By CLARE GEMIMA, January 2023
I was lucky enough to meet Mark Zubrovich at the amazing Jane Margarette’s solo show, Cheer Up, Kitten, at 1969’s Lower East side gallery late last year. Immediately intrigued by the artist’s eloquence in discussing their paintings, and conceptual inquiries, I decided to take a deeper look at Zubrovich’s work …and the rest is really history. Following their paintings to Miami’s Untitled Art fair, and experiencing all sorts of wonderfully fluorescent and variously sized creations while visiting their studio in Brooklyn, mark two unforgettable experiences that have led to the realization of this interview. Zubrovich shares insight into their scrumptious, and often sickly, painting practice with me through discussions about material, subject matter, career trajectory, concepts in and out of the studio, the fuckery of politics, identity, anthropomorphism and life’s more ‘cringe’ moments.
For more information on Mark Zubrovich, visit: https://www.markzubrovich.com
Clare Gemima: To quote you, “I make art about dogs doing human stuff in their dog way because humans.” What does ‘because humans’ mean to you exactly?
Mark Zubrovich: To me, that phrase means that the dog and the human are totally inseparable. Can’t have one without the other. We are what feminist philosopher Donna Haraway calls “companion species”; deeply entwined evolutionary partners with deeply complex social and political relationships, more so than any other creature in my opinion. The word “anthropomorphism” means “to imbue human characteristics onto non-human entities'', and I can’t think of a single thing humans anthropomorphize more than dogs. I imagine dogs do it right back to us! It’s a natural evolution to me that they help us figure out our humanity through their dogginess.
The space between us has been the focus of my work for a long time now. The question I get most often from a human when they encounter my artwork is “why dogs?”. It’s taken me a really long time to find a satisfying answer to that question because my hyperfixation on the dog-human hybrid didn’t stem from anything, like, scholarly. The deeper I dive into its history and symbolism, the more I see how embedded that figure is in our collective cultural memory. But that’s not where this work germinated from. In a painting language, they've become a gestural form that I can shapeshift and morph with fluency. A source of endless variation and invention. But as a figure, they hit something soul-deep. Once it showed up in my practice it was bound to stick around even if I didn’t know why yet.
Clare Gemima: Who is Bruce, and how did Bruce become Bruce?
Mark Zubrovich: Bruce is my FURSONA! If you’re not familiar with what a fursona is, I bet you can figure out the portmanteau pretty easily. They're a representation of the self in animal-human hybrid form. It doesn’t HAVE to be a dog, but mine is. People have been crafting animal likenesses for thousands of years (looking at you Saint Christopher!) That term emerged and solidified through Internet forum-era subcultures like Deviantart and Furaffinity over the last thirty years or so. Fur-sona! Bruce—in the form you see them now— is a synthesis of symbols and colors and bodily traits that I find joy in fusing to myself. Some of it is deeply personal, and some of it is extremely blunt and simple. Like, why is Bruce a deep cobalt blue? Cuz that’s my favorite color! Why is he named Bruce? Cuz Bruce Nauman is daddy!!!
Clare Gemima: In some of your paintings, like No Strings Attached (2022), Bruce wears the same clothing that you do, which is amazing by the way… I am interested in this painterly and cyclical critique of yourself, and your incorporation of self portraiture. Can you explain what’s happening in this work from a personal perspective? What is your relationship with Bruce?
Mark Zubrovich: Bruce is actually a very recent figure in my work. I’ve been making pup-centric work for over half a decade, but only in the last year have I begun to approach self portraiture. When my subjects were more allegorical, and a bit more anonymous, there was a distance between my subject matter and my own physical self. Painting as a medium is so ancient and full of history that as a painter you have to both accept and divorce yourself from the weight that this physical object may last beyond you, and potentially “forever”. There’s an understood permanence in painting. A permanence I was not fully ready to incorporate my flesh-and-brain likeness into.
