RAFAL ZAR: A4 artist spotlight
Today we are talking to painter RAFAL ZAR, who attempts to define the world and find meaning in existence through his art. Using art as a visual description of his life RAFAL exhibits an obsessive interest in portraiture. In this artist spotlight RAFAL discusses his digital painting 'Desert Island' currently on show in the A4 group exhibition.
Image description: a landscape poster in blue showing a detail of a digital painting depicting a strange black mechanical figure spewing smoke out from a tube. Bold white text in the centre reads Rafal Zar, underneath in a smaller font reads @rafalzar.
Can you introduce yourself and give us an overview of your work?
My name is RAFAL ZAR and I’m a painter. I studied fine art and art education, specialisation easel painting, in Poland (2000-2006) and MA fine art course at Birmingham City University (2009-2012). I was born in communism, in catholic Poland in 1981 and I moved to the UK in 2006.
Painting is my primary medium but I also have a special liking for sculpture. Simply speaking I’m a figurative painter and I paint pictures from my imagination. I think that visually my art is influenced by cartoons, illustration and folk art, as much as classical / traditional paintings. I use painting as a tool to explore my mind, capture my identity. I see my art as the lot. A profound self portrait. Lifelong project. Image of a man I am. Life is a mystery. We don’t know why it happens and why everything exists. I use painting to explain my life to myself in the best way I can. To paint is to attempt to capture the meaning of my existence. I often use subconscious to create my paintings as surreal art had a tremendous influence on me during my formative years.
I display my paintings in groups in altar-like compositions. Because I paint series I always want them to be displayed as series. I rarely display single paintings. As I mentioned earlier I don’t care that much about my individual paintings. The entirety of my art matters to me. My art is a search for meaning but I’d lie if I said that I don’t care about decorativeness of my paintings…
We recently showcased your digital painting ‘Desert Island’ as part of our A4 group exhibition. Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind this piece?
Although my paintings are multi-layered in meanings and inspirations I often reach for very literal depictions. I indulge in ambiguity. For example a desert island can represent both a piece of paradise or a prison. And this is how I actually see life, as a juxtaposition of extremes. We expect to be happy in our lives, find joy and purpose, knowing it’s all in a way in vain because we may die and suffer at any given moment. My desert island represents my loneliness. I committed 3 oil paintings and the above mentioned digital painting at the beginning of 2021, when I resigned from a full time employment at school, came out of my first long term relationship and found myself in a lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic.
I struggle with connection with people, because I’m more interested in individuals who share their knowledge and experience about their life on a purely existential level. That’s why some social gatherings filled with banter and small talk do not appeal to me at the slightest. I have 2 masters degrees in arts but it doesn’t make me any wiser. I’m all about a human experience on a very basic emotional level. That’s the area of my interest, why we exist, how we feel about it, who we are, where we came from and where we’re going…
Sometimes I feel that this country is my desert island, as I escaped over here from my previous life, from the twenty-something years of family life and catholic upbringing. But then only here, after distancing myself from my former life I was really able to look at it and explore it more in depth from a different viewpoint. And only then I realised you can’t escape from yourself and I accepted that everything I have ever experienced in my life makes me, regardless whether I want it or not.
RAFAL ZAR, Desert Island, digital painting, 2020
Image description: an A4 digital painting of a desert island with a singular black palm tree surrounded by blue. Next to the tree is a strange tubular jet black figure spewing smoke from its pipe-like nose.
You have described how it's common for you to multilayer meanings within your work. Can you explain how you present this?
I want my paintings to represent my thinking process. It’s never linear like the sequence of a written text where one sentence leads to another. What happens in my brain is more like continuous flashes of random thoughts / emotions / memories, full of distortions, missing parts, and embellishments. There are millions of pieces of information currently coming to our brains through our senses and on top of that we have memories and knowledge stored in there as well. It is a mess in a way. Painting allows me to make some decisions. Choose several thoughts, emotions, sensations or conclusions and create a visual image. For example in the Desert Island we see familiarity, kitsch, cute, symbolic depiction of a piece of land surrounded by vastness of something that our mind accepts as water. We recognise a palm tree and we know it’s a desert island. Then we see the being, creature, half a human half a robot. Half buried in the sand. It can’t move, it’s trapped (just how I often tend to feel in my life). It’s condemned to last eternity (just like I want my art to last)…
Projectile explosions from its pipe-like nose represent ejaculation of semen. Sexual desire, oppression, accumulated energy waiting to explode. This is what being a young male is about. The fumes also represent human activity, industrial pollution. We are designed to destroy. We don’t coexist. We annihilate this planet. Wherever we go, even on this tiny desert island, we tend to pollute. I personally have what I call a Pocahontas philosophy, according to which I desire to be united with nature. Never destroy but preserve instead. That comes from my perception of the acute beauty of the natural world.
What were your thoughts after first seeing your artwork pasted up around the streets in Digbeth?
It’s always exciting and moving to see your creation on display. It certainly gave me a very cute sense of belonging. I felt that my artwork went so well with other pieces and I think that’s due to good curating, but I also felt it looked well in Digbeth, and that made me very happy as I only recently started realising I am a part of Birmingham art scene and galleries in Digbeth. Being greedy, I’d say I’d love to see my work in the public space on a larger scale, like a huge wall painting.
