One of the pleasures of Ed Zelenak’s decades-long practice is its resistance to easy narrative. And yet, as John Bentley Mays wrote in 2015, “we know what his art is about.” Zelenak’s figures – oft-repeated and registering as personal iconography – become familiar, but never namable. Drafted, gridded or floating, and either gouged out or built up, his favored forms ring out the essential. You might vaguely identify a worked-over arrow, a divining rod, a rudimentary home of the type a child might draw, replete with a nimbus of erasure-lines. You might even trace the cosmos and infer an existential quest. But you’d be hard-pressed to tell of his work except to locate a feeling.
If any narrative gets attached to Zelenak, it’s one of a Minimalist sculptor eschewing the popular “break lines” in contemporary art while internalizing its evolutionary strokes. After working under artists J.W.G. (“Jock”) Macdonald and Claes Oldenburg in the 1960s, Zelenak moved through a successful largescale sculptural practice that landed him major public commissions and established his name internationally. Working with fiberglass, these biomorphic abstractions were termed – both affectionately and not-so-affectionately – “worms,” “intestines,” “telephone cords,” and “bubbles.” Then, in the 1970s, as contemporary art shifted from formalism to Body, Performance, and Conceptual art, Zelenak went through a six-year period of “anguish” in the studio, during which time he located his subjectivity, and began to interrogate – literally, with tools – the forms he’d become known for. What followed were tin planes, soldered lines, abutting reliefs, and scored surfaces: an intimate vernacular of essentializing figures. They speak to an artist concerned with “making over meaning,” as Mays wrote. And, as articulated by curator Marnie Fleming, these images rooted into a question familiar to the nearby Regionalist movement in London, Ontario: “where is here?”
I’ve long admired Zelenak for his foundational figures, and the narrative-averse nature of his repeated forms. The question of “where is here?” may provide direction: a lamppost in the thick, humid night of his practice. I can imagine the question stirring his arrows, his divining rods, moving his comets, and tilting his houses. But I fear the question has been answered too conclusively in a new show at Christopher Cutts Gallery, one that has exploded with a shower of soldered stars. Admittedly, Zelenak is working in a more commercial capacity here, exhibiting wall works for a small gallery. But that doesn’t put it past comment. Here he’s made a definitional shift, one that has the quality of sharply calling out a name, deflating its former, unnamed potential. In place of the visual stillness that typically aurates his basic forms — “The starkness of the surrounding white paper becomes as important as silence is to language,” as Fleming put it in 1989 – now, Zelenak introduces his most identifiable figure yet, a five-pointed star that hurries away the quiet, and crowds his skies with sweetness.
Stars have been significant to Zelenak in the past, of course. His repeated house-like form traces the Cephean constellation. Mars is “the ruling god” of Zelenak’s astrological sign, Scorpio, which he’ll tell you as readily as he lists his materials. And the cosmos have value as a mapping device – one that aligns with Zelenak’s visual lexicon of grids, rods, and arrows. However he hasn’t “named” his symbols so exactly, so deliberately, or so repeatedly as he does in Distant Realms. Formerly, to hear Zelenak talk about the constellation he returns to, was to appreciate its pointed ambiguity:
The Shape means many things and functions in different ways. As I look at the schema of it, I could say, yes, it is a constellation. It is a multi-directional shape which consists of many points of perspective. It alludes to the nature of man and how things come together. The shape is also architectural – like a house – and could refer to a physical or spiritual place. It could also be a boat on water. It is a spatial, temporal thing like an arrow or missile. It means a lot of different things to me depending on the state of my mind. For me, art operates that way. It isn’t always a fixed, static phenomenon.
However, to peer over Zelenak’s new suite of star-nailed skies is to see something assigned, an image fixed, a phenomenon made static. Zelenak’s realm has become a little less distant, and disappoints in its insistence on a specific object in an otherwise dreamy, diffuse practice.