The catalysts for that shift were several jarring incidents that brought to the forefront the frailty of my own body. I caught the very first wave of COVID in March of 2020 here in NYC, and it permanently damaged my sense of smell. I have a distinct memory of sticking my nose into a bottle of hand sanitizer first thing in the morning every day for two weeks, desperate for any sort of olfactory response. I’ve since regained my nose powers, but it’ll never be the way it used to be. Months after this, I fractured my foot while dancing by myself in Prospect Park. No Strings Attached is actually a narrative depiction of this. The title, ironically, is from the NSYNC album I was dancing to when I broke my foot. That piece in particular is a good example of what my relationship with Bruce currently is: he’s a painterly foil to myself that I can process experience and emotion through. Both body euphoria and body trauma, both human action and animal feeling. He can sniff to our hearts content, but can also pull his intestines out when I’m going through stomach pain. Bruce echoes my perception, but with wider peaks and valleys, and a sort of cartoon logic enhancing the drama. I imagine and paint them as being hyper sensory; the long yellow tongue and hypnotic eyes painted with fluorescents. The expressive ears and perpetually flared nose doing all the sniffing. What fun is there in having a fantasy alter-ego if they can’t have some superpowers?
Clare Gemima: What other ideas do the dogs you paint with human traits aim to speak to in your paintings?
Mark Zubrovich: This question reminds me of another trope that arose out of early 2000s forum culture: the SPARKLEDOG. It’s a term, sometimes used derisively, for an internet based alter-ego that explodes with camp and radiates bad taste. Rainbow fur, piercings, multicolored eyes, anime hair, magic swords. We’re socially conditioned to think of such over the top power fantasies as embarrassing and shameful, especially when they present queer and femme. But that is bullshit! Manifesting yourself as a neon hued nonbinary man-mutt with super-smell is awesome, actually.
I truly think it is no coincidence that the anthro-dog is such a potent conduit for queer self-expression. There’s a book I’m currently reading called Myths Of The Dog-Man by David Gordon White, of which my upcoming show in Los Angeles with Richard Heller Gallery is named after. This book, though a bit dated, is in the process of completely blowing my mind with
not only how prominent the dog-man is across disparate cultures, but how consistently he is used as a symbol for otherness, filth, and the foreign unknown. I think one of the reasons for that commonality is because, well, we love and relate to dogs but they’re also pretty gross! We are companion species who live and work together, who have completely different standards of decorum, hygiene, and language. Stop licking your balls in the living room please! A lot of exploratory potency comes from that incongruence. Taking on characteristics of a symbolic other; one that we love and wish to understand fluently, but will ultimately fail to. There is power, and reclamation, in the sheer silliness of trying. I’m firmly in the camp (pun intended) of John Waters and Jack Halberstam, where living in the mud of failure can bring on new pathways of loving and understanding.
Clare Gemima: Can you explain the intention behind your painting Five Souls. For Colorado Springs (2022)?
Mark Zubrovich: Being an artist in the studio can be difficult because art is simultaneously work and therapy. I painted this at a moment when I was very much not thinking about being in the studio, but being there was what I needed more than anything. When the mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs happened I was focused on preparing for Miami art week and the imminent holiday season. But the thing I’ve learned about grief is that it’s not something you can just put away and deal with later.
I needed to paint Five Souls. For Colorado Springs because there is a unique pain when something like the Club Q shooting happens. A common talking point on the political right is that they have no animosity towards LGBT people, and they simply wish for us to stay tucked away in our bars and our bedrooms. But when one of those supposed safe spaces was attacked, their reaction was to handwave and victim blame; to imply that this violence is a tragic but natural reaction to queer people pushing their visibility “too far”. Their response betrays a malicious dishonesty, and a desire to dehumanize when their rhetoric results in victimization. Victims, especially those in marginalized groups, are often just treated as statistics or pawns. They’re not remembered for their vibrancy, their silliness, their idiosyncrasies. We don’t even remember their names. Which are, by the way: Daniel Aston, Ashley Paugh, Derrick Rump, Kelly Loving, and Raymond Green Vance. I didn’t know them, but I still felt their loss.
Clare Gemima: When I came to your studio late last year, we discussed your personal interest in the Furry community, and I am wondering how much it plays a part in your overall painting practice?
Mark Zubrovich: It’s not uncommon for people to have trouble putting the puzzle pieces together as to where I’ve developed my visual language. It starts to make a little more sense when I tell them that my dad is a deacon in the catholic church, and my mom works for a corporation that makes and distributes halloween costumes.
