Ernest Zacharevic found the time and space to paint freely amid the anxiety of the past two years
The lockdowns that weighed heavily on many during the pandemic gave Ernest Zacharevic the luxury of time and unfettered creativity. Confined to his studio-home in Penang, the multidisciplinary artist known for his street murals felt free to create art for art’s sake.
The result is Everything will be alright — a colossal work featuring compositions of children in primary colors on assembled canvases — which is specific and personal to him in many ways.
“What makes it personal is the fact that I haven’t done it for anyone or anything,” Zacharevic says, looking back on the past two years. “I wasn’t looking to satisfy a client or stick to a theme or monetize it commercially. I really didn’t stop myself from building this piece. Sometimes when painting you think a piece is a little too big or maybe you just don’t have the time. This one had no limits. I really enjoyed the process.
The work captures children playing against white backgrounds and in grids of black lines, separated by blocks of red, blue and yellow – a reference to Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, who used colors , shapes and textures to achieve its effect. There are pieces of burnt canvas and a sculpture of a figure with a fire extinguisher, recently added, standing in front of the whole work.
The young characters on the canvas are based mostly on family members and the children of friends, youngsters that Zacharevic has used in different projects and seen growing up over the years.
“It’s a bittersweet piece, very positive and colorful as well as very uncertain, with dark moments. That’s kind of what I want to convey: being positive in dark times. »
The title of the 16m by 4m creation went to Lithuanian-born Zacharevic as the coronavirus posed problems and unanswered questions. Lately, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has occupied his mind. He says: “There is a feeling of fear and anxiety in my country and the worst case scenario seems to be very bad. It’s hard to talk to my friends and family [whom he has not seen for almost three years].
“Nothing in our situation now says that everything is fine. But we all have moments of brightness — our Zoom call with family, our morning chat time. Little things can make you feel like all is well at the time.
“I’m always optimistic and I believe a better day will come. Emotionally and in my mind, I feel content not trying to change what I can’t change and just focusing on the things that are between my hands.
The work kept him sane and what he enjoyed the most during the isolation was being able to do what he loves, “just creating works of art and making them for no reason, without the clamor from the exhibitions, with no clients sitting behind my back and judging every stroke. It was emotionally and artistically very refreshing for me to spend those two years solely focused on my work. It kept my sanity in place.
The single lens led to a creative flow that he is now ready to share, including the pieces that make up Everything will be alright, a project that took its first steps in 2015, when he painted a mural in the United States on the same theme. “I thought it would transfer really well to a canvas,” says Zacharevic.
This is obviously the case. A canvas he later painted and exhibited at the Ritz Carlton, Millenia Singapore received many requests. But it was too big to fit in anyone’s house and people kept asking him to sell half, quarter or even parts of it.
“I liked the idea that the work wasn’t salable in terms of scale, so I started thinking about how it could be expanded, maybe adding elements as it went along. was growing.” He regrets having sold some sections at the beginning because “I did them as a whole and, when people take a [part], it disturbs the balance and the process of the whole piece. At some point, I decided not to show the work to the public until it was ready”.
Each segment of Everything will be alright is a separate piece of canvas measured to fit the whole frame. They were shaped in different places over the years and then assembled according to a working chart.
“I’ve changed studios several times over the years. Whenever I was overseas I would paint a section and roll it up and send it to Penang [home for him and his wife, model and embroidery artist Sheena Liam], then paint another section somewhere else, mainly because I was traveling a lot before the pandemic. I also had to break the piece up into sections because I didn’t have the luxury of working on something of this magnitude all at once.
There are white spaces in the frame where he can add characters and Zacharevic, who finds REXKL a perfect place for the project and the concept, thinks it could still happen. “The play is ready to be viewed, but I don’t think it’s the end. I see it evolving and changing in the future. I hope to show it in new places later, with things added, things changed. Like the incorporation of complete projections of screens, video parts and elements.
He is preparing for an exhibition in Europe, originally scheduled for May but now likely to be postponed. He is currently one of four artists involved in Jump places; Journeys of Mind, Spirit and Heart (February 24 to April 10) at Singapore’s Art Porters Gallery, organized to show what street artists have been up to since the coronavirus upended lives.
Apart from painting, Zacharevic has also been busy with Cultprint Editions, a print studio he established in 2020 when travel restrictions prevented him from having his work printed in the UK and France. Before Covid-19 imposed “a health break”, he raised funds for an orangutan conservation and relocation project in Indonesia, important work he hopes to continue eventually.
Zacharevic prefers not to give answers through his art, letting visitors interpret what they see and what it means to them so that they too can be part of the work. In the decade since his first constructive public art project – murals of two siblings on a bicycle and another of a boy on an old motorbike next to a backdoor, a collaboration with the 2012 George Town Festival – there have been mixed opinions about the facilities which locals and overseas visitors alike flock to.
“When we started it was an innocent project of passion. Now it seems to affect communities and their environment, some positively, some not. Some people appreciate that Penang is known for its murals; others aren’t as keen on the influx of tourists and reliance on local business tourism, so I try to be very careful of where and when I install things in the streets.
A happy result of the street paintings is that the spiraling strokes that make up the attire of his figures and the dripping paint blotches from the sleeves and hemlines are now iconic touches in his art. Fast hits mean speed, which is crucial since it takes around two hours to complete a painting outdoors.
“What started as a practice slowly became my style. When you do ‘unauthorized’ work on a wall, you have to be very, very quick. When you’re painting and people come and yell at you, you run. Has he ever had to toddle around with brushes and paint? “I don’t run. I talk to get by. Most people don’t care because the ideas are pretty positive.”
Having a studio at home allows Zacharevic to work indoors. Does having a wife who is also an artist mean more inspiration and drive to create? “Absolutely! I call her my artistic director and the things that I do, I check in with her. Sheena is very talented and has a good eye, but we try not to interfere in each other’s careers. We sometimes ask advice, but I think we’re both too opinionated to follow it blindly.
Everything will be alright sees Zacharevic launch his first non-fungible token (NFT). Smaller versions of the hand-finished prints will be released one by one so people can collect his works. He sees NFTs as a natural evolution of art and the pandemic has forced technology to democratize it and make it more accessible to everyone. He learns about ethical, effective and practical ways to do so.
“I think NFTs have the ability to take art even further and make it independent of producers, labels and galleries to help artists, especially those working in the digital space. I call them artists, a whole generation of Instagrammers and influencers who do so much creative content that doesn’t fit into any traditional art framework. They are dancers and performers and create visual and digital art, which should be recognized as art. NFTs are a way for them to secure a place in the art world.
“Everything Will Be Fine” runs until March 22 at REXKL, Jalan Sultan, Kuala Lumpur. Click here for more details.
This article was first published on March 14, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.