EXHIBITION VISIT – ZACHARY Z. HANDLER

ZACHARY Z. HANDLER

Zevel at Terrault Gallery

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The night I called my grandfather to tell him I finally got my Hebrew name, “Zevel,” I used the landline phone in my father’s jewelry studio where he sat next to me while making this ring. My grandfather, an Orthodox Jew and president of his shul, was so upset that my Hebrew school teacher had given me a name that means “trash” that he called the school himself to complain. Archival pigment print, 20 x 20 in, 2019

November, 2019

Conversation between Zach Handler and Amy Boone-McCreesh

THE TITLE OF THE SHOW, “ZEVEL,” IS RELATED TO AN EXPERIENCE YOU HAD AS A CHILD, CAN YOU EXPLAIN THIS AND DISCUSS THE CONNECTIONS FROM THEN TO THIS EXHIBITION?

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The name was always a source of humor for me because it’s so ridiculous. Why would you give someone a name where you don’t know what it means? People nowadays have names where you ask them what it means and they don’t know. To receive a Hebrew name is a bit of a rite of passage. here’s an importance that surrounds it. I was so excited to come home and tell my parents because we don’t speak Hebrew at all. I told my mom when I was like 6 or 7 and when I told my grandfather–before I could even finish saying the word–he told me to put my mother on the phone, which I can remember very clearly. And then I hear my mom yell, “WHAAAAAT?! I’m calling the shul right now!” Shul is another word for a Jewish temple. And then my grandfather, who was an Orthodox Jew, spoke fluent Hebrew, and was president of his shul tells my mom the he”s going to call himself. My grandfather called and the next time I went to Hebrew school, which was only a few nights per week, they renamed me Zachariah (emphasis on the “ch”) which means “God remembers.” 

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Zevel means “trash or garbage, or a really undesirable person.” 

I think it was totally unintentional, the teacher had no idea what it really meant. I learned in the research for my show that Zeveloff means chickenshit, which is hysterical. I googled Zevel and one of the search results was, “So I just found out my last name means chickenshit.” So anytime anyone ever asked me my Hebrew name, post Bar Mitzvah until I was maybe 17, would always be funny to me. Funny that someone gave me a name, at a moment of passage, and didn’t know what it meant.

The title of the show was always Zevel because that story was really important to me. Originally, I was thinking this series of photographs would talk about names that are given to us–both wanted and unwanted, and how we internalize those. That’s not to say the series of photographs was going to be darker, but through an exploration of things I saved, I found some of the memories were dark or sad. But I kept all these little mementos, never knowing I would ever do a show with them. I didn’t believe I was trash, but I wondered if I had internalized that in anyway growing up. I came to realize that I didn’t internalize it because we always joked about it in my family. That being said, I never later researched what the word meant beyond trash until this show. The last definition about being a disreputable person blew my mind because I’m confronted with this idea that, wait,  did I internalize that part at a young age? And then I went through this whole backwards cycle of figuring out that I hadn’t.

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The connection that came about later was that I’m making treasures out of my trash. I don’t consider these things trash at all. What someone else might throw away, I would pick up out of the trash if it was an important moment. I also go to thrift stores and dumpster dive all the time–that kind of fun stuff. That’s become a lifestyle for me; thrifting and trying not to buy new stuff as often as possible.

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WHAT TYPES OF CHALLENGES DID YOU FACE WITH THIS SHOW?

This series of photos came about from two (self-imposed) challenges. I’ve never done still life photography. Never did studio lighting, set up objects, or have a seamless backdrop. It’s not that it scared me, it’s just something I’d never done . So I set out on that challenge. The other challenge, which I didn’t succeed at at all , was purging. I was thinking about moving to a smaller space, and instead of getting rid of stuff I’ve had for 20+ years, I ended up getting more stuff.

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As punishment, my mother used to drop me off at the driving range. These were the directions that came with the rubber cover I was to fit atop my set of neon-colored golf clubs. Archival pigment print, 20 x 20″, 2019

So I wanted to photograph the things I saved, and the only way I know how is by photographing them intentionally, to memorialize them. So I did a set up and it felt good to make them into art. I ended up photographing the mementos with a bunch of stuff I’d thrifted, and some things I’d also saved from growing up, but all in all I ended up collecting more things! After I’d done that, I should have put the memento in the trash because the whole point was to memorialize it and then let it go. But I couldn’t do it. Not a thing. It’s all still saved at home or, of course, on the walls right now.

