Fifteen new pieces are making the rounds inside Chet Zar's Monrovia studio right now. He'll work on one until he no longer can, then move to another. “It's easy to get hung up on a painting,” says the artist, best known for his unsettling, yet beautiful, depictions of monsters.
Zar has been posting photos of the works-in-progress on Instagram and Twitter. They are getting closer to becoming complete and, by October, they should all be finished. That's when Zar is set to open the biggest show of his career.
Zar has plenty of experience with galleries. He's been showing consistently for years and, in addition to his own work, he's also responsible for the popular sculpture show “Conjoined” at Copro Gallery. His latest effort, entitled “Ego Death,” is going to be a different, though. If all goes according to plan, it will be a spectacle, an art show presented as a grand funeral complete with all the macabre trimmings, to be unveiled at Barnsdall Art Park and then headed to Copro Gallery in Santa Monica.
The seeds for this show were planted in the summer of 1987, when Zar took some psychedelic mushrooms. He had an “ego death” moment. “It was a full-on mystical experience that kind of changed my life,” he recalls. “You're stripped from your ego and you're able to see things more clearly.”
Zar explains the idea of the ego death as follows: We have an ego and that's what helps us identify as individuals. “We have to think of ourselves as separate. I'm me, you're you and blah blah blah,” he says. After the ego death, though, he started to see something beyond a world filled with billions of distinct humans. “The deeper reality is that we're all connected,” he says. The idea has been an influence for Zar all along, but it's coming to a head with this new show. “The ego, while it's a tool, is also the thing that is keeping us separate at this point,” he explains. “I feel like we've outgrown the use for this thing at this time.”
More than 25 years later, Zar had another ego death. “Let me preface this by saying that I'm not a big drug person. I don't party. I barely drink,” he begins. “Every few years, I'll take psychedelics. It's kind of a check-in. It's kind of like a reset button for your mind.”
On New Year's Eve, Zar followed what he calls the “Terence McKenna technique,” referencing the famed author who wrote and spoke extensively on psychedelics. Zar took some mushrooms and sat in a dark room. “When you go to that space, you can ask questions and most of the time, you'll get answers,” he says.
Zar had a question, namely what he would do for that show he had scheduled in October 2013. The answer was in the ego death.
After that, Zar had a strong vision of what he wanted to do.
The monsters that Zar paints and sculpts are grotesque beings. Their faces are wrinkled to the point of distortion. Their teeth are mangled, and their eyes seem caught between life and death. They are creatures that could send a chill down a spine, but there is a certain fragility about them as well. Zar has painted the characters “intuitively,” he says, for years. “I never stopped and thought too much about what they meant because it's not really about that for me,” he explains. “It's about the process of painting.”
As Zar delved further into the idea of ego death, he realized that these characters were part of the story, that they were an artistic manifestation of the ego. “They're kind of scary and they're scared-looking and you kind of feel sorry for them,” he says.
The concept of the show is a “funeral for the ego.” It will be an open-casket affair, with Black Magick, one of Zar's most recognizable creatures, laid out in the coffin. “People can put things in [the casket] to send him on his way,” Zar explains.
Zar has big plans for the service/gallery opening. He's talking about a 1959 Cadillac hearse, a funeral director, black armbands, a guest book. Right now, he's on the hunt for an organ player. He's also considering a funeral procession and eulogy as part of the event.
This show won't just be about the death of the ego. It also marks a return to Zar's origins in the fine art world.
When Zar was 18, he started working in the special effects industry. For a long time, he loved it, but eventually, he needed a change and began working towards moving into fine art. During that period, one of his first projects was a sculpture called Softspot. He spent a year crafting the piece, carving out time on the weekends and after work to finish it. Softspot was a fine art approach to what he did at his day job, a sculpture with enough detail to give it an air of realism. After about a decade, he finally sold Softspot to director Guillermo del Toro. (“He gets all my best pieces,” Zar says.)
“I put so much detail in that thing, I thought it would be a shame to just have it as a one-off piece,” says Zar. He's currently working with Grant Standard of Black Hills Bronze to bring a bronze incarnation of the character to the show.
“Ego Death” just might be a career-defining show for Zar. It's certainly bolder and more involved than his previous exhibitions. “I've never had time or resources to do a big, epic show like this,” he says. “This is kind of my first one.”
Currently, Zar is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to secure some funds to get the show off the ground. The goal is $55,555. As of the morning of August 5, nine days before the campaign ends, he's a little more than $17,000 away from the goal — money that will help him devote the amount of time needed to pulling off this venture.
One of the most popular rewards in the campaign has been signed paintbrushes used in this series of paintings. At $25, it's an affordable way to obtain a piece of Zar's world, and not surprisingly, all 50 paintbrushes have been claimed. Other popular premiums include glow-in-the-dark magnets shaped like zombie heads, the “Ego Death” show catalog, signed copies of Zar's book Black Magick, and custom frames, which the artist sculpts. The latter have become one of his signatures, a surprise hit for Zar. “I get a lot of people who just want the frames and not the painting,” he says.
Zar and his monsters have come a long way over the years. Back when he started out in the fine art world, his horror movie-influenced aesthetic didn't really have a home in the there. ” I thought that nobody was going to buy this stuff,” he recalls. “I really thought that, but I still wanted to do it.”
Even today, with an impressive list of solo shows and global recognition to his credit, Zar is still a bit stunned by the response to his work. He says, “I guess more people like monsters than I imagined.”
For more info on “Ego Death” check out Zar's Kickstarter page.