That is to say that I have a lot of influences both art historical and contemporary that brought my painting practice to where it is now. But, looking at the big picture, embracing furry was basically inevitable. It would be dishonest of me to imply that I was making my work and then just happened upon the furry subculture coincidentally; I've had an affinity for its imagery and subversive nature since adolescence. But it was a process for me to be more open about that connection. There is a “cringe” factor there, where people see a very outwardly silly aesthetic filled with goofy costumes and kinky pageantry, and wonder how anyone could ever take it seriously. Some are actively disgusted by it. And honestly? I hope those people stay confused and away, respectively. I actually attended my first furry convention in 2022, and it will not be
my last. One of the reasons I’ve begun painting on burlap is because I want to reference the tactility of the fursuits I saw and hugged. Perhaps at some point Bruce will enter the third dimension and we will share a body, made of thread and faux fur! Only time will tell…
Clare Gemima: You showed Bruce Bites and Self Portrait (Bruce with my Body Problems), (both 2022), at last year's Untitled Art fair in Miami. How do you think your work was received there?
Mark Zubrovich: It was my first Miami art week, and it was so chaotic! I was very happy to have those pieces showing. The work seemed well received, and I was pleasantly surprised to see other artists at Untitled working with similar themes. Shoutout to Chase Barney and Emma Steinkraus!
Clare Gemima: You are currently showing paintings in a group show at Moosey art gallery in London, and planning an upcoming show at Func Gallery in Shanghai. During your preparation of these two bodies of work, what painting has become the most important to you in the process?
Mark Zubrovich: I can pinpoint a shift in my approach to this body of work with the piece SMELL-O-VISION, which is showing with Func this February in Shanghai. This painting was a huge push forward in my work in letting the color and the gesture tell the narrative as much as the composition and the rendering. One of the struggles of being a figurative painter who takes a lot from imagination, is figuring out when to let the paint do the talking. There’s a very dangerous and deadly compulsion to over-render, and/or over-explain. To have things be the color or shape you are imagining, rather than the color or shape they should be on canvas (or in this case jute). This piece, which depicts Bruce having a erotic-psychedelic experience sniffing a dirty shoe, could have been much more rendered out. I could have filled in Bruce with his signature cobalt blue fur. But in restraining my color and leaving exploratory marks intact, this becomes not only about sniffing a big ole shoe, but also becomes a push and pull between breath and density. Of muted browns and scalding hot fluorescents.
Clare Gemima: Having just turned 30, you’re a young painter based in New York City. How difficult has it been to establish your practice and maintain its progressive trajectory? How many years have you been working on it?
Mark Zubrovich: It is no easy task surviving in this city! I’m lucky to be a native New Yorker, so I’ve been able to find my feet in the art world over a longer period of time than most who move here. I’ve also been lucky in finding a day-job in the museum world, who believe it or not, are more empathetic to artists than most other fields. The key in finding and keeping that foothold was persistence, I think. I got my BFA in 2015, and I’ve never been to graduate school. Staying outside of grad-level academia forced me to find new ways to participate, doing tons of studio visits and joining dedicated in-person critique groups. Also going to about one million art openings. It sounds schmaltz, but I very much would not have continued my practice long after school if not for the community I’ve surrounded myself with. When you lift up your friends, they lift you up too.
Clare Gemima: What's on the horizon for 2023? How often will you be getting to make in the studio, and where will you be showing? Do you have any plans for upcoming residencies?
Mark Zubrovich: I've got some really exciting stuff coming up in the next year! Ive got a 3 person show at LVL3 in Chicago with artists Betsy Odom and Alyssa Kazew coming up in January. Soon after that I'm showing an exciting selection of work alongside Jackon Casady in Los Angeles during Frieze week with Richard Heller Gallery. And come spring, I'll be heading over to the UK for a residency with Moosey Art that will culminate in a solo show in London. Doing residences is one of my favorite things about being an artist, so that's something I'm really looking forward to. So, no matter what, I'll be in one studio or another a LOT in 2023! WM
Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.view all articles from this author