Juxtapoz November 2011
Would a story being written in ink, relying on only contrasting tones of black & white, express the tale without words? Elaborate shadows capture the scene, the vision to describe the essence of movement, while strong photographic-like stills seize the frame. The structure and composition put forth an incredible display of conviction to one's style, not only capturing the emotion, but making the architectural foreground speak volumes with enriched specifications. This is the world of Danijel Zezelj, a Croatian born, Brooklyn based artist who dwells in the underworld of visual storytelling, forcing a harsh, commanding subject to reach into your psyche, engulfing your vision, yet twisting the focus to observe powerful strokes and rich fills. A continual presentation of darkened beauty and highlighted fury…..dynamic and superb!
After having your first story published, was it difficult to understand the different languages that you were faced with? And how soon into your career, did you eliminate words all together from your stories?
The very first comic story I published (Circus, it came out in the literary magazine Vidici) was a 19-page story without any text. All my comics after that did have text, some more some less, and I like the way text and images can follow two different paths that are sometimes parallel and simultaneous and sometimes not, creating a third space, one that is in between words and image, a playing field where animals run wild in the dusk. After I left Croatia I lived in London for 6 months, and language was not an issue since we all studied english in schools. At that time I already had a contract with Italian monthly comics magazine Il Grifo (published by Editori del Grifo), they were publishing my comics in every issue and it was an amazing opportunity to show my work internationally. Il Grifo was my lifeline at the time, since everything else, behind and in front of me seemed entirely ephemeral, the only solid thing I could grasp and control was my work, ink on paper, so i kept my hands dirty. Most of my stories from early 90' reflect feel of loss and decay, story Vanja &Vanja maybe more and better than any other. But there is also a sense of hope in them, since hope was needed as much as air and water, it sounds like a poetic nonsense, but hope is an absolute and concrete necessity. After 6 months in London I was kicked out by the Britain's Home Office (equivalent of INS), for no legal reason (I sued them, and eventually won the case, after 3 years), so I wound up in Montepulciano, Italy, where Il Grifo magazine was based, and where group of good people helped me stay and work for some years, and feel almost at home. The language was a problem since i didn't speak a word of Italian, but learning is fast under pressure, and learning Italian was one of the best things I did in my life. Few years later Il Grifo went bankrupt, and within a couple of years literally all comics magazines in Italy and France closed down. The comics (in Europe) continued to be published exclusively in the form of graphic novels.
Your early B&W work is filled with so much detail and technical effects, was it difficult to do so many pages continuing this style throughout the story? How long did it take you to do a page? Techniques?
All my work is fundamentally black and white, built on balancing shadow and light. In baroque painting studies it's called chiaroscuro, and i did study baroque painting, in the Fine Art Academy, as well as later and still today. Baroque style also involves attention to detail and ornamentation (especially baroque sculpture and architecture), which often gets exaggerated and manneristic, but i really liked it at the time, and was overdoing it. The technique I use in drawing comics is fairly simple, black ink and white ink (white acrylic), on thick paper. I also use sponge sometimes (with black ink) for gray tones, as well as spraying of white ink over black with an old brush (for middle tones, ornamentation, or certain effects). However the origin of this technique is in oil painting studies: an exercise where you paint with just one single color (raw umbra) and build the shapes and forms by balancing shades from darkest to lightest. It forces you to observe and study volume of forms, rather than their outline. The line becomes secondary or is completely eliminated, as well as the color.
Your splattered details, how long does it take you to ad this? Is it done after the piece is finished, or during, and do you use sort of masking?
It all comes together gradually, building from rough abstract shapes towards the more specific and detailed, so generally details and ornamentations come last. That's also why eventually I eliminated ornamentations, since they become just a make up, special effects. Decoration will not save a bad drawing, or add much to a good one. Sometimes it's needed as an element of design, and I still use graphic embellishments when working on graphic design projects (posters, covers, illustrations, etc), but within drawings I avoid them as much as possible. I appreciate formal simplicity, abstraction and reduction more and more, in the sense of Japanese ink drawings, especially work of Hokusai. I don't see any specific reason or conscious decision behind that change, it occurred in the process of work, I might start using more details again in the future. When using details and decorations I did use masks sometimes and often stencils. I like stencils very much, they are also my favorite form of graffiti art, allowing beautiful layering, textures and combining of expressive brush work with fine ornamentation and precise composition.
