an essay by Gerald V. Casale
Santa Monica, California
I ask you to imagine an undiscovered artist who spent the last 30 years of his adult life working under the radar creating works of art so willfully precious and scientifically intricate that the average viewer is hypnotized in wonder at the incomprehensibility of what they see.
His body of 3-dimensional relief works weighing hundreds of pounds are born from hundreds and thousands of precisely fabricated, interlocking pieces of solid, cast aluminum billets, assembled, glazed and “mummified” under glass in polished aluminum frames. They capture the spiritual alchemy of functional, Industrial Age technology by using a process so time consuming, technical and tediously detailed that the resulting art must be seen with the naked eye in order to truly comprehend it.
I first met John in Ohio at Kent State University just before the National Guard killed 4 students and wounded 9 more on May 4th, 1970. But before I met him I was transfixed as I saw him glide by in a car that scrambled my usually sharp visual ability to identify objects. What had begun its life as a Volkswagen Beetle had been transformed into an ersatz 1939 Chrysler Airflow.
As I would discover after our friendship began he, already a disciple of Raymond Lowy and Moholy Nagy, had customized the Bug’s body with full rear fender skirts, a complete rear end re-design, front and rear bump removal, frenched headlight treatment and a radio antenna base sculpted into the car’s roof centered just above the split rear window. A stunning seafoam green paint job and baby moon hubcaps completed the transformation. This was a not a typical college student’s ride!
John would become a life long friend and creative collaborator. He carried himself with dignity like royalty yet he was completely self-made from blue collar roots similar to my own. He became a part-time art professor to finance his graduate studies, teaching at two Ohio Universities and even a state prison.
The day before the shootings at Kent State when the National Guard were patrolling the town, John photographed his then girlfriend, directing her to lay on the pavement and play dead in front of a line of gun-toting guardsmen. He was intensely private and shy, but prescient, as he would prove repeatedly over the years.
He was the first of our close-knit art cadre to escape the doom and gloom of Northeastern Ohio for the promise of creative fruition in sunny California. Hollywood seemed a natural fit for a young man with an encyclopedia of Science Fiction film knowledge and the actual science chops to back it up.
Not surprisingly John soon created opportunities for himself, designing functioning futuristic objects for some of the most iconic films of the last 35 years including Star Trek, Blade Runner, Robo-Cop, Total Recall, and many more. However, his success in the kingdom of illusion was a mixed blessing for a person of refined tastes and sensitivity. Whether submitting a commissioned car design for a Japanese automaker, fashioning a laser canon for the latest futuristic film dystopia, or art-directing and casting the music video I directed for my band, Devo, for our song, “Whip It”, John was also quietly, continuously producing magnificent visual art when the set went dark and the stars went out to play.
Strangely I was one of the few people who would be privy to see his work other than my friends, Helmut Newton and Dr. Timothy Leary or our mutual friends, artist Alan Jones and designer Phillipe Starck. John’s pieces elicited awe of the kind one feels when viewing a precious relic. Helmut was so impressed with his studio and his work he used the studio and one of John’s robotic chair creations as the setting for a photo shoot featuring my then model girlfriend, Pepper, as a replicant being inspected in a laboratory. Helmut was also impressed with John’s appearance and custom uniform. He cast him as a technician in the photo session.
As insiders to John’s incomparable creations we were anxious for him to unleash his unique work publicly. But John lived in a parallel universe to the fledgling West Coast art scene and the art he made was as alien to the scene’s soup du jour familiarity as his Sci-Fi film object creations were to every day reality. Remaining true to his private self he was truly The Invisible Artist.
For the past 10 years John has devoted himself full time to producing his enigmatic works, which he labels as “Complications”. That term is pure euphemism once the viewer is treated to the scope of the fusion of such complex and disparate elements fueling his final results. This is especially true of John’s pieces that reference tools of war as a foil for a message of peace, best exemplified by his twin progeny, Fat Man and Little Boy. Yes, they are who you think they are.
Now, like the Invisible Man, John Zabrucky, The Invisible Artist, finally drinks the potion and lifts the cloak of invisibility on himself and his truly mind-blowing, expansive, life-long body of work.