I first met Tino Zago when he and his wife, Dolores, moved into the apartment above me on Orange Street in New Haven, Connecticut. He was studying post-graduate Fine Art at Yale. I was studying at Southern Connecticut State to become an art teacher. We each had our own studios and we often engaged in the kinds of active, art-aware activities and conversations that absorb young artists trying to assert their right to make fully expressive art. Zago was very far ahead of me on that score. He remained true to his goal of becoming a life-long fine artist.
Even back then, in 1968, Zago was working on what I considered to be a very large scale. I can recall seeing works that were 8’x12′, or at least in that range. These were big, bold, richly textured works, built up in many layers of rapidly applied, energetic brush strokes that were alluding to calligraphic application, yet constantly overlapping, building a massive tapestry of thickly-textured colour, providing a veritable history of the creation of the work to the discerning eye.
We went our separate ways, but never lost touch completely. I went from teaching to television production, then back to teaching before retiring. Tino and Dolores moved to New York’s Little Italy in lower Manhattan, where Zago painted and drew and painted and drew.
Over the years, word reached me that they were spending part of their year in Venice, not far from Zago’s birthplace. Then word reached me that they were spending another part of their year in a rustic cottage in Mushaboom, Nova Scotia.
One of the things I’ve always liked about abstract art is that it allows a full range of expression to the artist and it allows for variation in interpretation. The interpretation part of the viewing experience can be involving, as figurative references are often purposely ambiguous in nature. A painting can be read for both its formal and its evocative visual elements, irrespective of any narrative that may be posited.
In Zago’s work since 1987, one sees the combined elements of influence of place. Figurative references are minimal, allowing for ample expressive manipulation in the application of paint. Even clearly well-drawn references have been applied in low-contrast, scrubbed over, scratched in, or otherwise minimized or partially obscured such that the figures seem insubstantial, as apparitions, ghosts of figures, figures seen through haze, or figures perceived through some filter (time, culture, integrative transcendence?).
No matter whether one sees water lilies or architectural references, Zago’s work always seems to be about sensing the interactions of water, earth, light, nature and humankind. His work is about being present and appreciating the totality of place. It is about Zago’s perceptions of the place and about his expression of his personal involvement with that place. As such, the work includes references to not only the identifiably figurative, solid forms, but also the light that informs the artist, the insubstantial as well as the substantial, the spiritual as well as the material, chance occurrence and planned structure, natural growth and what mankind has done within nature. These are not simply detached observations. The expressive elements that Zago presents in his work are often declarative statements of his inclusion within that totality of place. If you like, it is the artistic version of the ‘observer effect’ in science which states that the observer can be influential upon that which is being observed. Zago seems to have an intuitive grasp of the complex interaction between the observer and the observed. He expands his vision then to include himself, through his insistence on expressive gesture in the totality of whatever place he has experienced.
Interpretation is then left to the viewer, as totality includes all possibilities from the mystical transcendence some find within nature and within what mankind has wrought therein, to the seemingly desperate miasma of life giving way to other life through death, decay and organic putrification. Either way one sees the process, Zago’s work celebrates mankind’s dance with nature not as something apart from nature or above nature but within nature. Zago’s dance of colour, texture and gesture includes the essence of spirit, but it is not fixed to the spirituality of organized religions. His totality of vision seems to celebrate his presence, and by extension, our presence, in a way that declares that we are not right or wrong, rather simply that we are! Zago’s work brings all of that to the table for people with sight and vision to feast their eyes upon and to feed their minds in turn.
Take a look!