You seem to be of a different sort of comic artist, where you completely illustrate and write your stories, even publishing them yourself….but on the other side, you do huge live paintings and work outside of the comic world….is this your sort of independence to be free as an artist?
There is a great difference in the process when working on the stories that I wrote and stories written by someone else (like in DC Comics, Marvel or Dargaud projects). When story is mine the images and text evolve together, they are directly related and conditioned by each other, from rough sketches towards more precise structures and layouts, and process is quite chaotic, hit and miss, with constant corrections and changes, until step by step the final shape is established. When I receive a script from Brian Azzarello or Brian Wood (my favorite writers), I have to follow their story and adopt myself to it, so I work within a pre-set frame, which requires more disciplined and rational approach, but is great fun, when script is good. And there is also a different sense of responsibility since the artwork has to serve and reflect someone else's story, represent it properly and accurately. I learned many things from the work done for DC Vertigo, since it pushed me to do things I otherwise would not try, and opened some new doors and windows. Some of the same methods I later used when working on my own stories, but I still prefer the chaos method.
Regarding live painting - I was always interested in the time dimension of visual art and the possibility of storytelling without use of words. Live painting started as an attempt to merge painting with music in a narrative stage act - live painting and music contemporarily and gradually evolving from abstract into figurative following a specific narrative line.
My wife Jessica Lurie is a musician and composer, and we started experimenting with these ideas around 97' when we lived in Seattle. We started with the slide and video projections combined with music, but that never really worked so we reduced it to the most organic and direct combination of live painting and live music happening simultaneously on the stage.
When you go into a live painting, and your using the rollers, do you have a scope of what you will be creating and the time allowed? Do you share tricks learned on such a large scale, when you go back to the smaller format and vice versa?
Whatever I'm suppose to paint is prepared in advance, but I cannot control completely the time it will take to paint it. And since music and painting should be synchronized there is always a margin of error and a vast space for improvisation. Painting is not meant to be performed live, so this is a risky and challenging process which from the outside might seem random and chaotic. Rollers on the plywood are expansion of brushes on paper, enlarged in scale, but technically small and large painting is fairly similar (large paintings are minimum 8x4 feet but often larger, depending on the space and stage).
You have a large portfolio of accomplished work, you seem to be very prolific with a great imagination….is there anything that you desire to create that you haven't yet? Are you content with your creations?
I cannot say if I'm content, what is behind me and what I have done doesn't make me very happy. It could be all reduced to subjective visual reflections reordered on paper, plywood or canvas. I'm really looking forward towards exploring further the relations of images and time, through comics, but also through live painting and animation. About two years ago I started making animations, a form of two-dimensional stop animations where painting process is recorded (photographed) and those recorded images then digitally processed and edited (in Final Cut) into narrative sequences and eventually movies. It is a method similar to what William Kentridge uses in his animations, except he works with charcoal on paper and I work with acrylic paint on large wood panels. I created a couple of short animations so far and now I'm working on some longer projects, including the Brooklyn Babylon which, in its final form, will be an hour long multimedia performance with over 30 minutes of animations combined with live painting and live music (composed by Darcy James Argue and performed by his Secret Society band)
You recently did a few pieces in the streets…knowing that you're a fan of graffiti, how did it feel to be putting up on an outdoor wall?
I did graffiti art before making any comics. There were various locations and subway passages in Zagreb where it was possible to paint at night, leave a message. I painted with large brushes and acrylics (spray cans were difficult to get). Later I figured out stenciling and it's still my favorite form of wall art, for the speed, layering and texturing it allows. I love street art, it's the purest, most natural and direct form of visual expression in the urban space, it reflects it and fulfills it.