Interview: Longtime NYC Crit Club members Mark Zubrovich and Keisha Prioleau-Martin in Conversation
Mark Zubrovich is a New York-based visual artist. He graduated with his BFA in Drawing and Painting from SUNY Purchase in 2015 and has shown his work both locally and internationally. He has received multiple grants and residencies, most notably receiving the PSGA Public Art award two years in a row. He is a recent artist in residence at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT, as well as Deli Grocery Gallery in Ridgewood, Queens.
My name is Keisha Prioleau-Martin. I am based in New York. I received a BFA in Drawing and Painting from SUNY Purchase in 2017. I have been included in a number of group shows, most recently The 2018 Tiger strikes Asteroid Flat File: Year Five.
Keisha Prioleau-Martin is featured in ‘FootLoose’ at Ortega y Gasset in Gowanus, a two person show with David Humphrey open through April 28th. OYG is open Saturday - Sunday 1 - 6pm.
Mark Zubrovich is in SUPPER at Deli Grocery New York opening April 5th. Mark will also start a residency at Bunker Projects in April.
Mark Zubrovich and I have been friends since being classmates at Purchase College. We met up to have a conversation about each other’s creative process, our formative artist years, our almost-musical careers and how we have continued our journeys as artist in New York.
M: My formative education in the arts as a child started at The Stevenson Academy of Art, where my father also attended for painting. There, I took a Fundamentals in Oil painting class at 11 years old. They made me do lines over and over again and boxes with a range of light and shadow. I just wanted to draw cartoons! I really really hated it, the whole process.
K: So what were you drawing, apart from the cartoons that you wanted to? Is that how your dad noticed you had an interest in art?
M: I am really fortunate in that my family, despite them being very very deeply religious (I was raised catholic my whole life), my parents were always super supportive in whatever I wanted to do really. They made me do a bunch of stuff. It was all the stuff that I wanted to do creatively. I took a comic drawing class with a famous guy who did comics. My whole family is full of creative people so it was just kind of natural that I ended up where I am.
K: Do you remember the moment you knew he wanted to pursue a career as an artist?
M: I can't pinpoint the exact moment. It must have been a more obvious choice after changing catholic schools, re-doing a chemistry class in summer school and using the structure of school to productively make art during the summer... It was so funny because it was the best summer ever. I didn't give a shit that I had to go to summer school. It's the first time that I ever felt engrossed in art work that I was doing because I was really obsessed with making, ya know ?... I've always wanted to be an artist but that was the first time I remember feeling as thought I had tapped into a practice that I wanted to continue with.
M: What was your upbringing like?
K: I'm really lucky. I lived in New York. My mom got me into this arts middle school. Louis Armstrong Middle School appreciated the arts. We had a play every year, sn orchestra and band that were separate classes, sn art class and a ceramics class. We had piano class and a singing class. I forgot what they called it... choir!
The system was that on the first year of middle school you had to take all the classes and figure out which one you wanted. You could tour them and then the next year you would figure out which one you wanted. I picked band and for three years I played clarinet and then (eventually) I didn't have a lot of faith in the music industry.
M: Haha the first instance of being jaded by creativity: “like it could get anywhere”.
K: Yeah, I was so bummed. “What next ? Juilliard, sitting in the pit on a Broadway show when music is being synthesized as we speak?”
M: I almost have a similar experience because I played clarinet in elementary school band until I went to high school and I was like “Music is so incredible. I wish I could do music forever”. That was my first experience of being creative and wanting to be creative and then realizing that there are a million people at this who are so much better than me at this and they were so much more passionate than I am about this. I can't be on that level.
K: The real reason I actually quit was that I never found out how to create anything with music. I had a bug to create something on my own and to do something
M: True. Is that what made you turn to visual art? Wanting to make something on your own?
K: I actually believed that as a clarinet player you were different than a composer and [as a player] you played what people told you to play. That's what I thought. And I thought if I am an artist I can make the art that I want. And I went into art class. I was already drawing all the time in middle school.
In New York you applied for the high school you want. I went to Frank Sinatra School of the Arts and Performing Arts and I was super lucky because they forced me to go to all the museums.
M: (Sarcastically) Oh, how terrible.
K: No, I was lucky! Oh, sarcasm? Well, I thought it was terrible as a kid then I got to Purchase and I met all these people that didn't know anything and I was basically mouthing through art history survey 1 & 2 just like “I know all this” and everyone's taking notes.
M: I mean, I didn't get that from my education at all, but I got it from my family ‘cuz I was always encouraged to go to museums and that kind of thing of all types. I constantly remember going to the Natural History Museum. I went to the city so much as a kid just seeing. Going to a place to learn and be engaged like that; it's so funny to realise that not every kid gets that.
K: Yeah, we're so lucky to start ahead of the rest. Ya know, to have support from parents or teachers. Ones who are saying you have to see this, try that.
M: Absorb some of this thing.
K: Showing you artists who are working.
What was it like to live between Greenpoint and Long Island?
