Zack Bent | What the Camera Found

Essay by Willie Fitzgerald | Photographs by Eirik Johnson

Just south of Cle Elum there’s a swath of forest where hundreds of burnt pine trees dive into the sky. A fire raged there sometime in 2014, one of so many that summer. Now the area is a moonscape, a graveyard, a monument. It’s also where the multidisciplinary artist Zack Bent has been working for the past half-year or so, arranging sculptures and photographing them alongside his wife, the artist Gala Bent, and their three sons.

Doing a “studio visit” with Zack Bent is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, Bent and I talked in the space he shares with his wife (it’s in SODO, in the shadow of the iron tortoise shell of the baseball stadium; there are racks of lumber for the sculptures Bent makes, and a work table covered in Gala’s colorful, complex paintings), but Bent makes the majority of his work on location.

Like this forest fire in the Cascades. The photographs Bent has been shooting there will be part of his solo exhibition “Spires”, which opens at the Seattle Pacific Art Center Gallery on January 21st. In one photo Bent’s family stands near some bone-white wooden pyramids. In another, Bent’s son regards a black canvas strung between two burnt trees, a makeshift tent slackened into loose strata. In yet one more, taken sometime over the summer, his sons and his wife kick up a small cloud of ashen dust.

The Bents are out of place in this black and gray wasteland, but many of the photos still exude playfulness, joy, a sense of motion temporarily suspended. Some, unsurprisingly, take on a more somber mood. There’s something unavoidably apocalyptic about the juxtaposition of this towheaded child and the scorched landscape. It feels reverential and foreboding. That could be just oversimplified symbology—forest fires are also opportunities for new growth and rebirth; Bent found this site when foraging for morel mushrooms, which frequently grow the spring after a forest fire.

Even in this wild—and wildly fraught—setting, the object of Bent’s artistic investigation remains domesticity, the home and the family unit. (His children are wandering through an ashen scar in the Cascades, but they’re still his children). Bent is curious about the myriad small things that happen in a domestic space when we aren’t looking at them, the moments of stillness and silent progression: “What happens if you just stop? What happens if you’re a photograph?”

A few of his older pieces take this idea of long focus to an extreme: one jar of honey empties into another, a viscous hourglass. In another video, clear rendered fat begins to whirl as it hardens to opacity. I remember a piece that Bent made for “In The Absence of…,” a group show at the Greg Kucera Gallery curated by Klara Glosova and Sierra Stinson. Bent made a video, playing on a loop on a flatscreen TV, of a young boy alone in a forest (“Heavy Matter I”; there was also a platform made from blackened logs placed in front of the video, in retrospect an obvious prelude to his current exhibition). The video defied its own medium—nothing seemed to happen. And then I looked closer. The boy was swaying slightly, trying to hold his pose. It was this attempt—the approach toward stillness and its failure—that lured me in. From the TV I could hear rain falling, a soft static.

If the domestic space is the area of focus for Bent, what fuels his artistic process is the constant tension between arrangement and occurrence. “I have to put something in place where something will happen, so I can find something that can break my own system.”

Trained as an architect, it’s difficult for him to work without a blueprint. “When my oldest son was five, we did a thing at Vermillion with Lincoln Logs, and he just wanted to build things. I had to tell him, ‘You can’t just build something, we have to figure what we’re going to do and then build it.’”

But, at the same time: “I’ve always been mesmerized by really intuitive work where it just seems like things come together by chance—what I’d describe as ‘what the camera found’ as opposed to ‘what I made.’”

So Bent sets up environments where this sort of organic, unplanned moment might occur. This might be his sons’ heads, thanks to a trick in perspective, melding into one unit, or it might a particularly forlorn or enigmatic expression on his wife’s face.

It’s a process that, especially as his sons grow older (the oldest is not yet a teenager) and express more of their own personal and artistic agency, requires some diplomacy. “I’ve started to take on more of a directorial role”— I first misheard this as “dictatorial” before he corrected me—“and I’ve started to dangle more carrots. Cheeseburgers, milkshakes.”

With sculpture, it’s harder for Bent to buck against his inner architect. “To build something, I have to build it right. It has to be right. I can’t just tape up the corners and call it good. It’s just not my personality.” Many of Bent’s sculptures are made from ¾”x ¾” pine lumber and have a sturdy, geometric feel to them, like scaffolding for a building only he can see.

Bent has a reluctant, nearly adversarial relationship with sculpture. He started out wanting to be a painter, and he seems most animated when we talk about the image—the living moment as it is captured, preserved, and flattened into two dimensions.

Still, the craft of sculpture, and its material investment, is unavoidably attractive. For Bent, sculpture is more than the creation of an object, it is the process of “confounding [its] materials”—in other words confusing and expanding the possibilities lying dormant in oak, stone, or simple pine.

I think about an aphorism from the Italian artist Fausto Melotti: “The true artist does not love or respect his material: it is always on trial, and everything can go completely wrong.” Love, for Melotti, can sour to hate; respect is too cold and formal a distance. It is only in the confrontational, liminal space of the trial that an artist can simultaneously engage with and be free from their work. (That in turn makes me think of a Smog lyric: “We are constantly on trial/ It’s a way to be free”).

