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Clara Hargittay

Home Sweet Home: Badanna Zack — From Object to Poetic Space
74 Gerrard Street West, Toronto, November 16 - December 14, 1985
Lynwood Arts Centre, Simcoe, March 7 - 30, 1986
Kitchener / Waterloo Art Gallery, September 4 - October, 1986
Oakville Centennial Gallery, October 30 - December 14, 1986
Tom Thomson Memorial Gallery and Museum of Fine Art, Owen Sound, January 2 - February 1, 1987

From the catalogue.
[ 3,100 words ]


Arlene Kennedy
A Preface

The realization of this installation is an affirmation of the artist's vision within a cooperative community context.

In a time of shrinking resources it is encouraging that any artist, especially one with the long-time career commitment evidenced by Badanna Zack, can draw upon support from so many sources: public galleries and their staff, federal employment grants for artist apprentices, business donations of supplies, provincial and municipal grants, donated professional expertise and assistance from colleagues in the arts.

The commitment to this project is evident in all aspects of its production and Oakville Galleries are pleased to have shared in it.

*

Clara Hargittay

Home, Sweet Home
Badanna Zack: From Object to Poetic Space

On a particularly hot summer day in 1983, in preparation for her major exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, (1) Toronto sculptor Badanna Zack and her entourage of friends, assistants and cameraman, created quite a commotion on a Riverdale parking lot when, armed with a blowtorch, they proceeded ritualistically to carve up the empty shell of a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle.

The cutting up of the car was indeed a symbolic act - a comment on our technological, throwaway society, as well as a bittersweet celebration of the end of a creative journey. This final gesture of the transformation of the car into luggage-sized heaps of crushed steel, to be installed in the exhibition called From Horse to Horsepower was for Zack in some ways an act of exorcism, a way of freeing herself from the concepts of both animal and machine, something which persisted as central themes in her art since the mid-seventies. She also used this occasion to announce her next ambitious project, even more physically and creatively demanding than anything she has done before, which she simply titled The House Environment.

Zack explained: 'Throughout Western history, a house not only represented the answer to our basic need for shelter, but has been and is a status symbol. The more ostentatious the domicile, the greater the status of the individual in his society. To own property and have possessions, to adorn that property, satisfies the arcane need for acquisition. By transforming the interior of a house from a utilitarian living machine to something that is non-functional and non-aesthetic questions many preconceived notions of objects and things. To imbue these objects with humour and absurdity further debunks the mythology. It is with these objectives in mind that I am about to embark on the house environment. My intention is to create an environment of soft mould sculptures within the context of the house. The installation will create the ambience of a household with all the attendant accoutrements. Functional objects and fixtures will be removed, and bedrooms, living room even the kitchen and bathroom will be transformed and recreated with sculptural moulds taken from actual furniture and utilitarian objects.' (2) 

On that hot summer afternoon, this seemed little more than an ambitious dream; the enormity of the project made it sound like an unrealistic, lofty idea. There was the basic question of finding a house, about to be demolished or slated for renovation, the need for several assistants, materials, documentation, and financing for the period of a year or more, the length of time the project was expected to take, not to mention the tremendous amount of labour involved in realizing the project.

Only Zack knew and believed it could be done.

As predicted, Home Sweet Home, Badanna Zack's sculpture installation in an old historic house in downtown Toronto, opened to the public on November 16, 1985, just a few months after the projected target of a year and a half from the day it was first announced.

Although the crushing of the Volkswagen represented the end of one project, in its finality, it held the promise of a new beginning, Home Sweet Home, in both style and concept, is very much a logical progression in Badanna Zack's career as a sculptor.

In the early 1950s Zack studied architecture at McGill University in Montreal, where she was born into a liberal, socialistic family of Russian Jewish background. After two years she dropped out of University and for the next 10 years worked in an architect's office, doing architectural drafting.

When she finally returned to University in 1962 at the age of 29, it was with the clear determination to become a sculptor. After receiving her B.A. in Fine Arts from Concordia University, she moved on to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture in 1967.

Art school at Rutgers was a sobering experience. Zack found herself in a hostile, male environment, where female students were treated with patronizing attitudes at best; their art referred to as women's art; and they as women artists in the most derogatory terms.

Zack, a female sculpture student transgressing on male territory, also found herself the unsuspecting, intended victim of one of the instructors, who during their first encounter lashed out at her work and personality with such unexpected critical venom that all her hopes and aspirations seemed to shatter on the spot. But Zack fought back and the experience further cemented her fiercely independent, stubborn and determined nature and attitude.

Under the influence of Robert Morris, the controversial minimalist sculptor, and a professor at Rutgers, her independence was severely tested. From the very beginning, the student teacher relationship could be described as a clash of sensibilities.

By temperament Zack was always drawn to sensuous, expressionistic forms. She admired Michelangelo as the greatest sculptor of all time, responded with enthusiasm to the work of the German Expressionists Kirchner, Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff, and to the tribal art of Africa and coastal British Columbia.

Although the reductivist philosophy of Robert Morris was against the grain of her deepest aesthetic instincts, she successfully completed her M.F.A. program and her thesis exhibition was met with critical praise.