M: Half my family lived in Greenpoint. They don't live in Greenpoint anymore because they got super-duper priced out. I spent a lot of time in Brooklyn growing up. Brooklyn always kind of felt like home. What was it like growing up in the 90's? Its was a lot quieter.
Greenpoint was so nice because I was so little and I didn't see much. I just saw McCarren Park an the little luncheonette where I would get a milkshake and a burger and the little deli where I would get Mystic.
K: Every kid loves Mystic!
M: I would get Kielbasa and all the other polish stuff that my family liked. It was different. Everything in greenpoint feels new now. All the people feel really new, but the people feel really old. It used to feel like everything had always been there for fifty years. The funeral home, the church, Holy Family, south of McCarren Park- that's where my parents got married.
Isn't that adorable? Good stuff!
What about you? How was Far Rockaway?
K: Far Rockaway was a small community where you get very separated from the rest of New York. I spent a lot of time at the library, the beach, and in Manhattan. A lot of my friends were living in other parts of the city so I was outside of Far Rockaway during the school year. In Far Rockaway, a lot of everyone knew each other. there was pride in coming from each neighbor. As kids we would walk everywhere, go to the beach or an empty lot when we were bored. Go to our favorite Deli for cold sandwiches or a classic Bacon Egg and Cheese or split French fries from the Chinese Take-Out restaurant. We didn’t have much so we had to be creative.
M: So you and I have both attended The NYC Crit Club! Crit club has been a pretty immense force for good in keeping my creativity alive and buzzing. I've always had a studio outside of Brooklyn so having a community of artists is really difficult. Having a few hours a week to just talk and be in that mode of making and looking helps me keep the wheels turning. It's a living breathing community of people who help each other! I've met a lot of great artists through Crit Club, and we all support each other, show up to openings, trade paintings, everything a community should do.
K: Yes! I feel like Crit Club for me has been a great tool for building a community and talking about art on a regular basis, It just hard to get my own friends together this often, so it's cool to have something else feeding my need to talk about art. Also, we totally help each other out. We find or make shows together, we find work together, It has made a difference in my career. Without Crit Club, I may have not met Catherine Haggarty who curated my show Footloose. I have made strides in the studio as well. I feel like I started trying more things and made more discoveries much faster with a group of peers taking a lot into my studio so often. Hey, what is your studio like now?
M: I often work from home and there isn’t a lot of space. It's a gift because I have to live with my work, I have to look at it. I don't have space to put a painting away if I am not working on it. There always there and i'm always looking at them.
The space has contributed to how cramped my paintings are. Bodies are crammed into rectangles.
K: I work from home as well, I used to take over the basement and paint in the backyard when it’s warm but I’ve moved the studio upstairs now. I agree: in my work, I want them to be as big as they can be- but then the square stops- their arm is up but I need a bigger painting.
M: It's a fundamental failure to paint a body on a canvas not body sized...
How do you fit this?
K: In college I used to make these tall paintings and people would ask : Why is this tall? And I just didn't know how to answer those kinds of questions yet.
M: Talking to other artist can be difficult. It could be difficult to get anything out. It could be difficult to intellectualize anything that you do in your studio and even something as small as "why is this painting this size?" and your answer is "I don't know. I'm working with it right now”.
K: Sometimes it's just a small decision and it works and you forget and you keep using it and it keeps working. I forgot why I did that.
M: Especially years down the line. I think back to the work I was making in college and a lot of the decisions that I was motivated by I can no longer fully tap into that. I wonder if that will be true for the work that I am making five years from now, but I don't know.
K: We're both figurative artists. You've been turning up the dial more on humor and absurdity lately. Your dogs are in provocative and punky situations these days. I think that's because before they always were punky and provocative but those messages before were subverted and would come to the viewer as a feeling or “there’s something going on here but I don't know what” and I liked that you can you plug theses feelings into a painting and read out and shake people with like these emotions- which I try to do with my paintings too instead of the painting's specific feeling. The whole provocative thing is punched up because I think we were in a crit club once and Eric Hibit who was a Guest Critic mentioned “there was a lot alluded to in the painting”. There were hints in your paintings that I knew the story of but those stories weren’t apparent to anyone else so when Eric came in and said "I don't know what's happening” I was disappointed he missed the joke. I decided that was a problem.
M: Yeah, it is a problem that was a personal problem that became a problem in the work because I think for a long time I wasn't fully ready to address something directly in my work. I was perfectly fine with impling some sort of homoerectism but I was never ready to just go all the way and show it and really express it.
K: It’s hot!
M: I'll take that.
K: You could always lay in or out of it. It's fun.
M: It's giving me more options. I can be explicit and implicit. I can get more sexual. I can be more emotional. It doesn't have to be one hundred. I can let a romantic situation be a romantic situation where these characters can turn where they can be expressing mourning. And it doesn't have to be just an implication anymore because in the process of me finding this body of work that I'm making right now. I have made a more full decision to be “out” and I've been implemented that.
