himself, if that is what pleases him; what pleases him pleases others. Myself, for instance.
'I'll never forget when [Avrom] Isaacs wanted to exhibit my old man's gas pump. We've got it back here.' (Redinger)
One senses a marriage, if only of forms; or some friendship that has gone beyond emotion into energy; and the designs are enriching.
'I think there's money to be made, I really do. I think the artist has given himself a lot of headaches, a lot of heartaches; a lot of good guys went down.' (Redinger)
There is something in the simplest occasion that wants desperately to express itself. The circulation, if you will, of Traffic.
Zelenak is concerned that his work be '... real and tangible ... not mystical.' A very stark conviction that allows a man to realize the full potential of his materials. What separates us is not the individual petition, but the mass of intention and anticipation. These men work, simply, and well, but hard. Only Redinger really wants to talk about it.
'There are primitive tribes in South America today who haven't gotten around to having shelter over their heads; people who literally get behind something, an object; they haven't worked it out that they need something over their heads. They just get out of the way.'
And in that stark awareness I find protection, and an almost total lack of pretense. From a small town in Southern Ontario, the constantly shifting centres of surface; and under that, centre is all. Which brings me to some sort of attitude, I guess — better to arrive, at any point, than stay behind and wait for the abstraction. So I give the last few words to Walt Redinger, to show my greed, my attachment to his earth.
'When I see people pulling the wool over other people's eyes, I feel like going in there with a knife, and cleaning ... cleaning them out.'
'I make shapes. I'm a pacifier.'
artscanada, April, 1969
Text: © Victor Coleman. All rights reserved.
Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.