I have to say that I also felt relieved when I saw my work. Because I thought it looked well in its surroundings, and I thought I must be doing a good job as an artist deriving my inspirations from the reality that surrounds me. Birmingham combines its post-industrial history with exotic feel due to a very diverse population coming from all over the world. But that’s only my personal opinion.
Your submission was created through digital painting. Is there a reason for using a digital process rather than traditional painting and do you have a preferred approach?
Painting is more physical labour than people think. As much as I love the messiness of painting, I wanted to find a ‘clean’ and odourless medium. Physicality of easel painting restricts its accessibility. Painting on canvas has to be experienced in the flesh. In a gallery, during exhibitions. Whereas digital images can be accessed instantly, anywhere, by anyone. That excites me a lot. Digital revolution is as major as the industrial revolution has been. I am old fashioned and traditional in my way, but it’s good to be challenged sometimes. I’ll always love painting and I think it’ll always be my primary medium. I love its personal feel. I know it may seem off-putting but there are my fingerprints and some strayed body hair accidentally attached to the painting. Dust in my flat and fluff from my duvet I got from my former partner. It all makes my paintings literally loaded with my authentic life emotions. You don’t really get it all in digital paintings. I guess digital paintings could be created on any device in any place. I’m 40 years old. I have recently entered my mature years, and I just don’t want to feel outdated. That’s why I decided to challenge myself and learn how to paint digitally.
RAFAL ZAR, Emerald Devil, 50x40cm, oil on canvas, 2021
Image description: a painting of a demonic green character with white horns, large comical eyes and open mouth forming an 'o'. Sat in his mouth is a black pipe, spewing a flume of bright green smoke.
What drew you to a practice in painting? Since I remember I considered painting as the ultimate human activity. I perceived painters as magicians, priests, royals, supernatural beings. It just seemed the best, the most interesting, the most precious thing to do. I had never felt talented though and I had always been fighting that inner calling. I didn’t make much art as a child. I started in my late teens. And then for 20 years I’d refrain from calling myself an artist. Even today I tend to introduce myself as a painter rather than an artist.
There’s something very primaeval in painting. When I paint I always feel connected to millions of painters who have lived before me. I always feel a connection with early painters who created iconic cave paintings. They always are my primary inspiration. I have always enjoyed that strange connection between pure labour and intellectual efforts in the process of painting.
Where do you find inspiration for the characters within your paintings, and do you consider them to be individual characters at all?
Every painting, regardless of what's in it, is always a self portrait of an artist, and tells you what kind of a person they are. I realise I created several types of characters although I always see myself in all of them. For example I committed a few paintings in my lifetime that depict new born babies. This is a response to my biological need to procreate and experience fatherhood. I get a little bit envious of relationships, having kids and a family life. But then I’m morally incapable of creating a new homo sapiens when this planet is clearly overpopulated.
I think there’s a rather prominent character that I developed in a series of paintings titled Noski (2021) and is also represented in Desert Island. I really wanted to come up with a simple character, which would be very memorable and have the same energy as garden gnomes or cuckoo clocks. I needed a focus in my life so I created this character with just one prominent feature and it happened to be a nose-like elongated organ what also added a sexual feel, which I extremely enjoy. I like erotic humour in art. This character allows me to be very playful. I’m very interested in creating a certain mood in a painting, to recreate those exciting moments when I’m emotionally high, because they make my life so exhilarating. I’m talking now about those moments when I’m experiencing enlightenment, when there’s a sudden realisation, when a life lesson is being learnt. Also, the repetitive act of painting the portrait of the same character which inevitably represents me, gives me a sense of completeness.
Braided people is another type of character that appeared for the first time in 2014. In 2021 I wanted to develop it further and I started creating a series, which I actually named Braided People. These creatures are delicate and hardly consist of any physical matter. They are a representation of my spirit, or a soul, as every painting is a self portrait of the artist.
Braided People consist of three ingredients. Two different ribbons of their flimsy bodies represent 2 life forces. One is destructive and violent. The other one is positive. This polarisation is the outcome of my catholic upbringing. This is how I see life, morality and being a person. A struggle between the good and the evil. The third ingredient is a thin membrane with a face painted on it. This symbolises fragility of life and vulnerability of my personality. We can be easily influenced, changed, or defeated by traumatic experiences in our lives. At the same time I smile, which represents my persistent attempt to keep a good spirit and a positive outlook.
The intention behind painting Braided People is to create pictures which would remind me of keeping a positive attitude.
You describe that your work allows you to create the future by dealing on canvas with your past. How does exploring your past inform your work?
Well, I am of the opinion that for a happy life one must preserve their inner child. I always reach into my childhood memories, when you learn life without any tools, any coping mechanisms. Good thing is that as a child you don’t have the full awareness of the brutality of life. Paintings don’t come from thin air. They are always the result of past experiences. We must also not forget about the therapeutic role of art. Sometimes we go through our lives and we carry pain without even realising. Sometimes we may feel something is wrong but we don’t know what. Just sit down and start writing or painting about it. It really helps to see what’s inside you.