Robert Morris had immense influence, as sculptor and teacher, on scores of younger artists. His reductivist, self-referential, process-oriented art, which equates art with the experience of it, along with some excellent work, inspired scores of inferior, pretentious exercises. Some of these became reductivist paradoxes which, according to Carter Ratcliff, is 'lived out every time a performance artist equates his body with an object or a monochrome painter equates his experience with the viewer's, assuming that the relief he felt in his painting ritual must be felt by anyone who looks at the result.' (3) 

At Rutgers, Zack began to work in black and white. Exploring polarities which related back to her earlier interest in woodcut, she created a series of elegant architectonic columns for her thesis exhibition which, when installed as a group, created a subdued, mysterious atmosphere. But both aesthetically and intellectually, these works represented a dead end for Zack — the realization of which resulted in such personal trauma that for three years she did not produce any art at all.

When she returned to her art, it was as if all the anguish and frustration of the previous years was unleashed in her work. In 1972, by her own admission, she began the theme of male and female genitalia 'as a sort of vendetta against society. I resented the hypocrisy surrounding sexuality in our culture and these works were a way of fighting back. It was a combination of rebellion and attraction.' (4)  These images were also highly primitivistic, the materials unconventional and organic, ranging from wood, pins, and rusty nails to feathers, bones, hair and sisal.

During International Women's Year, when her objects of erotica received much attention and were included in major exhibitions across Canada, she resisted being identified with the political primitivism of many feminist artists.

In his catalogue essay 'Contemporary Explanations for Primitivism' for a recent exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art, Kirk Varnedoe observed that 'an iconography of blood, hair and organs, reacting against an earlier formalism associated with male hegemony, has marked countless recent works that express feminist consciousness as integral with bodily awareness. Womb-like spaces and visceral symbols that would be equally at home in the oneiric male sadism of surrealism are incorporated into objects and rites that — frequently in explicit insistence on their linkage to tribal or prehistoric culture and art — celebrate a "natural" order of tribal life yoked to the imperium of blood and soil.' (5) 

Zack's use of sexual imagery, however, has always transcended these narrow, fundamentally aggressive concerns; instead of being sadistic or vicious, her erotic sculptures express vulnerability and are highly humorous.

Her work A Flock of Great Canadian Geese — 45 erect white phalluses adorned luxuriously with feathers, installed in V-formation — was clearly more hilarious than offensive. Nevertheless, the work was declared obscene by some self-appointed arbiters of good taste in the then much more puritan Canadian art establishment, and for a while Zack enjoyed a great deal of publicity because of the alleged notoriety of her art.

A Flock of Great Canadian Geese was also an important transitional work in that it represented a moving away from the single image toward wider environmental concerns and a new way of using space. At this time Zack also became interested in the primeval forces that determine the human psyche and the mysticism surrounding death in different cultures. She turned to biomorphic forms, using organic materials such as skulls, antlers, hair and sisal as she continued her investigation into how sculpture interacts with and occupies space.

Although Zack rebelled against formalism and the minimalist reductivism of Robert Morris, she understood the integrity of his most successful works as objects, and their potential for physical, dynamic interaction. This quality is especially evident in his 1963 sculpture, Wheels, which has been described as most prophetic in projecting the extended behavioural space of sculpture of the 1970s. (6) 

This new attitude to space, time and environment is explored by Zack in her sculptural group Space / Time Continuum, in which a series of magnificent, life-sized horses penetrate a wall in rhythmic progression, as if captured on film stills. The animals were carved from laminated styrofoam, bound with cheese-cloth soaked with plaster and glue, finished with polyfilla, and covered with black vinyl paint. Dyed sisal served as tails.

One group was shown from the front, another from behind. The scientific idea of a space / time continuum, which revolutionized sculpture through the work of the pioneering constructivists of the Russian avant-garde early in this century, are here alluded to in a fresh and humorous way by Zack, within the context of sculptural discourse and conceptual art.

As the title of her major exhibition From Horse to Horsepower indicates, the progression from animal to machine, from nature to technology, seemed logical. Starting from the idea of solid penetrating solid, using realistic moulds taken from a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle, was essentially a continuation of the previous concept of the horses penetrating the wall. The Volkswagen, symbol of the German Socialist Party's brand of utopia as the people's car of the late 1930s, as well as West Germany's post-war economic miracle, also held personal references for Zack. She owned a Beetle for nine years and always thought that it was the funniest thing the Germans have ever done. (7) 

Working with the car, taking a soft mould from the rigid body, presented new formal possibilities. She has always admired the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg and particularly enjoyed his full-bodied humour, the sensuousness, the fantasy and organic quality of his images, as well as his ability to metamorphose one kind of being into another and give it a life of its own. (8)  Zack has worked with the idea of soft sculpture before. She made a floppy and humorous life-size cow from black vinyl, and experimented with a series of clothing of which only one work remains.

The soft Volkswagen pieces began to assume similar independent identities while retaining their essential machine-like characteristics.

