Damn, I really did just open with that line, didn’t I? Ugh. I promise, the rest of this article will be much better. Though I hate to employ such a terribly overused cliché it isn’t entirely wrong. A painting is just a painting unless it makes you feel something. I can respect the craftsmanship and technique of almost any painter, sculptor, or designer around but unless they make me feel something, unless they can speak to my soul through the medium they’ve chosen, I just can’t think of it as art. Chet Zar speaks in a bizarre and unsettling language through brush strokes, sketches, and sculptures that capture the surreal and the macabre in the most beautifully strange ways imaginable.
A lifelong artist and enthusiast of the strange and unusual, Zar is the stepson of the late James Zar who was known as The Still Life Magician. Chet Zar has made a name for himself in the art world for his dark, smoky scenes of otherworldly creatures and portraits of beings who are literally the stuff of nightmares. He’s also an accomplished digital animator and make-up effects artist who has worked for years with the band Tool and on film projects such as The Ring and Hell Boy 2: The Golden Army. From the brief biography on his website his passion for the strange comes from a deep connection to the dark imagery and feelings of fear, anxiety, and isolation often portrayed in horror; feelings that most fans of the genre can relate to on an intensely personal level.
He recently took some time to talk to me about his career, his art, and his plans for the future.
Dan- I know how things work in a publishing setting. You write a manuscript, submit it to a publisher, and if they buy it then it ends up in print for people to read. How does it work in the art world? What’s the process involved from creation to observation?
Chet- You create your work, post it online and try to develop a collector base. You go to gallery shows and network and try and get in other shows.
Dan- Artists (and writers and musicians etc...) often cite their inspirations, be it other artists or works of art that have influenced their own style. Who or what would you consider to have been the most significant influence to you?
Chet- My stepfather was an artist and a big influence on me. I learned a lot growing up around a working art studio. Frazetta was a big influence as well as the Polish artist Beksinski. But it was also Mad Magazine, horror comics, horror films….there isn’t really one thing I can point to.
Dan- I know there are various painting styles in the realms of art and I’ve seen you listed as “low brow” and “pop surreal” but I’d like to know what you would consider to be your “style?”
Chet- I consider what I do “Dark Art”. I didn’t invent the term but I noticed that was what people were calling it and that is fine with me. Terms like that are usually established by the public. I think it’s better to go with an existing term that is being used instead of trying to coin a new term yourself. It’s ultimately not that important in the grand scheme of things so I’m not too hung up on it.
Dan- There’s an element of sentience to a lot of your work with subjects that seem to not only be aware of their observers but of themselves as well. Do you ever find yourself haunted by some of your own creations?
Chet- No, never. I don’t find my paintings scary. I think I am too close to them to find them scary or haunting. I think that is probably why I started drawing monsters in the first place. As a kid I used them as a way to gain a sense of mastery over my fears.
Dan- While every painting tells a unique story many of your pieces have similar elements to them, almost like a shared universe. Is there a larger story being told through some of your paintings?
Chet- There definitely is but I was not really aware of it until I started thinking about it. I am in the process of creating a book that attempts to explain it all called Dy5topia: A Field Guide to the Dark Universe of Chet Zar.
Dan- You spent some time working in the film industry on movies like The Ring and Hellboy. While everything I’ve read suggest these weren’t the best of days for you, what can you tell me about your experiences in movie making?
Chet- Actually, my experience in the film industry on a whole was fantastic. It was the little things that got to bugging me- the endless meddling design obstruction from studio execs who didn’t even know what a good design was, the lack of time and money to do things properly, etc. But I now realize that my biggest issue was that I was not getting to create my own work. Once I was able to get out from under that career and make the switch to fine art, I was much happier with my time in the industry, if that makes sense. When I first got out I was kind of bitter about it but upon reflection, it was a great job and I was very fortunate to be able to work alongside some of the best artists in the business. That really helped me to develop into the artist I am today.
Dan- In an interview you did for Creep Machine in 2007 you mentioned that you would love to spend more time sculpting, even doing an all sculpture show. Is that something that fans might see happen somewhere down the line?
Chet- Yes, absolutely. It’s just a matter of the usual- time and money. Sculptures can take longer than paintings and then there is the molding and casting process, which adds to the difficulty of making an entire show possible. But it is possible and it will definitely happen one day.
Dan- With the advances in 3D technology and 3D printing, would you ever consider bringing some of your work to life through this medium?
Chet- I have done a couple of 3d prints of my sculpture work- shrinking down larger sculptures and in one case up sizing one. I love it and plan on doing more.
Dan- How do you find yourself to have grown as an artist through the years? How does your work today differ now from when your career first began?
Chet- That is a great question. Aside from just being more proficient at painting I think my style and design aesthetic has become more distinctive. I feel like I really know my way around the world I create with my artwork a lot better. It’s easier to create work now than it was when I first started. I also feel that I really became my more authentic self through the process of creating my own work. I am kind of a different person in many ways than when I first started.
Dan- Is there any medium you haven’t worked in yet that you’d like to try?
Chet- Interpretive dance. Not really. But seriously, I would like to try abstract expressionism. Looks like fun and I think it is harder than it looks.
Dan- As a creator, is there any piece in particular that holds some special affection or sentimentality for you? Do you have a favorite that you’ve made over the years?
Chet- Black Magick, for a few reasons. It’s one of my strongest character paintings and he is really kind of like my mascot at this point. I really wish I still had it, but the money was welcome at the time of the sale. Also, I know the collector who owns it (Cris Velasco), so I can visit it if I ever want to.
Dan- If you could offer some words of advice to your younger self or to new artists starting on their journey today, what might you say?