In the ’60s, Peter Zokosky’s mom responded to a newspaper ad posted by a merchant marine offering two rhesus monkeys for sale. Soon after, Josie and Jezebel were installed in his suburban Long Beach house; and these monkeys made an indelible impression on the young boy. “They left a mark: these strange little demonic, creative, agile creatures. They were vengeful and insane but also gentle.” It was not a match made in domestic heaven, though, and eventually the monkeys were dispatched to a sympathetic pet store. But long after they were gone the nascent artist in Zokosky was enthralled by those creatures, which were, as he puts it, “undeniably close to us.”
Zokosky is a painter who delights in short-circuiting the accepted evolutionary order. In his canvases humans regularly divest themselves of their skins, exposing the flayed musculature beneath, whilst still maintaining classical poses. His arcane bestiaries-serpents, hares, skeletal camels-behave against the natural order, as if Darwin and Magritte sat down and traded ideas. (Yet for all the dreamlike qualities of his work, Zokosky avoids the ‘Surreal’ label as “a problematic historical one; even though I acknowledge it’s about tapping into the psyche.”)
His portraits of apes and monkeys, realized beautifully in oil on panel with a detailed technique that recalls Baroque or Renaissance style portraiture, effectively provide a link between man and ape through a sly collision of mannerisms. His chimpanzees, orangutans and proboscis monkeys that peer out from their individualistic frames (handmade by the artist) could easily be portraits of 19th century captains of industry, projecting all the dignity and reserve of humans. It’s a rich conceit that sucks the viewer in immediately but simultaneously provokes a deeper, more resonant emotional response than that of mere mimicry recognition. There may indeed be a punch line in Zokosky’s work, but it tends to sustain itself into something more ineffable…maybe even unsettling.
Zokosky admits to the playful nature of his inversions but maintains a base level of respect for his subjects. “These are meant to be individual portraits of personalities. So often in art one sees generic animals-“a” beast, “a” horse-but I want to take a deeper look, to be subtle. Even though I may be pointing something out in almost a tricksterish way, I am not a fan of irony, which I think is cynical and easy. We humans tend to be arrogant, to anthropomorphize, but I prefer to be-for want of a less preachy word-humanistic, to recognize a creative intelligence and a divine spark. It’s not like we’re that superior; left to ourselves we would quickly die in their environments.”
Zokosky works from photographs (“I would love to have a monkey or ape sit for me, but they’re a little unreliable that way…”) and titles his subjects afterwards, working from dozens of names he has already researched. Often the creatures are named after mythic deities: Azrael, Castor, Ceres. “I like finding the right name. One painting in the current exhibition I titled Pearl (2006) because the chimpanzee is captured in the same pose as Vermeer’s portrait The Girl with a Pearl Earring.”
“Pearl,” 2006, oil on panel, 10″ x 8″
Peter Zokosky’s new work, “The Order of Primates,” will be showing at the Koplin Del Rio Gallery, 6031 Washington Blvd., Culver City, from September 8-October 27, 2007. (310) 836-9055 or www.koplindelrio.com