In this sense, Bent’s work is perpetually testifying against itself, the loose improvisation of his photography cross-examining the tight Euclidean architecture of his sculpture. Everything, as Melotti says, can go completely wrong. But for Bent, it’s in the going wrong—the sudden, spontaneous defiance against the ordered system—that the real piece emerges.

Hidden in Plain Sight | Interview with Eirik Johnson

Video by Canh Nguyen | Images Courtesy of Eirik Johnson

Sierra Stinson: Can you describe the initial catalyst and what led to the series WE WERE HERE?

Eirik Johnson: I somewhat literally stumbled upon the project.  As I was navigating down a trail by flashlight on a Winter’s twilight nature walk with my son, the spotlight of my torch fell upon a carving reading “I LOVE LIANNE”.  Lit in the aquamarine glow of the flashlight, the statement seemed imbued with romantic mystery.  It reminded me of the final scene from one of my favorite films Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood For Love”, in which the main character whisper’s his memory of unrequited love into a column and covers it with mud.  He leaves that memory of love there and walks away.


How many have you gleaned since the beginning of this project?

I’ve “scouted” hundreds of them, and photographed most likely over 100.  From those, I’ve edited the final group down quite a bit.  If you were to come upon me looking for these carvings, you’d probably think I was crazy, as I methodically walk around the trunk of each tree in a park slowly investigating.


Where are they geographically from? 

They’re from all over the place, but mainly the West Coast.  Some are from the Northwest and many are from the L.A. area which is covered with carvings.  A lot of what makes these images interesting are not only what’s been carved into the tree, but the tree itself.  In L.A. you might find a beautiful Eucalyptus or a charred palm tree that’s been carved.  In the Northwest it might be an Alder, Madrona, or Fir.

You have a different process for each piece. Can you explain the variations and how you decide on them for presenting each phrase or word photographically.

I think about this work as a sort of collaborative performance.  It starts of course with the carving itself and the emotions (love, alienation, eulogy) that have been left upon the tree and how they each make me feel when I find them.  My process has been one of response to each carving and to the tree.  Perhaps the carving is nostalgic, perhaps it’s filled with angst.  The tree’s bark might remind me of a lunar surface or the skin of an elephant.  I try to be open to all of these influences and then decide on a direction for each photograph.  The exposures are made at dusk or in the evening and I use a whole host of lighting techniques to illuminate them, from sparklers, fire, gel filters, prismatic light, and moonlight.


Have you participated in the act of carving your own message into a tree? If yes or no / why?

I have not.  I’m a really curious person and love the idea of encountering something hidden, even when it’s in plain sight.  Coming upon a particularly intriguing carving is like discovering a fragmented line from a short story.  Carving into a tree is such a transgressive act, one both violent and touching.  I’m more interested in responding to these acts and creating something new from it.

There are quite a few lyrics that you have found, I am curious what your playlist would be for this series.

There’s a really strong connection to music in the work.  I imagine that many of these carvings are made at a time when you’re young and obsessed by that one band or that one lyric.  When I first found “The Smith’s”, I could almost see in that carving the same shaky ballpoint pen handwriting from the old mix-tapes we would make in middle and high school.  I love that aspect to the work and frankly, music is often on my mind when I’m deciding how to illuminate the carvings.  As for which songs would be on my playlist, it’s all over the place.  Everything from REM’s cover of the Everly Brothers “All I Have to Do Is Dream” to Talking Heads “Psycho Killer”.  My intention for this project is actually to work with musicians to create a mixtape that would accompany a book of these photographs.


Which one of these carvings struck the deepest chord for you and why?

I was left particularly startled when I came upon the titular carving “WE WERE HERE”.  I had first discovered it a year before, in the trees of a Los Angeles park.  It had been freshly carved and while I photographed it that initial visit, I wasn’t happy with how the image looked.  I returned a year later and found that the tree had begun to heal, the carving fading away but still visible on the smooth surface of the bark, as if a scar on the body receding with time.  Those faded words “we were here”, declaring one’s existence, reminded me of hiking in the Peruvian Andes and coming upon shards of Inca pottery, an immediate physical connection with the past no matter how recent or long ago.  This carving and others, like the carved hand, touch upon our desire to remain, to communicate, to connect.

It seems like it’s been very intuitive project and took you on a journey, when do you think you will be done with it? Or will you always be searching for these messages left behind?

This has been quite a different journey for me than previous projects and yes, one in which I’ve really followed my intuition, the proverbial “gut feeling”.  Honestly, I’ll always be looking for these carvings hidden in plain sight.  As far as the project goes however, I envision it as a story made up of signs and just like a good story it needs a tight edit from beginning to end.  I’ve been working away on this for nearly four years and I think I’m reaching the end of this story.


Maggie Carson Romano // WELL
at Glass Box Gallery

January 9, 2016

The benefits of erasure / passing time’s starring role in the process of healing / forgetting / remembering / the ebb and flow of losses and gains when wellness is no longer effortless / the tenderness needed for extreme care.

Quiet Alter

Julia Freeman // Quiet Alter
at Glass Box Gallery

January 9, 2016

Quiet Alter is an exhibition by Julia Freeman that confronts and indulges in the history of psychopharmacology, the pharmaceutical industry and their hidden but understood affects on our culture. As a way to expose the use and abuse of the industries and medications, Freeman uses collage, sculpture, video, a board game, and a written essay by Cristien Storm, to create an installation about how pharmaceuticals are quietly altering our world.