Zes, aka Zeser, aka Zes AWR/MSK, is a Los Angeles graffiti artist with a feral stare that you might only notice in serial killers or creative geniuses. He has been one of L.A.'s most prolific taggers for many years. If you look up every now and again, you may have noticed his burners in back alleys or on the ledges of buildings in Echo Park, but until very recently, you wouldn't see his work in a gallery. And, if he had had his way, you weren't going to.
It took many years of battling the obsessive-compulsive need to fit his name onto inaccessible surfaces (tops of buildings, viaducts, retaining walls) and the inner demons that go along with that mindset for Zes the graffiti artist to become Zes the gallery artist. Recently, he has been proving to contemporary art audiences that he's got chops to hang out inside, and to our surprise, he's looking forward to doing more. “There were other things going on in my life, besides me focusing in on my art and my talent,” explains Zes. “Now I've put aside all those other things that were going on and I feel like good things are coming.”
Currently in Morgan Spurlock's “New Blood” show at Thinkspace, Zes is showing work alongside that of another of the distinguished AWR/MSK graffiti crew, artist/activist Saber. Saber chose Zes as his “protégé” for the show in keeping with its mentor-protégé theme. “Zes has one of the most unique and aggressive styles out there,” says Saber. “He has been one of my favorite painters for many years now. On the street Zes has pushed boundaries and limits that will never be matched. His abstract canvas work is beautiful.”
Zes, who still prefers not to reveal his face or his real name, made his art gallery debut in February at Known Gallery on Fairfax, the gleaming white cube of a space that showcases up-and-coming talent, usually alongside already established artists. Zes' “Excavated Revelations” shared the bill with Retna, a current art-world superstar who debuted some new lithographs — pensive work that is much smaller in scale and detail than his usual murals. Zes credits Retna as an early influence, which may explain their similarly textured styles. “I think when it comes to influence, we grew up as part of the same crew, LTS,” says Zes of L.A.'s Toughest Sport writers, another crew he's affiliated with. “If you go back in history, if you follow LTS style, you'll see a lot of that.”
Working with ink rollers of various size, acrylics and even buff paint (“Palomino Beige,” the color most popular with graffiti cleanup teams), the new Zes work consists of beautifully spontaneous textures and color, controlled only by the uniform panels he chooses to use. All his wood panels are the same tall, narrow, 24″ x 60″ dimensions, which provide structure. “Even before I started doing the first painting, I just had a picture in my head for many years and I just went by it,” explains Zes about his all-vertical format. “Actually, you could hang these paintings either horizontally or vertically and they work. That's how I was making them.
And when it comes to the colors, it's really just what's on hand for me,” Zes continues. “Each piece is its own freestyle. It's different and interesting because I get to work with tools I haven't worked with before.”
Zes hides letterforms (like his daughter's name, Love) within his compositions and actually sets instinctual time limits on how long he thinks each piece should take. He has found he's still motivated by pressure, but this time there are no cops involved. “Right now, I'm just going for it. It is what it is, like graffiti,” he explains. “In my early years I was just out to prove myself and put a name up. I did it for kids in the neighborhood that didn't have anything else to look at but gang graffiti. To open their minds to something else.”
Thinkspace presents: “New Blood” curated by Morgan Spurlock, on view through May 19. 6009 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 310-558-3375, www.thinkspacegallery.com