JH: How do you feel about nature so commonly being anthropomorphized and made female? In your art there is an inversion, so the paradigm of nature becomes your male body; tell me about this…
ZL: I have always inserted the male body into the realm of observed passivity, a placement that as you rightly mention is all too often reserved for the female body. This strategy allows me to call into question perceived notions about a fixed idea of masculinity that is fictive, usually working in an attempt to locate heterosexist white males in a state of superiority. In my earlier work, I often undercut notions of stereotypic maleness through the use of my own body as the object of a returned gaze. Portraying characters and constructions from history and visual culture, the shift to include or rather focus on flora and fauna is a reiteration of this strategy, evoking ideas of vulnerability through a sensual encroachment with animal and plant-life.
Also I think its worth noting that another feature of hegemonic masculinity includes within its own rhetoric, domination over all animals and plant-life, through supposed intellectual superiority, (which in contemporary life can take the form of scientific manipulation of both sentient and non-sentient creatures). I often entangle and sometimes obliterate my body as a critique of these ideas, and their possible outcomes, while placing a queer lens to the world around me, mixing plant and animal life at will, offering visual metaphors for sexual diversity the multiplicity in nature.
JH: You are clearly a naturalist. How do you deal with the anthropocene, the death of the natural, and the current mass extinction of flora and fauna?
ZL: I try not to romanticize a ‘better’ time, I try not to think of humans as separate from other animals. We are one species among so many, and what we are doing- the polluting, the overpopulating, is in a way a natural occurrence, it is within the spectrum of natural animal behavior. For example, beavers were brought to Argentina to be farmed in the last century, because of lack of natural predators and weather conditions, they quickly overpopulated and destroyed much of the landscape they were inhabiting, (beavers obviously cannot be blamed for this) they don’t have a conception that what they did was problematic, the problem in this example was human intervention of course, but this is a microcosmic example of human activity, we simply have the knowledge and brain capacity to know we are overpopulating and polluting. The difference between human animals is our ability to recognize we are destroying our environment… the conversation shouldn’t be about Natural Vs Unnatural when discussing the anthropocene, ANYTHING of this world is natural. It should be about good choices Vs bad choices… about the positive impact (or negative) that human animals make, because we are capable of choice. Obviously our current modes of consumption and reproduction are killing our fellow inhabitants at a shocking rate. Ideologies of nationalism, religion and the market are propelling this mass extinction, and collectively our preventative activities (for example) recycling, reusing and reducing are failed exercises.
JH: I feel a political element to your work; your male form is sometimes aestheticized/sexualized passively, which traditionally (and unfortunately) has been the duty/burden of the female body. As a thinking devil, I want to ask if there is liberation or just more entrapment within this kind of purposeful objectification.
ZL: I see this element in my work of role and gaze reversal, about challenging gender norms and ways in which bodies have been and continue to be codified socially, but I extend this queering of convention to the conversation of challenging notions of speciesism that is rife throughout Human culture and society. Most humans feel superior to other animals. We are not. We can take advantage in certain ways because of our biology, but we are not an inherently better species, in fact, in my opinion, in many ways we are collectively an inferior animal. In my series of drawings from the Feeding series, which is an offshoot of my ‘Wild Men’, I depict myself being fed by birds; this simple shift or reversal of roles revels my thinking on this matter. It is very common throughout the world to see people in parks feeding birds, I just reversed this act as a question to viewers- would you ever be fed by a bird? What might that feel like? It would be a revolutionary act to listen and allow other species to teach humans about the world around us. This also reminds me of a much earlier drawing from 2011, Emperor’s New Clothes, in which I depict myself swarming with Monarch butterflies. The title, a double entandre, referencing the monarch as emperor, my own nudity and ideas of collective conformity, but its genesis as an image ingrained itself in my mind after hearing from a cousin who’d visited the mariposa in Mexico, that at times there are so many of these insects on a given tree that branches can break off due to their weight; and so, in imagining my body as that tree, I had an extreme desire to embody that experience, as a spectacle of nature.
JH: What is your spirit, what is my/anyone’s spirit, what is nature, God, myth, religion? Are all of these things one thing, different things, real, fake, etc…?
ZL: Humans have language to describe feeling, ideas and experiences. God, religion… myth are all ways of expressing the otherwise inexpressible through language and ritual, through the visual. I suppose I would describe individual character defined and shaped by personal experiences as that which makes up one’s spirit.
JH: I see the broad expanse of your perceptions and references to the great depictions of nature in western art, from a Botticelli Venus to a Rembrandt weed field or rabbit, from the obvious Arcimboldo/ Audubon to Walton Ford. Who else are your greats? I’m more interested in those long dead that history has had time to digest and refine, though now I want to know if there are any living artists whose work you are crucially indebted to?
The trove of art historical sources are mainly where I mine reference, but there are several artists whose work I feel indebted too… David Hockney, Ross Bleckner, Betty Tompkins, Alison Norlen, Evergon, Sophie Calle, Ellsworth Kelly and Walton Ford…
JH: What is your most successful work, through the terms in which you define success?
Conceptually my works all link- and I work in groupings or series, so there isn’t a singular work I feel exemplifies superiority over others. Perhaps my practice as a whole… I feel successful in the sense that I am able to maintain a full-time studio practice, to do that which I am passionate about.
JH: Tell me about your recent residency at Wave Hill Botanical Gardens in the Bronx?
ZL: It was magical to say the least. I had a remarkable studio called the “Sunroom” located within the Glyndor Gallery on the grounds of Wave Hill, a public Botanical garden in the Bronx along the Hudson River. The gallery is located in what was once a family home, a Victorian mansion from the turn of the last century. (I felt as though I was doing a residency in a Bronte novel!) During the winter months Wave Hill turns their museum spaces into an artist residency with 6 separate studios and through an invitational process selects artists whose work relates to botanics in some way. Every day I had full access to the collections in the alpine, succulent and tropical hot houses on site as well as access to the grounds themselves. I utilized the surroundings and collections for inspiration in the development of new drawings, and established framework for a new direction in my drawings, furthering existing themes of pictorial space.
JH: What are you working on; do you have any exhibitions or events you would like to discuss?
ZL: Yes, I am working on several projects at the moment, one of which is a large-scale drawing installation that will be featured in an upcoming group show at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto this May. The exhibition is called ‘Bliss: Gardens Real and Imagined’, and it features both historical works form around the world and contemporary artist working with floral or garden motifs. I’m very excited to be placed in this context, in particular to be exhibited alongside British artist William Morris. Overlapping this show in Toronto I will also have a solo exhibition at Paul Petro Contemporary Art. And as well in June, I have a 2-person exhibition in NYC at Julie Saul Gallery with American ceramicist Christopher Russell, where much of my work completed at Wave Hill will be exhibited alongside Russell’s ceramics. In the fall I will participate in a second 2-person exhibition with senior Canadian artist Jane Buyers at AKA Artist Run in Saskatoon, and I am also working on a solo project that will open in November in London at New Art Project’s recently renovated 5000 sq ft space in Hackney- so I’m keeping busy!