Zahar Vaks

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What is my work about?

My paintings are romantic. They may depict a childhood memory of smoking a grape vine in Uzbekistan, the glowing spiral of the burned dried vine. Or, the sensory recall of a bonfire in the Catskills Mountains. The vermillion of the embers dancing with the stars and flickering fire flies. The paintings are also guided by other modes of making. Cooking my mother’s Ukrainian Borsht can trigger a visualization of mixing a specific Florentine red with some Flemish led white. The use of ingredients and the tactility in cooking is echoed in the material alchemy inherent in painting.

Artist Statement

My paintings, drawings, and structures are material narratives actualized by a multi sensory approach to making. The olfactory and tactile elements of my work are just as important as the visual. I pair the marinating of oil, tree sap balsams and pigments with ingredients used in cooking, such as beets, and turmeric, as a way of materially binding the disparate but deeply connected modes of painting and cooking. I want my paintings to evoke the same sort of primal connection one has to food; I want to connect the alchemy of painting and cooking on a visual level.

Using beets in my work is a direct way to address my own identity. I am a Russian and Ukrainian Jew that was born in Tashkent Uzbekistan. Smelling boiled beets mixed with dill takes me to directly to my childhood. Beet juice and powder also have a long history as dyes in myriad cultures; using them in my work helps me connect not only to my own heritage, but also to an ancient and nourishing past.

The materiality of the beet offers significant insight when it comes to describing the internal viscera. Phantom Pain(t) (Image1) references my memory of a calcified mineral moving from my left kidney into my bladder. Channeling this experience can cause a phantom pain. This ghost presence of a kidney stone feels very real, yet the sensation is only an imprint. This phantom presence can be echoed in the making of a painting. The paintings go through the process of erasure and destruction as they are made. The first layers in my painting may contain a form that may be barely visible yet it can provide the foundation for the rest of the painting. This ghost image can remain hidden or rediscovered through the excavation of the surface.

My paintings also address the perception of time. Depending on one’s perspective, the passage of time in a painting can be specific, or the timing can feel elusive. The paintings can feel timeless. A quick bold gesture can dissolve into a slow and subtle remnant. I am interested in exploring a conversation between the ancient and the contemporary. Modern Day Ancient (Image 13) is made from a found piece of drywall painted with water and oil based pigments. Dry wall is a common modern material used in construction, but once you expose the gypsum and fiberglass, the material transforms into something else. After the ingredients are added the painting looks and feels like an ancient fresco.

I apply my ingredients to various surfaces such as linen, canvas, silk screens, vinyl, drywall, and I-phones. Sometimes the paintings are stretched and other times they are left loose. There are times when the loose surfaces are attached to supports fitted specifically for them. Such is the case in Time Intertwine (Image 20). Sometimes the surfaces are fused. A piece of organza painted with fabric dye may be layered over velvet. The fusion of these layers creates a new kind of skin that is not easily identifiable and allows for more possibilities.

Recently my paintings have evolved into physical structures that can stand on their own, allowing a painting to be experienced from all sides. Such is the case in Off Epicenter (Images 8 and 9). One painting is inserted in the back of another. Pieces of stained and painted wood used as a foundation. The structural elements are very much connected to the painting process. This urge to build into space stems from the structural forms that emerged amidst the nebulous environments within my paintings. This new physicality offers new possibilities in how a painting can be made and experienced.


2009-2011    The Ohio State University, MFA with an emphasis in Painting and Drawing

2001-2006    BFA, Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, emphasis in painting and drawing. Certificate in Art Education.


Select Exhibitions

“Meditations on Making: Marinating & Marking Movement”, One River Gallery, Englewood New Jersey.
As curator: “Thinking & Touching Time” Ortega y Gasset Projects, Brooklyn, NY.

“The Knotted” curated by Yevgeniya Baras and Eve Lateiner of Bull and Ram, Pseudo Empire, Brooklyn, NY.
“Earthwerks”, curated by Ortega Y Gasset Projects, SideCar, Hammond, Indiana

Galveston Artist Residency show, Galveston, Texas.

“We Don’t Have All Night” , Urban Arts Space, Columbus, Ohio

“Confluences” MFA Thesis Show, Urban Arts Space, Columbus, Ohio
“Before The After”, Wayne and Geraldine Kuhn Gallery,

“Thanks Frank”, curated by Austin Lee and Katrina Mortorff, The Elkins Estate, Elkins Park, Pa

“Friendship is the Best Ship”, Little Berlin Gallery, Philadelphia, PA
“For You, For Me, From Me”, curated by Dustin Metz, Flux Space, Philadelphia, PA

“Exxscapes”, curated by Austin Lee and Katrina Mortorff, Exclamation Gallery, Philadelphia, PA


Honors and Awards
Nominated for the Joan Mitchell MFA grant.

Nominated for the Dedalus Foundation Fellowship grant.

Graduate Teaching Associate Award, The Ohio State University


2012-2013    The Galveston Artist Residency