an essay by Robert Mahoney, Art Critic
New York City
The flat relief works by California-based artist John Zabrucky. In his art, Zabrucky has meticulously constructed imaginative simulacra of such everyday mechanical devices as stereo speakers, cable boxes, gas masks and car engines, to serve as icons of states of mind in the contemporary world Much in the manner of the astronomical devices to be found in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, which are scientifically dysfunctional but symbolically meaningful, Zabrucky’ s machines are not assemblages of real machine parts but carefully constructed allegories of the inner life of the mechanical age. In his art, Zabrucky deconstructs the ideals of progress so often linked to machinery, to ruminate on the power, energy and also insanity of modem machines.
In each of his works, simulated technical surfaces are fabricated in order to give a particular feeling to every surface. In Cable Box, while gyrating cables signify the thrill of total access, the wood grain underneath the casting is meant to evoke nature, or the living and organic aspect of the cybernetic world Thus, why do men go crazy when the cable goes out? because it represents their connection to the universe. Intake, Compression, Power and Exhaust, Zabrucky’ s most ambitious work in terms of relief and sectioning, represents the four phases of male power. In Intake, we see dark spheres representing gasoline molecules filling the cylinder, then, in the next two sections, gas and air are compressed and the gas explodes, forcing the flatted cylinder up. Finally, in Exhaust (lower right), the cylinder returns to position, implying that the gas has been expelled into the atmosphere.
Woofer, Tweeter, Midrange is not a mere assemblage of stereo parts, but a handmade icon in speaker form intended to reflect the trinity that oversees great sound. Finally, Severe = Red is a triptych, referring the Homeland Security Advisory systems highest state of alert. In this work, the first panel depicts an oxygen mask from the outside, oxygen (blue) and poison (red) floating around it, while in the second section the filter canister traps some oxygen. In the last panel, it is we who wear the mask, looking out at a poisoned-red-world.
In fabricating his art, Zabrucky starts with a library of scientific and technical drawings, which he collects primarily because of the unpretentious purity of such drawing. He creates a similar drawing or road map for each work, which is used to guide him and his staff in the process of creation. Zabrucky then fabricates a billet aluminum machined part, then groups it with others, all held together by additional tooled parts. After all the parts are finished and placed, Zabrucky attends to finish, detail; sanding, surface treatment, polychroming and polishing to give the panels their perfect machine-like look.
Zabrucky’s work originates in his boyhood fascination with the technological advances of the post World War II period His interest began when he saw the Robby the Robot character in the 50s sci-fi movie classic Forbidden Planet. That story revolved around mechanized mind control in an advanced society, but Robby was a benign and endearing knight in shining armor, defending humanity’s Adam and Eve as represented by Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis. Zabrucky internalized this construct-fear of technology in the wrong hands, counteracted by salvation through personal machines–as he came of age. Just as the French in the early 1900s are said to have embraced, as a psychological defense against national crisis, the bicycle and motor car as evocative of the homme machine, representing “a collective longing for release from the physical laws of nature” (Schivelbusch, The Culture of Defeat), so postwar America embraced automotive, stereophonic and television technology as communally transcendent media determined to subsume Cold War fears in Camelot dreams. As a graduate of Kent State University in the early 1970s, Zabrucky is also attuned to the irony that this escapist Pop culture also lead to the Vietnam War, with all of the disillusionment that followed, being fought in America’s living rooms.
As a result of having a sensibility that emerged at that time, Zabrucky’ s treatment of machine parts involves spiritually animating the physical aspect of technology, or transforming material reality into poetry. In this project, Zabrucky recaptures the aura said by Benjamin to have been lost to art in the age of mechanical reproduction. The time frame of his technological culture also predates the atomization and nonphysical personalization that has occurred during the post-internet era of media: Zabrucky’s forms breathe the life of the communal spirit of a rock concert, a spirit increasingly depleted in contemporary media life. As art, then, Zabrucky’ s constructs may be linked to the expansive machine paintings of James Rosenquist, or the imposing constructs of Jay DeFeo or Lee Bontecou—they come out at you, and pull you in.