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From the moment I was born on October 31, 1980, everything in my bedroom was rainbow themed. I had rainbow sheets, rainbow bedspreads, rainbow blinds, rainbow toys, rainbow pillowcases, rainbow mobiles, you name it. Archival pigment print, 20 x 20″, 2019

I ALSO HAVE A GREAT AFFINITY FOR OBJECTS, I ALWAYS WONDER IF IT IS BECAUSE OF CHILDHOOD OR IT’S AN INHERENT PART OF ME. WHEN DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOUR COLLECTING STARTED AND HOW DO YOU MANAGE IT NOW?

It was always precious–always precious things. For me, thrifting or collecting feels like a natural way to move through the world. I didn’t grow up wishing or wanting for things I couldn’t have. Both of my parents were self-employed and if I ever needed anything and asked for something, I usually got it. But when I started thrifting, I think I was in the 7th grade. It came from this idea that I’m finally out of the Elementary School mode where I’m seeing all the same people at swim meets or on the soccer field–it’s all the same kids for 6 or 7 years. Now I’m in a Middle School with a bunch of new kids and I can finally make my own group of friends. I can finally be free of this graduating class of 50 kids I had no connection to other than being on the same sports teams. So one of these new friends asked me if I’d ever been thrifting–so we went and I just died! I remember it was mostly clothes in the beginning, but it slowly turned into–oh, this is an old book that I want to read that someone else has read and probably sneezed in or dropped crumbs of food in–and I want that book.

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I don’t want it new from a bookstore because it carries meaning and it carries a weight or energy to it. I don’t like that sound when you open a new book and the spine cracks. The other thing is, don’t you love getting a book from a thrift store that’s been written in or annotated? I love that!

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I have this obsession with the 80s. I guess it’s because I grew up in the 80s, but as an adult looking back, I think–no, it was an amazing decade where anything goes or went. If you research fashion in the 80s–they say there were no rules. Giant and excessive and a mishmash of patterns and fabrics. I feel like that lack of rules, amongst fashion in the 80s, definitely came from other things that were happening politically and socioeconomically, and the drug culture in the 1980s and people wanting more, more, more. Just excess. I think that can breed a culture of greed, so as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that, yes, I collect these things and they carry meaning for me, but one day I’m going to have to give that meaning away so someone else can have the joy of owning or enjoying that object.

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CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE COMPOSITIONAL AND AESTHETIC CHOICES IN THE PHOTOGRAPHS? THEY ARE ALL UNIFIED IN STRUCTURE AND LAYOUT

The assemblages that you see in the photographs were exercises in temperament, frustration, , and impossibility. None of those assemblages would really stay in place longer than I could quickly let it go then take the photo. I developed different tactics to get things to stay. I even took out a memento that I knew wouldn’t stay in place, like the movie ticket stub with my grandma–that gold-dipped rose my mom gave her and then I got after her death. It’s broken now, but it’s on display. I had another memento in that photograph sitting on top of a hat, but I didn’t like the way it looked and switched it out with the ticket stub.

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I found this illustrated book about puberty one day when I was maybe ten years old on the top shelf of my father’s closet. I used to sneak it into my room all the time, but always made sure I put it back just the way I found it. My father caught me once but instead of being shamed or in trouble, he had me read it to my younger brother so we could both learn together. Archival pigment print, 20 x 20″, 2019

The other thing is that once I figured out what memento went with what object, a lightbulb went off. Then it was just about color, composition, and texture. There’s so many different textures going on in these photographs–not just of the memento itself, but if you look closely you can see, for example, on the edges of the wallet how weathered and yellowed it’s become after all this time. I wanted people to be able to examine the work  in an almost clinical way, which is why I chose that neutral grey backdrop. It’s as if seeing them under a microscope or in an archive.

AS SOMEONE THAT HAS PLAYED A REALLY DYNAMIC AND OFTEN COLLABORATIVE DRIVEN ROLE IN THE BALTIMORE ART COMMUNITY, HOW DID YOU APPROACH THIS SHOW AS A SOLO EXHIBITION? I KNOW THERE IS A COMMUNITY AND INTERACTIVE COMPONENT COMING UP…..