When the Beetlepelts were exhibited in the Autoparts show at Studio Gallery 9 in 1982, they hung on the gallery walls like mysterious trophies of some awesome ancient animal. Beetlepelt #1 was selected for and exhibited at the 12th International Tapestry Biennale at Lausanne, Switzerland, in the summer of 1985. Working on the series, Zack perfected the arduous process of making soft, moulded forms out of natural, glue-soaked strips of cotton and linen, mixed with white plaster, a similar approach as that used by American sculptor George Segal for his unique sculptural tableaux.

While the influence and debt to these great modern masters is clearly evident, Zack's works probe beyond the formal and perceptual concerns of the 1960s, and in dealing with the issues of the 1980s extend its realm of consciousness. In the exhibition From Horse to Horsepower, the formal sculptural concerns were presented in a wide, socio-cultural context, effectively drawn together by the photo and video documentation into a cohesive whole.

The house environment takes this approach one step further. It needs no unifying device because it exists as a successful conceptual unit on its own.

Home Sweet Home is a sculptural installation, situated in an historic house in downtown Toronto. 74 Gerrard Street West was an abandoned, neglected remnant from the Victorian era, saved from the wrecker's hammer momentarily by the tug of war between developers and the city.

It was probably a nice house at one time; from a distance it is still attractive and its façade, with its vertical axis, still possesses a certain rhythmic energy so typical of these narrow, simple, yet well-balanced Victorian houses that are slowly disappearing from the downtown core. Surrounded by, and no doubt soon to be swallowed up by, similar edifices of glass and steel, it is an appropriate site for an art exhibit probing the mysteries of the house.

Visitors are first greeted on the main floor by a photographic display by Miki Toma that documents the deteriorated condition of the house as the artist first saw it. The photographs then follow the work in progress, through the arduous task of scraping, cleaning, painting, the actual making of the moulds, right up to the final stage of installation and completion of the project.

The exhibit itself is contained on the second floor, and consists of a kitchen, bathroom, study, bedroom, and living room all filled with monochrome, soft, collapsed, irregular moulds of everyday ordinary objects bathed in soft, subdued light.

Zack, her two assistants, Julie Eknes and Vesna Mostovac, who worked with her on a government grant, and friend and former student Shirley Christienson, have recreated over 150 household items over a period of two years. They worked with the same process that was used for the Beetlepelts, including the suture-like stitches with which the forms are delicately sewn together and moulded into the desired shape.

As Badanna Zack stated earlier, she set out to 'question the preconceived notion of objects and things by transforming the interior of the house from a utilitarian living machine to something that is nonfunctional and non-aesthetic, to imbue these objects with humour and absurdity, and in the process debunk the mythology of property and ownership.'

Walking through the ghostly, eerie rooms is a highly entertaining experience: the humour and playfulness of the individual items are indeed evident. Who could resist responding to the wonderful droopy old piano, the drunken sofa or the teetering lamp or coatrack in the corner, not to mention the soft bathtub or the impossible wringer washing machine that could not possibly hold water? The crooked paintings, slanted tables, fragile chairs that nobody would dare to sit on, the kettle, the ancient toaster in the kitchen, the shaky ironing board, or the phallic-shaped lamps; amusing replicas of things that most of us can remember and relate to. Anybody who ever had the urge to get rid of old junk and free herself of the claustrophobic clutter of an dingy old house can sympathize with Zack's ghosts who are confined to living in this goofy place.

Thus, on one level, the artist is obviously successful in making the statement that she has intended to convey.

But because Home Sweet Home is so successful as a conceptual entity, it goes beyond these more obvious responses. The novelty of the soft objects wears off after awhile, and the work begins to invite associations and thoughts on several levels that transcend the concerns of objecthood. These lopsided, moulded and stitched parodies of themselves are furnishings removed from the realm of reality, and by their ghostly, subdued elegance are transported into the world of nostalgic dreams.

Home Sweet Home becomes the archetypal home, the idea of safety, warmth and shelter, a nostalgic reminder of the house we were born in, a place of daydreams, introspection and personal reverie.

For there exists for each one of us an onieric house, a house of dream-memories, lost in the shadow of a beyond of the real past.
 — Gaston Bouchelard, The Poetics of Space, Sanders of Canada Ltd., 1964, pg. 15.

Long after the house we were born in has gone, and our actual memories of it have been scattered, the dream values associated with it remain constant.

Zack's house goes beyond the primitive idea of shelter. Although small and cluttered, it is also comfortable. Despite its ghostly, eerie appearance, it is not cold or threatening. One can imagine that the study was a poet's study, that the old manual typewriter has known some wonderful thoughts, and the books on the shelves were read and enjoyed by somebody. And the piano and the violin were actually played at one time, filling the house with the sound of beautiful music.

There are objects and things in this house that reinforce positive personal values, things that fostered intellectual activity. These are mythologies that need not be debunked. These simple unpretentious objects in their extension and interaction with human activity point out the meaninglessness of our greedy consumer society, with its high-tech palaces and cold, glittering showcases that are so often empty of warmth and compassion, devoid of the creative spirit.

Home Sweet Home is successful because it speaks to everyone who enters. The associations and responses it illicits come from the soul.


From the catalogue.


Text: © Clara Hargittay. All rights reserved.

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