Critics' Picks: Bryan Zanisnik

Joseph R. Wolin, Artforum, October 1, 2009

The five photographs in Bryan Zanisnik’s exhibition, “Dry Bones Can Harm No Man,” picture suggestively odd arrangements of objects in shallow spaces. Against flowered wallpaper sutured with red and green tape in What Are the Roots That Clutch, 2008, a crocheted afghan and the starry field of an American flag flank a small decorative suit of armor that supports a plywood shelf filled with milk-white glass vases. A straw hat and a length of chain complete the ensemble. To Hell and Back (Nothing), 2008, includes, among other things, a row of pulp westerns, a coffee mug emblazoned BILL, a snapshot of the artist as a baby with his father, and a framed, stained image of a sculptural green hand that recalls that of the Incredible Hulk—all against a green papered background patched with silver duct tape. In these constructed still lifes, the enigmatic juxtaposition of the flotsam of attics and thrift stores seems to allude to domestic narratives or character studies, but definitive stories or personae never emerge. Instead, articles such as the flag, armor, dime-store cowboy novels, and disembodied limb—along with a football, sailing ships, and condoms in other works—slyly hint at the taxonomy of a particularly American masculinity.

 

Preserve, 2009, a two-channel video, features a pleasant bald man in a coat and tie (the artist’s father) ostensibly acting as a docent in a small-town museum of natural history by calmly explaining a multitude of moth-eaten taxidermied animals for the camera. Other shots find him doing exactly the same for the items conserved in his suburban home. He spins yarns in either locale—most of the animals seem to have been shot by former presidents of the United States—and staccato edits move from gallery to basement storage almost seamlessly, montaging broken phrases such as “legend has it that this coyote” with “pineapple chunks, some soda.” Intercut scenes show the artist’s mother vacuuming while complaining shrilly, tearing open gift wrap to reveal her husband prone on the floor, and waltzing with him in their home office. In this cacophonous family romance, Zanisnik’s sire and stand-in negotiates equally the epistemological and the psychological with bemused forbearance and grace.

 

Original Publication