In the Studio with Bryan Zanisnik: Juggling exhibitions, studios, psychology, and pursuit by the rich and famous

Bryan Zanisnik Sculpture

Meadowlands Picaresque, site-specific installation and performance, Smack Mellon, Brooklyn, NY, 2013.

Bryan Zanisnik is the art world’s Woody Allen. Today’s “In the studio” will explore how Zanisnik organizes projects for disparate venues, works in and out of studio spaces at art institutions, and addresses copyright and legal issues involving his Philip Roth projects. Zanisnik’s recent solo exhibitions incorporating performance span the globe, including locations in The Netherlands, China, and New York at the Brooklyn Museum, The Sculpture Center, and Abrons Arts Center. His upcoming solo exhibition, Philip Roth Presidential Library, takes him to Locust Projects, Miami, January 30 – March 19, 2016.  All involve ample disparate materials associated with his family, his personal history, street finds, archival matter from the exhibiting institution, and, for Abrons and Locust, materials related to novelist Philip Roth. His live performances transform his built environments into a rich psychoanalytical stew.

I caught up with Bryan as he was between teaching classes at Pratt and flying to Chicago for a project. He was also between studios; starting October 1, 2015, he is one of the lucky five chosen for a studio at the Queens Museum for one to two years. In 2014-2015, Bryan had a studio at the Walentas Family Foundation in Dumbo.[i] Using his laptop and other resources, Bryan took me on a virtual tour of past and present projects.

Bryan Zanisnik Sculpture

Every Inch a Man, site-specific installation and performance, Abrons Arts Center, New York, NY, 2012

Zanisnik related, “Constantly moving between studios is a challenge in New York, but there is no way around it – it’s the reality of most artists today in this all-too-expensive and quickly gentrifying city. Moving into the Queens Museum this fall, it will be the seventh studio I have worked out of since graduating from Hunter College in 2009. One of the reasons I recycle and discard so many of my installation materials is because I think of those works as ephemeral, temporary, and existing at only one site and time in history. That said, there is a practical side to this recycling. In moving studios from year to year, it’s nearly impossible to move all my materials with me. It’s easier to discard them, or photograph them, and move on. Not to mention, I rarely have huge studio spaces that allow for extensive storage. In 2011, my exhibition at the Guangdong Times Museum in Guangzhou, China was de-installed, and I was told that all my materials were crated and put in storage. Somewhere in Southern China, a crate with 5,000 pounds of dirt belongs to me. I love the idea of this ephemeral material waiting for me on the other side of the world. Unfortunately, that’s not possible here in New York. I’d like to have a permanent site where I can continuously work over decades. Until that happens, there won’t be any giant storage containers of dirt here on the east coast.”

Bryan Zanisnik

A Woman Waits For Me II, performance, Pace University, New York, NY, 2013.

I met with Bryan at his “studio” apartment in Ridgewood, Queens near the Ridgewood Library. His exhibitions at Abrons Arts, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Sculpture Center each had an “over-the-top” floor-to-ceiling layering of disparate toys, papers, familiar and found objects. At the Sculpture Center, Bryan was “buried” inside an odd wood and glass box with his father hovering nearby in an authoritative manner. At Abrons Arts, Bryan was on top of a wooden box and inside a Plexiglass display case silently reading The Great American Novel by Philip Roth as baseball cards and money fluttered symbolically at his feet.

Unlike the seeming chaos of his installations, Zanisnik’s apartment/studio was minimal in décor, combining homey fifties retro furniture, happy plants near the open front windows, a round mirror with panels over a mantel, and a few objects, such as a found golden head with alternating eyes and mouths, among four or five rows of A+ books – from Neitzsche to Ghandi to Jonathan Safran Foer. Four Philip Roth novels were waiting, like props, atop a polished and finished, partially-hollow tree stump table.

Bryan Zanisnik Sculpture

03. It Will Never Be As It Was Before Rhadamanthus, performance, Horton Gallery, New York, NY, 2011.

Bryan recounted, “I was initially drawn to Roth because of so many overlaps between his writing and my own studio practice. We’re both from New Jersey, and have both drawly heavily from the state. He’s written a lot about suburban life, familial relationships and growing up in New Jersey. Having been so influenced by the landscapes and objects that surrounded my own childhood there, I felt that his writing became a literary counterpoint to my own experiences and art practice. I also was very drawn to his particularly dark sense of humor.

“Having said all that, I wasn’t a huge Roth fan before I made my first work that referenced him – Every Inch a Man at the Abronss Arts Center in 2012. Initially I was more drawn to the ideas he explored than to the writing itself. Once the legal battle began, I became more fascinated with him, both as a writer and as a sort of “celebrity” figure who was obsessed with his reputation. This back and forth made me delve further into Roth, and in the time since, I’ve only grown to appreciate his writing. In many ways, the absurdity of our legal battle felt straight out of a Roth novel.”

