Dirty Projectors, Zach Harris Talk Sound and Color

Dirty Projectors, Zach Harris Talk Sound and Color

In this exclusive dialogue, two stars of L.A. bohemia discuss David Kordansky Gallery exhibit.

In this exclusive dialogue, two stars of L.A. bohemia discuss David Kordansky Gallery exhibit.


Indie-rock vanguard David Longstreth, known for antic, long-form harmonies as the frontman of Dirty Projectors, has lived and worked for years in close proximity to artist pal Zach Harris. Despite their differing disciplines and processes—a single piece of Harris’s can take years to complete, while Longstreth reportedly once composed a seven-part performance with Björk in 10 days—Longstreth and Harris frequently serve as each other's creative sounding boards—as they recently did in an exclusive dialogue for VMAN. Ahead of Harris’s new show “Studies for 20/20,” a multidimensional mix of byzantine wood-panel paintings, Longstreth asked the painter about subverting white-cube aesthetics, the nature of time and space, and Bounty paper towels.

David Longstreth So Zach, you’ve got a new show at David Kordansky Gallery. How do you feel? You just bought a pack of cigarettes…

Zach Harris Well, this is the most amount of [time] I’ve put into one show—from conceiving of it three or four years ago, to starting preliminary work two years ago, to starting the real work, a year and a half ago.

DL It’s a gallery show that’s also site-specific. How often is a painting show [built around] the gallery it will appear in?

ZH Not often, which I think is why I can feel let down when I walk into painting shows. It’s like, you walk in, the space is empty, and there are paintings on the wall. It looks nice, but it’s kind of a dead space.

DL When did that kind of stark presentation become the orthodoxy?

ZH It’s that kind of modernist, white-cube look. Galleries may be just trying to sell work, so they’re being spare, and making everything look precious, or like a museum gallery.

DL So you’re subverting that.

ZH Yeah. I consider myself a painter, but I also wanted to engage the architecture. I wanted to have a painting show, and not have it be in dead space—have my cake and eat it, too. So I was thinking of the gallery almost like a big stage, where you can play with time and space.

DL How did you accomplish that, visually?

ZH I came up with this idea of corner bookends that would frame the walls, and then within those walls are the paintings. The paintings would have similar forms echoing the big bookends on the gallery walls, and then within those are more worlds. When you enter the gallery entry, you’re entering the illusion. To me, it was the illusion of the future, of “2020,” [hence the name, “Studies for 20/20”].

DL I think the name of the show being “20/20” brings something poignant. Because I was born in the early 80s, and “2020” still sounds like a futuristic year. But it’s in, like, six months. With 2020, you’re talking about the future, but it’s so close that you’re connecting the two timelines, in a way.

ZH I’d been reading this 60-year-old Philip K. Dick novel, Man in a High Tower, which is trippy because there are all these antique store scenes and descriptions of decrepit interiors; its vision of the future is predicated on the past. The artistic space, and the painting space, is [also] a fictional one that plays with time/space.

[In the show], the paintings are part of that fiction, [as are] the woodworking, the French curves and mosaics… I adopted those new techniques in the past year [ because I wanted to] incorporate the [so-called] derogatory term of the decorative, which to me, just means joy. Why is [craft or decorative art] weaker or not rigorous? In the end it’s all going towards a more unified vision.

DL It seems like that—taking that prosaic thing and elevating it—is part of your process. [Like] the laser-etched patterns in the wood, that are based on a Bounty paper towel design.

ZH Yeah but it also doesn’t need elevation; it’s already interesting in itself. I don’t really distinguish between the high and low, in the way that it has always been taught in academia.

DL I get a sense of joy from your use of color. Is it true that one of the paintings was based on the color-blindness test? Is that real or a joke?

ZH Yeah, that’s real!

DL How does that work?

ZH It’s the little circles… I think it’s called the Ishihara Test. I was going to write “2020” in the middle, where there are normally numbers. So only people who could see color could see the number. But I didn’t do that.

DL That would be mean, to people who couldn’t see it!

ZH Yeah, but who can see what I’m seeing in the first place? …

DL Damn…

ZH You can sensitize yourself to color. I took a color class, where everyone thought they were pretty good in the beginning. Then by the end, you’re like, I was really bad at seeing color. It’s like pitch. It’s something you can develop—that’s part of the joy of the process. Like with your Lamp Lit Prose album, there was a lot of piano…

DL Yeah, I’ve been loving the piano [recently].

ZH I think because you have all those digits and keys [to work with] on the piano, the color and the harmonies are really rich. But did you know what you were doing as you were playing it?

DL It's the same as art—it becomes intuitive. To push this visual art, music analogy... Your paintings seem to burst beyond the two-dimensional surface, to become architecture. Or become harmony.

ZH Hmm… But am I really doing anything different than anyone else? I’m still just using the same few colors. I do a drawing on graph paper, and then I sit down with someone who scales it; it’s not that complicated. But my point is that I like to have a full range—of [high vs. low], of hand or [machine].

And I guess that relates to the paper towels—these forms around us that are a machine aesthetic. But it’s also a hybrid—it’s machine-made, but it’s also soft. That’s a whole new possibility that hasn’t existed for [people], until now. Technology is changing aesthetics all the time.

"Studies for 20/20" is open now at David Kordansky Gallery

Dirty Projectors’ album Lamp Lit Prose, featuring collaborations with Syd and Haim, is out now on Domino Records. Full tour information can be found here.  

Cathedral with Karma Clouds (2018-2019), Zodiac Bench (6 Days/7 Nights) (2018-2019) by Zach Harris (2018-2019) Photography: Lee Thompson, Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles
Installation at "Studies for 20/20" by Zach Harris  Photography: Lee Thompson, Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles
Installation at "Studies for 20/20" by Zach Harris  Photography: Lee Thompson, Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles
Astral Projectors with Wallpaper, Steinway Sunset by Zach Harris (2018-2019) Photography: Lee Thompson, Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles


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