"Better Left Unsaid": Mastering Affect with ZANE
Written by Leigh Pennington
ZANE has long been a tag and persona known in the world of graffiti and street art. Since 2019 he has been hailed as the ‘Hood Picasso’ on account of his bold visual composite techniques, seamlessly blending the two worlds of surrealism and graffiti. Self-taught since day one, ZANE’s journey in the world of graffiti began in his early high school years and continues till today, however he has recently explored a new subject and method of creation in his career as an artist.
In his latest solo show, Better Left Unsaid at Walls & Halls Gallery, ZANE showcases a style and a story that goes against the reserved and veiled personage he knew as a graffiti artist. The works produced for the show each encapsulate a specific yet interrelated trauma that ZANE has experienced within his personal world. The issues and relationships that he addresses within his works function as a practice of necessity and clarity. He described his relationship to art and the series overall as a means “to get it out, because I don’t talk that much. I don’t want to say everything…I’d just rather paint the moments that really bother me and explain it to the best of my ability.” ZANE’s goal for Better Left Unsaid was to make it as relatable as possible for the viewer. His aim was to exemplify through his own artistic voice “what was repetitive in my life that I could speak about that has really traumatized me?” and what could others see in the work that coalesced with their own experiences.
“In his latest solo show, Better Left Unsaid ZANE showcases a style and a story that goes against the reserved and veiled personage he knew as a graffiti artist.”
These traumas that he bravely presents to a wider audience all relate in an emotional capacity, building on top of one another. With his works, he draws a string from one trauma to the next all culminating in a message of personal triumph. A triumph that came through the emotional work he underwent by producing the show, pushing himself into a new evolution of his identity as an artist. He expounded, “It’s very, very nerve-racking, because I’m very reserved… I’ve been doing fine art and graffiti, but graffiti has been my whole life. You know how that goes; you keep your identity a secret… Like I said, nerve wracking to share my experiences and what I’ve been going through, because I never really vented to anyone like that.”
The first painting in the series Devil in a New Dress is the link between ZANE’s prior artistic works and the genesis that sparked his entire new emotional undertaking. He recounted, “I just started doing oil paintings. So, she was my experiment… I just wanted to experiment with a brand new face because prior I used to do fan art… How can I keep this the same aesthetic of the collage pieces that I do in a way where it’s more original still?” The silhouette is shaped by ZANE’s distinct tag, formulated to curve and move with the body, an ode to his graffiti lifeblood and a technique repeated throughout the series. Her face is a compilation of many different images of feminine features in several states of feeling and emotion. She is reclined, at ease with her devilish ways, a creature that is both alluring and foreboding.
After the creation of this initial piece, fate would have it, ZANE was introduced to Giovanni Burgos the owner of Walls & Halls Gallery and Framing in Queens. Burgos opened the space with his wife Genesis just six months ago. The pair are adamant in using their platform and business to introduce exceptional artists to Queens. “When my boy, Jerm, introduced me to him,” said Giovanni, “he told me he wanted to do a solo show. My first thought was, I need to meet him. I wanted to see his reaction. I wanted to see how sure he was of pulling it off. So, when we did speak, I asked him, ‘so you want to do a solo show?’– It was quick… I saw that he was confident in it… It is an honor to have him here.”
After that it was go time. Six weeks to produce a show that worked through the narrative of ZANE’s story and beyond. He was encouraged by a friend to think about his pieces in a way where they relate to his own inner world, a subject he had never directly tackled before. In the case of Devil in a New Dress he aimed to define this work in connection with his dating life.
The final period of this storied relationship dynamic became the next chapter of ZANE’s narrative series Failed Expectations. The work is composed of two paintings. One features a single slice of solitary and neglected cake, a candle glowing on top. The piece is contextualized by the second of the two works where we see the finale of the relationship. We see the devil from the previous work now situated across from us at a restaurant table. Her face is a mixture of lust and annoyance. The pieces of her face resemble shards of glass, as if the viewer is looking at phases of their own expression. Every woman has produced her expressions and in turn every partner knows what it feels like to receive them.
The first two pieces in this series are only a portion of the entire emotional landscape. The creation of his remaining visual chronicle was the point where ZANE began to link together other painful events in his past and see a way towards defining a new outlook and open future. One that could provide a space of affinity for those going through and overcoming the rough times in their own lives.
“The first two pieces in this series are only a portion of the entire emotional landscape. The creation of his remaining visual chronicle was the point where ZANE began to link together other painful events in his past”
The third painting, Better Left Unsaid, depicts the wake of his breakup. Surrounded by water, a place the artist goes to recollect himself and his thoughts, he ponders over a text with a joint in hand. His face is a mixture of frustration and resigned acceptance. His blue heart stands in stark contrast to the dark silhouette of his body. He has nothing left to say, nothing left to feel.
