OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Michael Zachary

Cover Version, Frederick Church's "Above The Clouds", 2019. CMYK ink markers on paper. 15 x 22 inches.

For MICHAEL ZACHARY, drawing is analogous to the JPEG, a now-dominant mode of image compression and consumption. His meticulously rendered landscapes are composed of interconnecting CMYK lines that refer to etching, engraving and commercial printing. By visually revealing the mechanics of his drawing process, he points to the "false dichotomy between the way we romanticize nature and intellectualize technology." After all, vision itself is a lossy process. Michael received his MFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and is a recipient of support from The Berkshire-Taconic Foundation’s Artist Resource Trust, The Massachusetts Cultural Council, Boston University’s Blanche Coleman Trust and the Surdna Foundation. His most recent solo exhibition was Mistranslations of Nature and Mistranslations of Mistranslations of Nature (2019) at The Magenta Suite (Exeter, NH). His work is available for purchase through Room 68  (Provincetown, MA), and his self-published catalog will be available on his website in December 2019. He has been an ongoing contributor to Big Red & Shiny: Boston’s Online Art Journal since 2011. Michael lives and works in Boston.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us about your artistic background. Has drawing always been your chosen medium?

Michael Zachary: Like a lot of artists, I started out painting. But I just didn’t like the way most people look at paintings. I like to go to museums and watch other people watching works of art. You can actually learn quite a lot from watching how they see. I started to get the feeling that lots of people don’t even really look at paintings at all. It’s like they just think “OK, this is a painting and I know how I am supposed to react to it so I’ll go through the approved motions” and the experience of actively looking and discovering things in the work just kind of stops before it even gets going. There is an authority to painting they just can’t get past. So, part of my motivation wasn’t to start making drawings per se but to make some hybrid things that existed between the established categories and short-circuited people’s attempts to define them. I was hoping that when people saw my pictures, they would have to ask themselves “What is it? Is it tactile or digital? A drawing or painting? Handmade or mechanical?” and that the work would elude all of these easy definitions and force them to do a bit of thinking and a bit of looking and come to their own conclusions. That was my initial impulse. It was only later that I started to realize how well those instincts mapped onto some of the other seemingly unrelated questions I had been thinking about.

Waves Study, 2019. CMYK ink markers on paper. 15 x 22 inches.

OPP: What kind of questions? I’ve heard you refer to drawing as “an emerging and experimental technology”…

MZ: I think a lot about how drawing relates to our dominant mode of image creation and consumption, which is the JPEG. And I think most of us definitely haven’t thought deeply enough about how digital tools change the way we see. We should be thinking about levels of compression and resolution because levels of compression and resolution create a subtle but pervasive hierarchy of information. They separate what we see into the qualities the jpeg algorithms can record and those they can’t. But the problem is that all that happens effortlessly and invisibly at the level of the code, so we just sort of accept the fact that the jpegs on our screens are reasonable facsimiles of reality. But they aren’t! And that is where the parallels between drawing and coding become really interesting to me.

The problem with code is how static it is. The algorithms are always the same; all jpegs contain the same kind of information. The surface is always the same and the structure is always hidden so they just feel interchangeable and disposable to me. And drawing feels like it does exactly the opposite thing. The great thing about drawing is that it can be algorithmic like code, but you can also change the rules whenever we want, so you can pick and choose what information is most important at any given point in the drawing. And that makes drawing a more flexible and adaptive technology than the jpeg. It’s slower, but it is always adapting itself to the moment and increases our agency rather than limiting it.


OPP: Limit is a good word. Can you talk about the self-imposed limitations of your practice and how they serve your conceptual interests?

MZ: Honesty and transparency are really important to me. I’ve never liked work that is too arcane or hermeneutic because they seem like huckster’s tricks that build up myths around artists, making us seem more mysterious and powerful than we really are. If you view drawing as rule-based and algorithmic—which I do—then why keep the rules a secret? That is an unfair way to play a game and disrespectful to your play partners in the audience. No fun for them at all. So, I set as one of my basic rules that I would limit my mark making to only the most basic and affectless marks. Nothing up my sleeve. I want any poetry and excitement I manage to put in my drawings to come from someone being able to follow my decisions and my thought process as directly and effortlessly as possible. Anyone should be able to do what I do. No special tricks required. 

And of course, I also limit my level of resolution in these drawings as well. I could draw with a much smaller aperture between the lines and make drawings that would be much higher in “resolution.” But I don’t want to give you everything. Not because I enjoy playing coy, but because seeing by eye is a “lossy” process just like the jpeg algorithm is. And I’d rather be honest about that. I want to record the signal where I can record it in a phenomenologically accurate way, but I also want you to know where the gaps are. I don’t want to fill them up with noise to cover my tracks.

