The Wholly Trinity
Self, Body and Landscape: An Interview with Zachari Logan
In 2010 Zachari Logan painted a large 118 x 210-inch oil on canvas called Beautiful Losers. The work depicts eight self-portraits; in all of them he is partially or completely unclothed, except for athletic shoes and socks, and in two he holds one of the five cats who share the painted space with him. His multiple selves are engaged in a series of activities that include carpentry, considering where to hang a potted plant, performing exercises and standing on a small stepladder. The ladder is a prop in two versions, and in both cases, he casts a blue shadow onto the wall, as if his body were looking for a way to copy itself again.
In Beautiful Losers he played the numbers game and made self-portraiture parthenogenetic. It was an anomalous experiment because most often his work reduces the number to one. He sings, along with Walt Whitman, a song of himself. It is an attractive arrangement; Logan is 6’4” tall and physically fit, and his body is always available and amenable to him as a subject. It has allowed him a world of pictorial possibilities in that he can attach himself to any number of contemporary or historical representations. Logan is a gentle marauder in the corridors of art history, where he has been engaged with the work of Jacques-Louis David, Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix. While Logan’s interests are omnivorous, he has been especially attracted to artists who find in the natural world a way of augmenting the human. Mary Delany, the 18th-century botanist and collagist, is one of his discovered mentors, which is not surprising for an artist whose pastel on black paper drawing is called Human Heart Made of Plants, 2016. He is equally attracted to Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the 16th-century painter of fantastic plant and animal comminglings. In Green Man No. 2, 2018, pastel on paper, Logan takes Arcimboldo’s focus on portraiture and stretches the combination of flesh and floral across the entire body. Logan regards the works of the Italian Renaissance painter as completely consistent with his own philosophy, “which basically is: there’s no separation between land and body.” No artist since Arcimboldo has gone as far as Logan in grafting together the human, the animal and the botanical. His practice, which includes drawing, painting, ceramics and installation, is terrifically inventive and prodigiously productive. In the drawings you will find his own body covered in insects; you will see his physiognomy become a perch, a nest and a feeding place for innumerable birds. There is a darker side to this grafting; the natural inhabitations can be claustrophobic and destructive when the fecund drifts towards the freaky. In Emperor’s New Clothes, 2011, his entire body is covered in monarch butterflies, an image that goes well beyond Richard Avedon’s 1981 Beekeeper portrait. But the butterfly envelopment is lyric; in Swarm No.1, 2013, the insects seem like an invasion, and in Wild Man, 2016, Logan is in danger of disappearing in the ever-growing floral expansion. But these are my hesitations. For Logan there is nothing foreign or unnatural about these reimaginings. The body is involved in a constant state of transformation; it is both being and becoming.
Interwoven with this aesthetic is an uncompromising politic that takes on sexual and environmental dimensions: “What we do to the land we do to ourselves.” Logan is a proponent of the ditch as the only uncultivated terrain in his home prairies. (Logan grew up and studied in Saskatoon and now lives in Regina.) The ditch weeds that grow there are surrogates for the queer body and Logan sees these wild, queered survivors as having a “will to flourish.” That resolve became necessary in a homophobic culture in which the view expressed by his grade eight sex education teacher—sex involves “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”—is still an attitude that can be heard in the ethically dark corridors of a punishing and vengeful heteronormative society. Overcoming uttered and latent homophobia is only the most obvious problem faced by queer individuals.
In this regard, Logan’s “will to flourish” recalls the finest long poem ever written on the prairies. Robert Kroetsch published Seed Catalogue in 1986. The poem used as its central metaphor the catalogues mailed to farmers in the 1920s by the McKenzie Steel-Briggs Seed Company. The company would pitch its flower, vegetable and grass seeds, extolling their virtues and advantages. Among the most persuasive was the recommendation for brome grass, Bromus inermis, because it so completely possessed the qualities necessary to survive a hostile climate: “No amount of cold will kill it,” “it withstands the summer suns,” “the roots push through the soil throwing up new plants continually.” But what makes brome grass special and what makes it stand out among the seeded offerings is that it “flourishes under absolute neglect.” Kroetsch’s brome grass and Logan’s ditch weeds have the same character. The seeded plants faced a seasonal hostility; the queered weeds had to overcome a resistance that was social and sexual. But what their convergence makes clear is that generation after generation, prairie writers and artists continue to seed and grow their own uniquely wilful and wildly successful plantings.
The following interview was conducted by phone to Zachari Logan’s Regina studio on October 6, 2021.
BORDER CROSSINGS: You said, in a conversation last year with Wayne Baerwaldt in Public 62, that the observations in your writing seem to be related to your childhood. Is that more the case in your writing than in your visual art practice?
ZACHARI LOGAN: Yes. I don’t think you can ever get away from your childhood or your upbringing, in anything that you do. But for whatever reason, I tend to conjure certain visual memories that relate to my childhood more evidently in the writing. I wouldn’t say that it’s not in my visual work, and there have been pieces that are obviously related to my childhood and my identity. I did a series of text-based drawings where I would use the same word or phrase over and over to build up the images. One was a portrait of me at 26 months old and the word I used was “faggot.” The word shifts when you place it overtop of the image of an innocent child. That series of drawings was based on the idea of insult and how it transforms the queer body.
