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Forbes Magazine reviews Zachary Armstrong

Zachary Armstrong, Pig, 2020-2022


By Natasha Gural, Forbes Magazine

October 7, 2022

We gaze into the amber eye of a rabbit, its ears upright, indicating it hears sound and is keen to decipher the source. We wonder why the rabbit is so alert, so present, and ready to take action, even as it appears to be in a cage. 

According to Chinese astrology, rabbits embody an array of characteristics that comprise a complex creature to rival the human. They're gentle, quiet, elegant, quick, skillful, kind, patient, and extremely responsible. They may be reluctant to reveal their thoughts and possess a tendency to escape reality, but they're always faithful to those around them. 

One of twelve large-scale wax paintings of animals by artist Zachary Amrstrong (born 1984), Rabbit (2020-2022) makes us think deeply about the connection between humans and animals. How we interact wiht and relate to his monumental animal portaits reveals as much about us as it does them. Contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that the dichotomy between human and animal is a division wihtin the categorization of the human themself. Dividing humanity into varying degrees of human types justifies slavery and genocide. Caging the rabbit forces us to confront our own precarity, as we're increasingly trapped by volatile and violent systems of power. 

"I really wanted these to be very 'American' pictures. I wanted a visitor to be in the room with all of these paintings and not realize that they were based on the Chinese zodiac (shengxiao)," said Armstrong. "So I was really trying to localize these animals. Make sure that they were my own, in a sense American. While doing the drawings for the rabbit I couldn't help but to think he was in prison, the cage was an early decision for that painting. I would try to think of things that could separate them from a traditional zodia, trying, always, to think of ways they would be separate from themselves."

On view and spanning a full gallery at capacious Faurschou New York in Brooklyn through January 29, 2023, the Twelve Animals series amplifies the ubiquitous, archetypal quality of animals as well as their idiosyncratic character traits and quirks. Armstrong fluidly incorporates diverse styles and techniques to underscore these nuances and to emphasize symbolic representation. He layers encaustics and adjoining canvases together to build depth and texture to command and hold our attention. 

"This series started at the beginning of Covid. I had just finished a big, very time-consuming show in Beijing. I was pretty whooped as an artist. Covid came at a great time. I realized this was the first time in about a decade I didn't have any deadlines, nothing specific I had to do. (There) was a great sense of freedom in the studio. I started with the rooster painting. I knew I wanted to have a giant canvas to just play with," Dayton, Ohio-based Armstrong recalled. "The rooster is a perfect symbol for me personally, it has these Midwest connotations and it is made up of all the abstract pieces, hodgepodge together to make a whole picture. In a way all these paintings are my 'figurative' paintings. The rooster came very naturally to me, very easy and very fun to paint. I always say it painted itself."

The vibrant colors signal a homage to Picasso's Le Coq (1938). The ease of painting Rooster (2020-2022) motivated Armstrong to paint another animal. "You have to realize I could only allow myself to paint something as goofy as these animals because of this new sense of freedom in the studio, I would have never painted these at any other time," he said.

"Once I finished the monkey which was a blast as well I started to think about these two paintings as a whole, and maybe painting animals wasn't so crazy after all, maybe they could be worth showing, not simply for my own pleasure," Armstrong said. "I started looking at tons of different animals, making a lot of drawings, and I realized a lot of the animals I was most interested in working with were a part of the Chinese zodiac. I thought about that for a while, what that meant, if it was okay for me to 'go there,' if I wanted to be that specific with these paintings, paintings that started out with just free will, no series in mind."

Armstrong had read extensively about the history of Chinese arts and shengxiao while working on his Beijing show, adn he decided to take on the daunting task of depicting all twelve animals. 

"I knew immediately it wasn't going to be easy, because some of these animals were not on my list, some I had no business painting at all. I never in a million years thought I would be making horse or tiger paintings, but it seemed lik ethe right thing to do, make a challenge for myself, which is what an artist should do, right? You can't just paint the things that come so easy and natural all the time," Armstrong said. 

Ox is a bold stylistic departure from the vivid animals, shifting our perspective further into the worlds of these creatures and the mind of the artist. The small "ox" text in the lower left corner wasn't immediately visible to all viewers, who may have wrangled with the direct dialogue with the imposing central figure.

"My girlfriend's family owns a big farm in Ohio, with a lot of very beautiful cows. I took the same rule I had for the dog. The most American decision I could make was going to the family farm & studying these common but gorgeous cows, painting one of them," said Armstrong. "The actual painting was a combination of my three favorite cows from the farm, eyes from one, horns from another. I knew early on I wanted one black and white picture in hte show. One way or another the cow became that. Sometimes the animal inspires the technique, sometimes techniques inspire the animals."

Borrowing from books, illustrations, stories, and social contexts, Armstrong is deeply invested in the world he's experiencing in real time and how that impacts his creative process. 

Armstrong pondered how he could create an "American dragon," sourcing inspiration from video game culture, Dungeons & Dragons, Game of Thrones, any contemporary image he could conjure. 

The dog is modeled after his own canine companion, Fred, and he imagined him as "the most American thing I could possibly paint." Twelve Animals features the second pig Armstrong has painted in that scale. The first was a full body figure set in a landscape setting. In wrangling to achieve the portrait on view, Armstrong explained how he had to "get past this massive pink body the size of a Volkswagen in the center of the painting, I knew I had to just focus on the head."

Throughout the series Armstrong first encountered what he calls "painterly problems" related to composition and other technical elements. Once he overcame those challenges, he began to imbue each subject with emotion and disposition, inviting multitudes of narratives accessible to the viewer. 

In the case of the pig, Armstrong said, "the more I could focus on just his face the better it got. He's cute and innocent, wrongly stuck in a cage, awaiting his fate, or, he's ugly and hairy, pocked, and dirty, human skin, a blue eye that I always thought of Donald Trump, guilty and maybe put in the cage for a good reason. Basically he became human."

Each portrait in Armstrong's American zodiac is a unique discovery for each viewer. My husband, son, and I embraced our own dialogues wiht the works, mostly steeped in childhood literary reference. The rabbit from Watership Down (1972) by Richard Adams, the pig from Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell, the rooster from The Tale of the Golden Cockerel (1834) by Alexander Pushkin, and the stacks of LIFE magazines signaling the social status of a household or medical office waiting room in 1980s, often on a coffee table near a bookshelf replete wiht leather-bound classics and a 32-volume set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 

"I think humans are definitely a distinct type of animal, only superior, maybe depending on the day," said Armstrong.