Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
Zach Osif is currently in the midst of earning his MFA at NYU, hopefully we will see his retrospective at the Guggenheim one day. His huge paintings feel like they belong in that room in the Met with the enormous Chuck Close, Alex Katz, and Andy Warhol paintings. He is part of the new wave of photorealist painters that showcase more subtly weird imagery than previous generations — like a less random James Rosenquist. Zach’s style is very streamline, which is obvious in his art and all the minimalist architecture and landscapes he posts on his Tumblr OSIFLANDIA. I met up with Zach this week in his NYU studio (that has an UH-mazing view) to discuss his ideas and aesthetics.
SHANON WELTMAN: Talk about the recurring themes of girls and guns and Americana in your work.
ZACH OSIF: I sort of try to dial back the girls a lot, because it was such a tricky conversation to start with. I didn’t really consider that when I first made them… and I guess I grew up a little bit? The cars and guns, mostly guns now is what it’s settled on… I remember I took a class on masculinity at MICA and it was kind of telling me everything I ever wanted to paint was bad and that I was programmed by society to be brainwashed. I was like, ‘No, I just like it.’ I’ve kind of been wanting to take advantage of that, to sort of own it for what its worth. It’s something that I have a good understanding of, that has nothing to do with art. I’ve always felt like that was a good place to make art from. Not exactly making art about art, or in response to art, just making art from something completely unrelated. I don’t know how it could get any more “related”. It’s the most unrelated thing that I’m interested in. If that makes sense. The Americana stuff is kind of along the same lines, it was trying to be a little less single tracked with just pictures of guns, and gun pictures, and pictures of guns. It came out of doing things about the military. Military technology type stuff and kind of how to find the silver lining on spending so much money on things in the military. We get all these new crazy things, like airplanes that can take off and land from aircraft carriers on their own. They’re just robots and we have that now. It’s like an insane thing, but is totally real. Yeah, I mean to be an artist, there’s so many new things happening all the time, just sort of coming out of nowhere. Especially being somebody that has always painted “things” and that just happens to be into the very “guy”, army type things. The Made in America, Made in the USA stuff, it’s sort of like a — it’s taking something. The Made in the USA logo itself, I’ve always thought was kind of strange, it’s really technically an offensive way to display the flag. Just as a sticker… but people do it anyway. I just kind of ran with that, that’s where that came from.
SW: Why did you choose to paint Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga, those specific people? And specific parts of the guns.
ZO: The celebrities, Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan… it was wanting to focus on culture. Playing with pop culture, pop art. People weren’t really painting Lindsay Lohan in 2007, or at least I didn’t see anybody. The same thing with Kim Kardashian. The whole thing was about distraction, so it was a personal thing, a personal relationship response using sourced celebrity fill-ins for whatever. By the time the Lady Gaga thing came around it was just solely “look at this new celebrity, let’s look, another new celebrity!” I really regret that painting [laughs]. That was such a bad call. I really should have painted Beyonce to stay relevant longer, but that’s the risk you take [laughs], trying to be really contemporary I guess.
SW: You did some paintings of women who weren’t famous. Was it just because they were hot? Was there something more to that?
ZO: Yeeah. [Laughs] Yeah kind of… When you paint a celebrity, you’re starting the sentence with “This celebrity… “, but painting someone who is just really hot is starting the sentence in a different way. “This person is really hot.” Was there one specific one?
SW: On your website, you have this really pretty black girl.
ZO: Bria [Myles]! Yeah, that was kind of on the heels of the Obama painting. With her I wanted a model and she was just the best model, I needed to capture her. It was like ‘This is the person I have to paint. I have to paint this person.’ The Made in the USA thing around it was just like, if this was an ad of the American person, this is a good example. I don’t want to be too typical, but she was just plain hot. [Laughs] I feel like that’s the honest way.
SW: It’s refreshing that you painted a black girl. It’s not necessarily related to your skin tone, it’s more about your culture. It’s nice to just state “She’s hot.”
ZO: Yeah, she was the hottest person I could paint at the time. I just didn’t think anymore past that. I feel like it was as risky as painting anyone in a bikini. For me it was the closest thing I was going to get to [painting] a nude figure, it was more figurative than racial.
SW: Who are the most influential of your favorite artists?
ZO: The first artist whose work I saw in person, that made me say ‘that’s what I’m going to do’, was James Rosenquist. I saw his retrospective in 2000 at the Guggenheim. It was nuts to me, there were these huge paintings that were just… insane. That kind of rendering, this mismatch of stuff, just so crisp and clean. I liked that, that was good. More contemporarily, I guess Richard Phillips. With his — same scale, just huge, super well-rendered — non photorealist, very obviously paintings, but they sort of walked the line. That handle on the paint. Also, Tom Sachs. I remember his work from high school. He showed me you can make a race car track out of foam core and that’s art. I like that, that’s good. To make a very serious artwork about a childhood toy, that sort of mentality, to create that architecture… it was so reverent, but foam core. Kind of cheap, yet so much attention to the detail in everything. The attention to detail is what did it for me.
