Civilization was born in the valleys of the Fertile Crescent, and Claude Zervas was born in the fertile flats of the Skagit Valley. Zervas’ work always seems to hark back to a primitive or prior state. It’s not so much that he’s evoking a historically accurate past, but rather the power of something deeper and more primal in the past. The questions raised by his most recent exhibition at James Harris Gallery include whether the product can reflect on the origin; can one return from the cities of consciousness to the badlands of the unconscious; and what part of the past is important and powerful to us.
Through his reference to Dr. Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora, 1799-1807, in both composition and palette, Zervas also contemplates the past construed as the time before knowledge, of the mind without limits. His prints are several feet tall, a mix of digital manipulations and acrylic medium on top of landscape shots of the Skagit Valley, depicting salt flats and farms, fields and cattle edged by evergreen trees or overlooked by gentle hills. The sky is bright blue or full of angry swirls of cloud. The images feel big, the land going on for a long way in the distance. Standing obscenely or proudly in the middle of these scenes is a single shape of color and strange dimensions, something evoking simultaneously a phallic and feminine form.
These flowers beg the question of generation—how one thing produces another, both through the artist and independent of him. They oscillate between representing the power and qualities of the land placed behind them and remaining ruptures with no connection to their backgrounds save for beautiful association. The loud computer-generated colors are disorienting and also familiar, and I could not help but think Zervas was partially inspired by the Skagit County website, which features a computer generated logo of birds and fields in a similar abstracted and eye-popping manner. The colors are bold, provocative, but they are powerfully symbolic colors as well. Fertile greens and sky-spirit blues give way to meaty reds and purples, the bounty of the valley all represented in some manner.
While other pieces by Zervas have brought the tensions between primordial magic and new technologies both material and mental more to light, these access a primitive and natural mechanism of interest and attraction for the viewer in a way neon or lights sometimes cannot. Thornton’s flowers aren’t necessarily accurate, but they seek the eye and engage the mind with skill. Zervas has taken it one step further, presenting abstractions that force enjoyment despite their bizarre or undefined character. The original joy of sight, the enraptured state caused by color or dazzling expression, is in full effect. The past’s power is something the mind creates—any reading of The Great Gatsby can tell you that—but this work goes beyond a singularly green light. Its fecundity lies in the vibrancy of the idea, the force of memory and thought that brings us back into the animal past or lurching into the future of reason. Zervas solves the problem of generation by arguing that birth begets birth; that the power of the past is the power of conception, which reaches beyond the mere landscapes of reality and stands apart from it.
—Jessica Powers, an artist, writer and educator living in Seattle.
Top Image: Claude Zervas, Skagit Valley Series 8, 2004, Ultrachrome print and acrylic medium, 30″ x 22″. Courtesy the artist and James Harris Gallery.