by Mark Van Proyen 

Is now the perfect time to revisit Jack Zajac’s 60-year career as a sculptor?  His work is undoubtedly old-school, appearing so because the artist has never resorted to the constructivist or found-object methodologies that have prevailed in sculpture for the past 50 years.  Now that they’ve become commonplace and over-used, we can bring fresh eyes to Zajac’s long-standing practice of bronze casting semi-figurative subjects.  And with those fresh eyes comes a question: Does Zajac’s work mark a path that prompts beneficial reconsideration from younger artists working in three dimensions?  For reasons I’ll reveal at the conclusion of this review, the answer is yes.   


At 94, Zajac is still working in his Santa Cruz studio, which is remarkable in and of itself.  He began his career as a member of a pre-Duchampian generation of sculptors who looked to Henry Moore as a leading light because of the way Moore fused Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism into biomorphic forms that were seamless, muscular and palpable.  Because this exhibition of 21 works harks to the beginning of Zajac’s career, it can rightfully be called A Retrospective.

Zack Jajac |  Bound Goat Monday, 1973 | Bronze | 48 x 24 x 24 inches

The earliest are from a 1954 series the artist did using goats as subject matter, symbolically evoking the ancient idea of the scapegoat.  According to Fredrick Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, the scapegoat reaches back to the earliest sacrificial beginnings of tragic drama, originally manifested as the prehistoric goat dance.  Easter Goat portrays the grimacing, agonized goat affixed to a semi-cruciform structure.  Small Skull takes the crypto-Christian theme further, revealing a biomorphic form long dead, reminding us that the Biblical site of the crucifixion, Golgotha, literally means “the place of the skull.” Zajac’s handling of the materials from which these table-sized works were cast was forthright and unfussy, giving them the look of excavated fossils.


Here, some art historical context is worth considering.  By 1954, Abstract Expressionism was already running out of gas.  Some artists of the time — Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock — had already returned to figurative motifs echoing existentialist philosophical positions, perhaps in response to McCarthyite claims of a sinister anti-American purpose underlying abstract art.  Zajac’s early Goat works and subsequent revisiting of the theme in later years are a part of that pre-Pop moment, which Neo-Expressionism revived in the 1980s.  In a less fraught approach to the subject, he gives us a particularly graceful work titled Standing Lamb appearing peacefully oblivious to the torturous fate of the Goats.

Jack Zajac |  The Mountain and the Cloud III, 1997 | Bronze | 48 x 20 x 24  inches

The exhibition also includes two examples from the Mountain and Cloud series, the most striking and most prominent from 1997.  These works conjoin two stylized forms, a cloud and a mountain, one atop the other.  In larger works from that same year, the cloud form billows fantastically upwards, balancing the weightiness of the conical mountain with undulating shapes that seem like frozen animations in three dimensions

Among the most recent works on view are ten bronze castings from the Falling Water series, most dating to the mid-1980s, a few from the 1990s and one from 2022.  Like the Mountain and Cloud works, the bronze pieces are polished to a fine reflective surface inflected with a subtle patina, including one standout rendered in a deep nocturnal blue.  All are slender vertical forms, ranging from 70 to 100 inches tall, each subtly different.  You might imagine them as waterfalls or downward-directed brushstrokes translated into three dimensions.  A closer look reveals subtle torques and undulations of their surfaces that coalesce into evocations of wraith-like, subtly idealized female forms.  Zajac spent many years in Rome, where he was thoroughly acquainted with the tradition of classical figure modeling, an experience that bears upon the works in the Falling Water series.  All look like caryatid sentinels guarding an ancient temple devoted to a feminine mystery religion.

Jack Zajac |  Falling Water Series | Bronze | 

The benefit Zajac's work might hold for young sculptors has to do with the sheer pervasiveness of photography, which turns all objects into found objects (or objects waiting to be seen by the camera's monocular eye). Zajac's work opposes this pervasive trend, emphasizing particularized self-embodiment standing in defiance of interchangeable systemization. It emphasizes material and formal specificity rather than routine variations on a pre-determined idea, and such, it demands to be seen in-person rather than in reproduction. 

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