This show is a lot of attention on me. The reception of this show and the assemblages in these photographs has really touched people. I never could have imagined this reception. Not because I’m not proud of the work or thought that people wouldn’t respond to it, but the stories people have told me up close about certain things they see in the photographs or on the collage wall or in my diary–the word “brave” has been used a lot. I don’t know that I’d describe it as brave, but I’d describe it as necessary , for me, to do. I appreciate the compliments of course, and the reception has been so lovely and heartfelt.

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With the event coming up next Thursday, I’m so excited to see what it comes to be–who shares what, who is there to just listen, etc. As far as doing this work alone….I love collaborating. I love it. It’s my heart and soul right next to thrifting and right next to making everything into an art project. It was really nice to play the photographer, the art director, and the props specialist because it was like a conversation between my possible selves. One of them was going, “you want to be this person who does this work and you’ve never done it before, so go for it.” The other self is saying, “you’ve never done this work before and you’re going to fail. You’re afraid now and you’re going to fail.” And then the other self just says, “you’ve already got this. This is what you’ve always wanted to try so just try.” This was months and months of figuring things out in my basement studio. I’d have company where I was supposed to be upstairs, but I was obsessively in the studio shooting. I’d wake up in the morning and work for an hour down there before leaving for work. 

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I feel in my heart that more people want to see the work and share those stories, and i hope to make that happen. Making art for me is not just about me expressing myself, but it’s also about other people. It’s like a gift we’re giving each other; the exchange of an intangible object.

THE CURATION OF THE SHOW FEELS VERY INTENTIONAL, WHICH IS HARD TO DO WELL. HOW DID YOU ACHIEVE THAT?

Carlyn, the gallery director, and I worked together in the past very well, so it was like coming home. Having a show at this gallery is a dream come true because it’s just so beautiful. We collaborated a lot on the design, look, and feel of the show. I wanted the photos to float on the wall. I didn’t want any holes.The assemblages–the live assemblages on the floor and table, that was an exercise falling in love. You put an object down and you put something else next to it and it just doesn’t look right. They don’t talk to each other. When you put two objects together and it all just aligns, you can say, “ohhhh, now there’s a couple that makes sense. 

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IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE  YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE? HOW LONG IS THE SHOW OPEN?

The show is open Saturdays 1 – 5, or by appointment. If you want to see the show, just message me. I want to share the work with as many people as possible and if they so choose, I want them to share with me too.

The show closes November 23rd, which is also a Saturday. The event I’m hosting is Thursday November 21st from 7 – 9. It’s called Show and Tell, like in Kindergarten. We’re welcoming people to come to the gallery to share their own keepsakes and memorabilia. We I also want to flood the space with blankets and pillows to make the gallery feel like home. I love community events and meeting people I’ve never met, hearing stories I’ve never heard. I’m hoping people bring some really bad Middle School poetry, love letters they never sent, anything really they’ve held onto because it evokes a pivotal or heartfelt or bittersweet moment in their lives. I’m trying to, through this series, show people to hold on tight to things that have meaning to them. That meaning is not static–it can change. When I was doing this show, I was picking through things I’d saved from different years of my life and sorting them. I remember I picked up a whole stack of letters from  an ex and thinking wow the last time I’d held those letters I was devastated, heartbroken. Now I’m like–I remember that person, I’m glad I had that entire experience; all of it. Of course I don’t have that specific heartache anymore, so now it has two meanings actually, and that‘s deep. 

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This past Sunday, my mom and aunt came to see the show. My mom walked around the show, looked at the work, then she looked at the titles. And then she said, that’s your diary? From when? I said high school. She sat down and read the whole thing…she was pretty moved. My dad came at a different time, I’d say he was enlightened too. He said he had no idea what he was walking into today. He said he never realized that he didn’t really know who I was as a whole person, inside and out. My mom was so moved and so sad that she didn’t do more, because my coming out story was not a good one. We were always very open, but parents and teenagers…parents are so on the outside at that time. 

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My mom wasn’t only heartbroken, but she was also heartbroken by her own feelings and doings because I talk about it in the diary. That diary was a part of me that no one was ever supposed to read, but strangers have come in and read it. They’ve sat down and asked how long they can stay and I tell them they can stay as long as they want. One girl was sobbing on the floor because she felt we’d lived identical lives. It was quite an experience with my parents and strangers–but with my mom, it was definitely the most beautiful and the most intense. I really had no idea  this show would touch people in such a deep and meaningful way. As an artist, the the gift, right? They’re giving me a gift by sharing with me. 

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Zach at Terrault Gallery