All of my paintings are dear to me. Some make my eyes wet because they tackle important issues. Grief, morbidly low self esteem, loneliness, body dysmorphia, suicidal thoughts, broken heart, etc. For example I quite early realised I was suffering a very low sense of humour and I was easily offended by anything and I couldn’t distance myself from triggers. I used to just take life too seriously. My art became a tool I use to refine my sense of humour and learn how to enjoy my life more and to be more relaxed.
I’ve been struggling to call myself an artist in my twenties and thirties. Now I’m forty years old. I feel I’m reaching my mature years. I only recently started writing about my art and it eventually all started making sense. I think I personally prefer art that comes from life experiences to art which is just a wild guess regarding the future. Art is a transcript of my experiences, I paint what I know or I’m learning, what’s in my head during the creative process of making art.
RAFAL ZAR, God’s Eye, 100x80cm, oil on canvas, 2015
Image description: a painting of a personified eye with an intense blue pupil staring out of the frame. Legs spring from the eye and wear black glossy wellies.
What one thing would you like to change about the art industry today?
Talking about my experience regarding art education…teaches me skills how not to be an artist. As an artist you’re creative, you will find your way but you’ll struggle if you don’t have any craft. I regret that I have never learned more traditional drawing and painting techniques. I find technique more challenging than actual creative process.
Another issue is to do with changes not just in the art industry but rather in society. Art is a carrier of values. We seemed to forget that we need values to flourish as individuals and as the human kind. I don’t understand why art as a school subject is trivialised and its importance undermined.
And lastly, I’d like to see people getting together. The art world is very diverse, eclectic and fragmented. I always talk about art bubbles, and by this phrase I mean for example academics and art students, private galleries and collectors, public galleries and museums, independent artists initiatives, etc. I’d love to see more interactions between different art bubbles. I don’t even know why. I just like uniting people more than dividing them.
Many of your paintings contain a noticeable horizon line. Can you tell us about the significance of including this?
The most significant and characteristic thing in my art is a simplified line of a horizon that is present in every single oil painting I have produced within last 20 years. This is what I perceive as rather more conceptual side of my art. The act of painting that line is like a ticking clock. The gage of my own design that measures my time in this world. I know it’ll stop one day, and repeating the same action helps me to prepare myself for the end of my self. I think this comes from my inspirations of art of Roman Opalka which I learned about as a child. One of my very first inspirations was the art of Salvador Dali. I loved his landscapes and I noticed they were quite gimmicky. I saw a simple recipe for creating a scene where the action could take place. Later on I fell in love with paintings of Rothko. I’m not too keen on abstraction in painting but I always felt good about Rothko.
I have to mention that there’s a religious aspect of painting that horizon. I think in Christian tradition the sky is often identified with heaven. Although I rejected the religion I was brought up with and I declare myself as an avid atheist, I still look for divinity in my life. I find it in understanding my life on a very personal level. Life is divine, reality is divine, my conscious understanding of existing is divine. I don’t need churches, priests and all the structures to experience divinity though. My divinity is my faith in the act of painting the line of horizon in every single painting throughout my life. I limited myself in the most dumb way, but yet I find some weird freedom in it. It’s like some sort of an axiom, a constant power, certainty. This is what ZAR is about. I also like the symbolic aspect of a horizon. I think it represents the unknown, and it gives some hope. I think everyone has a moral duty in their lives to progress, to become better selves. Life is a journey to discover what’s behind the horizon.
RAFAL ZAR, Happy Indigo Smoker, 50x40cm, oil on canvas, 2021
Image description: a painting of a grey figure with a smirking expression and large glazed eyes. It has a white cigar in his mouth emitting a plume of smoke. Its pipe-like nose similarly emits a smaller plume of smoke.
Do you have any upcoming projects you are starting work on or anything you are currently creating?
I desire to keep progressing as a person and a painter. I feel that the time at the end of 2021 has been very intense for me and so now I am hoping for some quiet time in my studio. I always look forward to seeing my own new works. You know, I’m not the same person as I was 2 weeks ago and we aren’t living in the same world as we did yesterday. Everything is changing, Panta Rhei, and I’m always excited about how I respond to changes. There are silly and super basic things in my head, like I’ve experienced recently that persistent desire to paint holly leaves and berries. Perhaps these trees are more visible this time of the year as other deciduous trees are bare. Perhaps I just started noticing them subconsciously and I feel sharp yet not life threatening emotional pain which could be represented by prickly holly spikes and I like that symbolic representation.
There’s always something going on, interesting talks with different individuals and institutions but I wouldn’t want to reveal anything until it’s more formal. I am thinking about another solo exhibition in 2022 as I have loads of paintings never displayed before and I want to see my babies exhibited on gallery walls. It kind of validates them and is a good opportunity to sell.
Always remember to keep following your dreams.
You are who you want to be.
If you would like to see more of RAFAL's work you can find more on his website as well as on Instagram @rafalzar.
RAFAL's work alongside others can still be viewed in our A4 group exhibition on our website as well as physical locations around Digbeth.