SW: Do you have any interest in designing buildings? Taking it that far?
ZO: One of the things with architecture that always seemed like the buzzkill, in design in general is you aren’t in charge of what you do. I took design classes at MICA. I’m pretty sure one of the ones I failed was a Graphic Design class. I couldn’t wrap my head around doing 50 sketches for one thing. It was like, why can’t whatever I think of be feasible? Why can’t whatever I say go? I don’t want to convince someone that this idea is the best one or have someone pick an idea I don’t necessarily like the most. That’s my personal reservation, to get serious about it. Buildings are expensive. You’re never building your own necessarily.
SW: What about Frank Lloyd Wright? Do you think there was there a degree of micro-managing that the public didn’t see?
ZO: I’d have to assume so. That was a lifetime career of not doing your own thing and then saying, ‘No it’s going to be this way.’ There was probably a lot of times before that point where people said, ‘No I want this thing, this ugly thing instead’… and he just had to deal with it. That’s what I liked about art, painting specifically: whatever you say goes. If you’re going to paint something, people might say, ‘well that’s not good’, but they can’t say, ‘why didn’t you do this instead?’ and make you do it. It’s your thing.
SW: That’s a good point. You’re relating to architecture, but you also tied in design and that’s very true.
SW: Does the environment where you live affect the kind of art you’re making? You lived out in your parents house for awhile, you were in Baltimore, now you’re in NY in your own studio space…
ZO: I don’t know if it necessarily does. After I moved out of Baltimore, when I didn’t have a truck anymore, I stopped making six foot and eight foot paintings. I made one thing in Philadelphia that I had to rent a van for, it was kind of a pain. When I lived at home for awhile, I sort of stuck with the ‘size of car’ thing until I was just like, I’m not really showing these, I’m going to make them the size I want to make them. Things got a little bit bigger, but content wise… No. I don’t know. Living in NY and painting gun parts is kind of the opposite. Subject wise I just get on trains of thought wherever I am.
SW: Do you listen to anything while you paint? Or do you like silence?
ZO: Usually silence. I’ll just start working and then forget about stuff. I’ve tried to have music on, because I feel like that’s the thing people do. When I lived in Philadelphia I had birds… it was on the iTunes radio store. It was just sounds of birds. It was kind of a buzzkill, after you listen to it for days on end, you will notice they are loops of 15 minutes of birds, they would be the same. It’s not like a conscious thought where I have my collection of bird sounds on CD that I have [laughs]. I just don’t care that much.
SW: How long does it take you to complete a painting from the time you have a thought to the time the painting is done, how long of a span of time is that?
ZO: Oh man, that really depends on the painting. I think that might even go into where I am, or I guess…school or not school. When I wasn’t in school, I would take like 3 months and take a really complicated idea, really detailed, really involved. Just stay committed to it and finish it, because I didn’t have deadlines. I didn’t have any sort of critiques or reviews. I was making whatever I wanted to make. Up until I got into here that was what I was doing. I remember in undergrad, where I was doing stuff with spraying ground colors and masking and doing a lot to just kind of speed it along, where I could turn things around in under 3 weeks. Even now its kind of gone back to that. Where these are oil [paintings], but its simplified. I caught myself wanting to make things really complicated, but then was like I want to get things finished. I don’t know if it was an actual quote or just something I pieced together but, ‘Finished is better than perfect.’ Where you can have a lot of unfinished things, if they’re not done, they’re not done. Modifying time. It’s a lot, there’s building the canvas, priming it, it takes time to dry, a couple coats… I guess, short answer, anywhere from two weeks to three months.
SW: So, we like to end on a light note. Which Hogwarts house would you want to be in?
ZO: I’ve talked with my sister and other people who’ve read the books about the differences…
SW: You did the audiobooks though, right?
ZO: I did the last one on audiobook. [Laughs] I saw the movies for the other ones.
SW: Oh okay. [laughs]
ZO: There’s the honey badger chasing a lion chasing a bird chasing a snake? Straight out of honey badger canon… that’s Hufflepuff. I’m against saying Gryffindor, cause that’s what everyone wants, everyone wants to be the cool kid. Yeah, I think that one might be fun. Kinda like the underdog. What was, uh, Twilight? What was he in? Which one’s purple? Is Ravenclaw purple? Or am just assuming all ravens things are purple… Not Slytherin, that’s the goth kid answer. Yeah, so okay, Hufflepuff.