K: You weren't out?
M: I wasn't fully out.
K: Again, I am knowing more than everyone else.
M: We happen to be friends for a while so you know the full story haha than I thought I was giving out but now that I'm kind of more outwardly accepted.
What I would like to present as an artist.
K: This is so interesting, so fascinating... go on.
M: Because of the confidence of being able to present as myself just in my everyday life. I have been finding more avenues to take this body of work down, and I think if I hadn't done that this work probably would not be in a place where it is now nad I would have moved on to something else. But right now I still have years of stuff that I can make... of subject matter. I have years of subject matter that I'm working with just because of that freedom that I have given to myself.
K: Having freedom verses restrictions reminds me of that your work (eventually) starts to reflect what you're hiding or what you're not hiding more immediately as soon as you’re not hiding it.
M: You often in your paintings are depicting some sort of expression of joy. Is making work the expresses joy political? And is it for you if it's not inherently so. Because that what you were saying before about your work (at least the work that you used to make) having this sexual tension to it. You clearly have a love for painting bodies in motions, and I wonder where does the love for painting a body in motion come from? There's always tension in painting a body in motion because its a still image. You are painting positions that on the surface look [as if they're] in a club or people dancing. Where is that drive to put people in that are not necessarily happy but are in these joyful looking situations?
K: I was painting people because I was interested them, curious about them and liked watching them all the time. Watching how they move and what they do.
M: I was going to ask if you feel like an observer, but that pretty obvious.
K: Yeah, I'm totally an observer! I guess not in a creepy way and I really like people whatever they were doing. And whatever they were doing would absolutely being themselves and feeling comfortable and not self-conscious and/or at least not lying to anyone with their bodies. They are just doing the thing. For example, someone studying, someone on the subway listing to music, someone sleeping and there is something really mudande about those activities and I was completely satisfied with this but I needed to know what it looked like for someone being kind of themselves through and comfortable in a more high risk situation, something that actually produces something other than just kind of like distress or boredom or sleep. And I was going to dance club and diving into this activity that made me happy, totally buying that you can dance your way into happiness. You can do alot of things to be happy. You can do sports or there is a little nirvana in everything.
M: It's almost as though you had to look for a little cathartic release in your work.
K: Yeah, because the paintings I was making were like right before the endorphins release. It was the thing you do before you get up and jump out of the plane.
M: Like potential versus kinetic energy. Do you feel like the switch from potential to kinetic was just spurred by just wanting to change? Like wanting to get out of your current mindset.
K: At first I just wanted to try something else, it wasn't meant to be my full time painting thing.
M: Ha, that's always how it goes.
K: I had one or two of these and I just kept doing them. The first time I did it I was smack in the middle of painting those mundane paintings. The first girl that was dancing was a surrogate for myself as a carefree girl who didn't care about others opinions. So the first girl that I painted dancing was totally tranquil and aware innocent and actually the girl in the painting was four years old which was perfect because any four year old you've ever met only makes the best drawings ever.
M: But they also have the best dances.
K: They are just never unhappy.
M: Just no inhibitions.
K: So that's what I wanted people to be, I started drawing little girls and then I was like "Okay, why can't I just pretend that everyone is acting like a little girl but they are adults". So i'm going to nightclubs trying to figure out what all these people do dancing as I am dancing myself. I am a huge party dancer or all the time dancer. I'm a dancer person.
M: You don't come across as that immediately- I don't think. If somebody knows you they might see that.
K: I like to take over the floor.
M: It’s funny how I would say we are both kind of making work that deals with some level a sort of fantasy world. It's sort of this alternative universe where there are fewer inhibitions, more kind of freedoms to do whatever you want and get yourself entangled with whoever you want.
K: Without any consequences, but you're better person for it..
M: But it's like that world is a space where you are free to do it. It's part of the germination for some of my figures is looking for that liminal space is putting these two mystical forms together but they are allowed to be intimate.
K: Because they are on the playing field or like going to a bathhouse.
M: Or going to a nightclub.
K: These places where you're allowed to do and expected to do specific things.
M: The performance of going through these ritualistic actions to achieve a higher emotional state. When I think of baseball fandom, I think of loyalty to a certain combination of colors or pinstripes vs solid colors, and dressing yourself up like your team, and going to the stadium to experience the high of them doing the ultimate in whatever competition they are in.
K: There's definitely a routine. You go to the baseball game, you find your seats, you go get peanuts and cracker jacks and a beer (if you've old enough) and sit back down. You sing all the chants.
M: Yeah, you have a seventh inning stretch where you stand up and you sit down like the pews in church. It makes me think of going to the dance club too. You stand in line, they stamp your hand.
K: You get a water.
M: Look up at the lights, dance to the sound, brush up against other bodies...
K: Walk around until you find an empty stop, go to the bathroom, you get more water...
M: All these are ritualistic and those are reflected in the process of making art wanting to tap into the ritual of it- just the practice of painting is another ritualistic process.