Every Inch A Man, the title of the Abrons Arts exhibition and catalog, is the chapter 4 title in Roth’s The Great American Novel. On the opening day of the exhibition, Zanisnik was served with a cease and desist letter by Roth’s “white shoe” old money law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy. The Abrons Arts lawyers were cowed, but not Zanisnik. After consulting a Columbia University copyright lawyer, they decided that a person silently reading in public a book he had purchased could not be considered a copyright infringement. So copies of this letter became part of the Abrons installation. Every Inch a Man catalog essays by David Everitt Howe, Wendy Vogel, and Eric Winkler suggest congruencies and influences including Mike Kelley, Jason Rhoades, and Thomas Hirschhorn. Eric Winkler’s cartoon stories about Zanisnik’s ‘failed’ projects included a “Bed-In” cartoon showing Zanisnik in bed with his parents that suggests the Yoko Ono John Lennon “Bed-In.”

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For The Philip Roth Presidential Library in Miami, Zanisnik is ordering hundreds of copies of Philip Roth’s novels – first editions, foreign language translations, and critical texts for an installation that will be both a site-specific sculptural work and also a real functioning library. He is also creating a series of monolithic, drywall and wood sculptures that will house Roth memorabilia.  He has also made two Roth diptychs; one is a photograph of a laboratory-like sculpture alluding to Roth with a handmade textile portrait of Roth.

“Last year, in fact,” Zanisnik related, “an anthology of critical essays on Roth, titled “Roth & Celebrity” was published by Lexington Books, and one of the essays discusses our copyright debate. With this, I feel that his literary practice and my own sculptural practice have become tightly wed.”[ii] Even artist Richard Prince, no stranger to appropriation, blogged about Roth’s attempt to silence Zanisnik (from reading silently).[iii]

“For the Philip Roth Presidential Library,” Zanisnik continued, “I was thinking of these Presidential Libraries that are built after a president gets out of office. Roth obviously isn’t a politician, but he is in many ways a cultural icon of America. When I received the first Cease and Desist letter at Abronss Arts Center, I was mistakenly told by the gallery’s curator that it was from his estate. I had to correct him and tell him, to his surprise, that Roth was still alive. I think of these dedicated libraries as something that would usually be constructed after a writer or politician’s death. In this way, the installation is irreverent and critical towards Roth, but at the same time, it’s entirely celebratory. I imagine the installation as a site people will come to engage with my work, but also to think and talk about Roth.”

Just as Woody Allen plays the awkward, ill-equipped suitor in Annie Hall, Zanisnik has exposed his body and persona to countless awkward, embarrassing, and peculiar situations in his performances. His kind parents and grandmother act as murderers and villains in his films and installations. It is important to pay close attention to the psychological situations the artist is addressing, including the ways that guns and violence are nightly family entertainment on television screens in living rooms across America.

The following links, including a beautifully-filmed Art 21 tour of a New Jersey waste site, the Meadowlands, offer a fuller picture of Zanisnik’s art.

Check out these links for more information:

  1. Bryan Zanisnik Goes to the Meadowlands, Art21 / New York Close Up
  2. Bryan Zanisnik (solo), March 20 – April 19, 2015   The Hague, The Netherlands
  3. University Art Museum at Albany, New York, February 17 – April 4, 2015
  4. ARTNET: PHILIP ROTH TELLS ARTIST TO STOP THE SHOW

[i] All Zanisnik quotes are from live conversations or recent emails. Information about Queens Museum studio residencies is at http://www.queensmuseum.org/artist-services. The Walentas Family Foundation doesn’t advertise its residencies and there is no application process. www.resartis.org  lists artist residencies worldwide but many charge residency fees.

[ii] See  http://www.amazon.com/Roth-Celebrity-Aimee-L-Pozorski/dp/0739197533.

[iii] See http://www.richardprince.com/birdtalk/

4/5/2012   “Say it ain’t so”. I think Phillip Roth is one of the best American writers in the past forty years. It seems like he comes out with a book a year, and every time one comes out I look forward to reading it. So it’s pretty distressing to hear that he and his lawyers sent a cease and desist order to an artist over in Brooklyn who put himself inside a plexiglass box reading from Roth’s book, The Great American Novel… (apparently he’s reading it “silently”). Another part of the performance is he’s getting hit with baseball cards. (I’m picturing a kind of baseball card snow globe). It’s strange, because Roth was good friends with Philip Guston up in Woodstock and hung out together, and was exposed to Guston’s “crazy” cartoon paintings. I thought that would have been enough to sign off on any “shenanigans” put out by an up and coming, “starting-out” artist. Instead, more paper work, more depositions, more briefs, more letters, more money. Fuck it…I would have thought that some of that Woodstock vibe would have rubbed off on Roth… you know… “It’s a free concert from now on”.

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