You did your MFA at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, where you worked with Alison Norlen.
Alison’s own work—its scale and method and that she worked on paper—was influential, but she was formative for a lot of reasons. While I was at Saskatoon, I started working in oils, which I hadn’t done previously, and I began to delve into a much more personal iconography. I had been working with images of other men from ubiquitous sources and Alison said, “It might be interesting to turn that lens on yourself.” Before that I’d hadn’t thought about self-portraiture and had no desire to do it, but it became a staple of my work. My work is not figurative in a traditional sense any longer, but I see my body and the idea of self-portraiture intimately woven into the work. It’s becoming more about a sense of abstraction and landscape, but it’s still very bodily, very figurative.
You seem to be something of a museum junkie. You have said that in museums you find your humanity.
I had a bit of an epiphany when I went to New York for the first time in 2004 just after my undergrad, when I was able to stand in front of a remarkable amount of artwork that I had only seen in books. I also had an opportunity to show all the work from my master’s exhibition at a works-on-paper gallery in Paris and during that time I went to the Musée d’Orsay and to the Louvre for the first time. It was such a visceral experience, the sheer physicality of the paintings, coupled with the fact that I’d been evoking references from these works solely from text-based sources, and there I was in front of them. I had several Stendhal moments that week, so I devised a residency that allowed me to go back the following summer. For three months I went to the Louvre and drew primarily from the neoclassical and Romantic paintings by David, Géricault and Delacroix in the Grand Hall, noticing the endless subtleties that are lost in reproduction. When I’m in a museum it’s like I’m having a conversation with a ghost. I feel as if I’m conversing with the person who made that object and accessing information from what they left behind.
You go to Europe and you draw from the museum collections. This sounds vaguely 19th century, like your version of the Grand Tour.
It feels outside of time in a way. I become obsessed with particular artists for reasons I can’t entirely explain. Like Mary Delany, whom I happened upon when I was overwhelmed wandering through corridor upon corridor in the British Museum. Suddenly there were these two tiny, botanical pieces and they enveloped me. I became obsessed with her and ended up going back and studying her works in person.
When did you discover Giuseppe Arcimboldo and realize that there was an affinity in the way you both saw the relationship between the natural and the human?
That was on another residency in 2012. I was invited to do a project with a gallery called Schleifmühlgasse 12–14. They’re an exhibition space and artist-run centre that invites two international artists a year to come and do a project. Through another Austrian artist my work was suggested to this program, the director was intrigued and I was invited. I said I’d love to look at Viennese collections and see if I could do something in response. I had finished works that were included in the show, but I also did a series of drawings while I was there. Vienna is a treasure trove because the Habsburgs were collectors of works on paper, so the Albertina has all those remarkable watercolours by Dürer, like Young Hare and The Large Piece of Turf. The other artist who is part of Vienna’s collections who really affected me in person is the Italian mannerist painter Arcimboldo. You understand how contemporary his works are when you see them with your own eyes. They don’t seem like 16th-century objects. They feel completely fresh and in line with my philosophy, which basically is: there’s no separation between land and body. We are the landscape. I saw that physically embodied in his work and I wanted to portray it with my own body, almost like a drag performance. So the subtitle for all my works that are an amalgam of flora and fauna is the “Natural Drag Series.”
When you decided that the catalyst for your art is your own body, does that mean your work is an extended experiment in self-portraiture?
I would say that’s pretty accurate. It’s strange because I saw a lot of naked men when I started to delve into images of the male body in art history, but I didn’t see what I felt were queer bodies. I didn’t feel represented. One of the reasons I decided to use my own body was practical. I was easily accessible, but I also think it added a personal, if not psychological, element to the work. I started to portray characters and make references to famous art historical tropes or images by turning a queer lens on them. I felt like I was using my body to say something societal in those works, but they didn’t feel like self-portraiture. It was when the body started to disappear or be covered over or encroached upon that they started to feel much more personal and, in a way, much more me.
I’m interested to hear you say that you couldn’t locate images that represented you in the imagery you had been looking at. What about all those Saint Sebastians? Many of the painters who made them were queer, so a secret code seemed to be operating in much of the work.
Yes. At a certain point I realized that this language existed. I started looking at more Catholic imagery and thinking about this strange mix of sex and torture and transcendence. I realized the bodies were very beautiful and they didn’t look dead trade. Saint Sebastian, of course, was killed with arrows, which were the tools of his trade. I also noticed in works in the Grand Hall a beautiful homosocial, if not homoerotic, intimacy, with the placement of bodies and hands in many Romantic and neoclassical compositions. The centre would be “bravado central,” Napoleon or his visual stand-in, Caesar, in a Roman fantasy à la Imperial France, but off on the peripheries were these taut, beautiful, muscular men, holding hands, emoting and being suspectly languid. In fact, in the painting Beautiful Losers, I’m echoing with my own body the gestures, interactions and absurdities I collected while studying these periphery bodies.