Tangle 1, 2018. CMYK ink markers on paper. 20 x 17 inches.

OPP: What are the sources for your landscape drawings?

MZ: They all start with direct observation of real places. From there, it’s a bit of a process of deconstruction and distillation. I take a lot of source photos and then I use every trick in the book to play around with one simple idea: How much can I take away without changing the fundamental experience of this place? What information should be conserved through the act of drawing and what should be eliminated? The really interesting thing is that these questions don’t really change if we shift our frame of reference from our optic nerve and visual cortex to digital algorithms or to a drawing. Biological and technological systems seem to follow the same basic rules to answer the same basic question: What part of this is the signal and what part is noise? 

Cover Version, Martin Johnson Heade's "Orchids and Hummingbird", 2019. CMYK ink markers on paper. 14.5 x 23 inches.

OPP: That logic could be applied to any place, or even an object. But you very intentionally choose landscapes as your imagery. Why?

MZ: Landscape is the perfect vehicle because we have this false dichotomy between the way we romanticize nature and intellectualize technology. We think of nature and of seeing by eye as objectively “real” rather than socially and biologically constructed, and we think of technology as somehow fake. It just doesn’t hold up to real scrutiny. As soon as you start superimposing digital ideas over drawing ideas over the way biology works and all those distinctions between artificial and natural, mechanical and organic start to collapse. When that happens,  then we can start to ask the right questions and see where they lead. In my mind, those are the questions about resolution and projection, about what we aren’t seeing and what we are actually constructing in our heads and then projecting onto the landscape.

Horizon Line, Glasgow, 2017. CMYK ink markers, conte crayons, and graphite on paper. 18.5 x 16.5 inches.

OPP: While looking at your work, I’m thinking about the relationship between pointillism—and the Impressionists as precursor to your work—and pixelation. The CMYK pens and pencils clearly reference to both digital color printing and screenprinting. Why lines instead of dots?

MZ: As I said, I don’t see much distinction between digital algorithms and pointillism or the history of etching and engraving that these drawings also echo. To me they are all different technological answers to the basic questions about how we see. There is a great story John Cage tells where he talks about a teacher who kept demanding he find additional new solutions to a particularly challenging problem he had already solved. Finally, he arrived at a point when he had to admit there were no more solutions, to which his teacher replied, “What is the principle behind all of the solutions?” which is of course the most important question to ask. I hope by combining all these solutions at once in my drawings that I can ask a similar question.

As to the lines vs. dots issue, lines do something very important to me that dots don’t do: they thwart edge detection almost like camouflage. Using lines at the scale that I do, every mark is interwoven and completely contingent on every other mark. You can’t really isolate a single line or group of lines in the same way you can a dot or a group of dots, and that has important implications for how you navigate one of these drawings. I like the idea that at a basic level these drawings are all one interconnected field of information and that any borders or divisions you see are a result of what you bring to the drawing and not something I’m imposing on it. There is something about keeping things open and understanding that everything is part of everything else that cuts right to the heart of what I think seeing is. The parts are only ever understood in relation to the whole, never in isolation! I think that the imposition of borders and categories onto the landscape is a pretty powerful authority to have, and I don’t want it. I want you to have it and I want it to happen in your head, for you to have to construct those aspects of the experience for yourself. I really don’t believe in the idea of the artist as an authority, our exchange feels way better to me when the viewer is a co-equal partner and we both bring something to the image.

 Installing Sky Field, 2018. CMYK colored pencils and graphite on wall. 4 x 5 feet.

OPP: How is creating the wall drawings a different experience than making the drawings?

MZ: First of all, they are site contingent. They make me think very strategically about focal depths and levels of resolution, and how those things can change the way people move through a given space. And second, they are usually a collaboration with whatever community stakeholders invite me into their space. The haptic experience of drawing the lines over and over evokes thought processes that make them consider a lot of the questions we’ve been talking about in a very personal and felt way. After they draw with me, many people really understand these questions more viscerally than when they just look at the drawings.

I really love sharing that experience with people and seeing how it changes their perceptions. So, in many ways the wall drawings are the full realization of some of the ideas I’ve been working through in the drawings for years because of how they become heightened when they are shared. I hope to be doing many more of these collaborations in the future!

To see more of Michael's work, please visit drawsoftly.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist  Stacia Yeapanis.  When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations.  She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006. Stacia was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at  BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (Michigan, 2013), Heaven Gallery (Chicago 2014), Indianapolis Art Center (Indianapolis, 2017), Robert F. DeCaprio Art Gallery (Palos Hills, Illinois 2018) and Kent State Stark (North Canton, 2019). Her work was recently included in the three-person show Manifestations at One After 909 (Chicago).