ZANE described Better Left Unsaid as the connective tissue for the remaining paintings in the series, which also became the namesake of his entire show. He explained, “The way that Better Left Unsaid came about is that the beanie that I have on my head is called Tacenda, which is one of my cousin’s brands that I rep heavy, and Tacenda is defined as ‘better left unsaid’. So, I was trying to see how I can curate the ‘better left unsaid’ into a series. So, I asked him for his blessing, obviously, and then I was like, hold on, let me do this breakup scene and try to correlate it into my dating life and my family life.”
“ZANE described Better Left Unsaid as the connective tissue for the remaining paintings in the series, which also became the namesake of his entire show.”
Renege, the fourth chapter in ZANE’s story, contends with broken and failed promises. “Growing up I had a family member who does drugs,” said ZANE, “and I’ve been growing up with that, you know what I’m saying, so me taking him to his appointment we would always have this conversation of like ‘I’m going to change,’ or ‘I’m going to stop,’ but then it’s always repetitive and it never stops.” The expression of ZANE’s self-portrait is emotionally tapped, relinquishing the expectation of change. The pieces of his family member’s face seem to be falling, revealing a dark and hollow void.
ZANE recalled that during the opening, onlookers seemed to have the strongest reaction and ties to Renege, often rekindling and remembering their own experiences with such circumstances. Through his work he has created an opportunity and safety for others to disclose their own troubles. “A lot of people were resonating towards the Renege and I was surprised…Well, I knew everyone in the world is not perfect but hearing it from someone that I didn’t know that he was dealing with that as well.”
The second to last work, Espejo, continues to dive further into ZANE’s family trauma, but through a lens of perhaps greater loss. The structure and design of the canvas is meant to replicate the mirror that once hung in his grandmother’s apartment. His family was forced to give up the apartment last year, having just recently lost his grandmother two years prior to cancer. ZANE described her as always being a formidable presence and place of support within his whole family. “When I got older, she was more into shopping on like 34th Street, she used to take me everywhere. So, I think that’s where I resonated with the retail space… She used to help me… If I’m doing something for the show she was like, here, take a couple of dollars, just pay me back later. Then when I get the money, I always pay her back plus a little bit more. She was very hardworking, very loving.”
Espejo captures an elongated sense of time. The portions of ZANE’s face range from young child to adult, all collective representatives across a lifetime interlinked to this harrowing and enraging event. The loss of a familial place where he had spent the majority of his childhood and adult life.
ZANE’s grand finale, a larger than life and regal self-portrait entitled ALL OF ME brings a realistic and hopeful close to this story. The blacked-out background ties in with the first piece Devil in a New Dress but brings with it a less daunting message. The open black space in ALL OF ME is now filled with the artist, situated firmly in his seated position, all portions of his face are in a state of repose. The work has been completed but the journey is far from over. He described, “I’m still working on it, you know what I’m saying, I’m still working on my issues, I’m still working on my emotional side. Whatever I’m dealing with, it’s not over, there could be other stuff added to it…more opportunities could change the outcome.” The tape seen at the bottom of his face indicates an unfinished portrait. The artist is still molding himself. “I just want everyone to know, take this as an example, you could do it,” he said, “don’t shy away from your idea… I’m still learning everyday… anyone could do it, just keep working hard. Don’t give up.”
“The work has been completed but the journey is far from over. He described, ‘I’m still working on it, you know what I’m saying, I’m still working on my issues, I’m still working on my emotional side. Whatever I’m dealing with, it’s not over, there could be other stuff added to it…more opportunities could change the outcome.'”
Affect is one of the main components of all great artistic practice; from music to radio, fashion, film, literature, and of course the visual arts; affect is what measures the immeasurable. The emotional connections and states felt from one human to the next, stranger or otherwise, provoking by a kindred sense and affinity with another’s experience. This requires a great deal of trust and bravery on the part of an artist. Letting their walls down to show the world where they have been and where they stand. The good, the bad, and all things that they think are better left unsaid.
This is where all visual arts become an essential marker of our social worlds. They act as mirrors and methods for confronting and working through shared experiences across the spectrum of humanity. Via a new avenue of artistic soul-searching ZANE has turned a corner in his career as an artist, pushing the boundaries of his comfort zone to present us with something genuine, unclouded, and brazen in its composition of personal truth and meaning. Something we can all relate to.
Leigh Pennington – Hailing from Richmond Virginia, Leigh Pennington has lived, worked and studied around the world. She earned her BA in Anthropology, Art History, and Religion from Concordia University in Montreal. Last year she moved to New York to pursue a Masters in Oral History at Columbia University. Prior to moving back to the US she earned her first Masters from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Jewish Studies. Currently Leigh works as a freelance culture content writer as well as an Op-Ed editor for the Times of Israel. Her writing has been published in major news and opinion media such as Quebec Heritage News, Tablet Magazine and Lilith Magazine.