My name is Kim Zak, and I am a Boston University class of 2020 graduate with a BFA in painting and a BA in psychology. I spent my senior year developing my painting thesis, and in the absence of a traditional gallery exhibition due to COVID-19, I created this website to share my work and writing virtually. I hope you enjoy looking through, and I hope you'll shoot me a note to share your thoughts. Thank you for being here.
“What we anticipate does not come to pass.”
I have spent my four years at Boston University exploring the intersection between my two degrees, painting and psychology. This thesis is the result. My other interests—most notably, art history and theatre—have undeniably played a role in the development of this work, but I don’t really write about it (it’s long enough as it is).
My thesis addresses a variety of themes and topics, some of which are deeply personal (I am extremely torn about allowing other people to read this at all). Some of those more personal moments still remain as bones of contention for me internally. A thesis is deceptive in its apparent finality; though it marks the conclusion of my BFA career, I have not really reached any semblance of closure regarding the questions I originally set out to answer.
The written portion of the thesis clocks in at around four thousand words—I have thoroughly enjoyed writing it. Throughout the last year of painting, I have felt newly energized by the ideas behind the paintings and writing I get to present today. There have been world-shattering moments of personal breakthrough, moments when I could feel my brain buzzing and whirring at the feeling that what I’m doing may be, in some small way, novel. As exciting as it has been for me, I realize not everyone has the time or interest to read four thousand words of theory. If nothing else, you should read my artist’s statement (“Manifesto”) and T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and watch a video of “Not I” by Samuel Beckett.
Leading up to my senior year, I had no idea what to expect out of my thesis experience. While I never expected that my undergraduate career would end the way it has, I could hardly be happier with how my thesis has turned out. If nothing else, the personal meaning I have derived from this project has been invaluable.
I don’t think I have much else to say about this. Everything else that is relevant can be found in this book. I hope it is coherent and meaningful. Thank you for reading it.
I. This work is autobiographical. Any personal connection you may feel is purely coincidental, though I don’t pretend my experiences are unique or profound. The work is founded in personal experience and personal symbolism. I do not expect you to connect to it; the work suffers no deficit if you do not connect to it. I have created paintings for and about myself and I share them with you for my own sake. Art may be selfish. Selfishness may not always be bad.
II. This work is autobiographical. I do not speak for anyone but myself. Experience and perception are subjective, but events occur objectively. I am not an impartial judge; neither is a viewer. I have learned that I have a right to control my own narrative, to tell my own story. Exercising this right does not negate someone else’s subjective narrative of the same objective events. This work is my chosen conduit for claiming ownership over my experiences in ways I previously thought were not my prerogative.
III. This work is autobiographical. It is about manipulating and being manipulated. You are receiving the world as I have received it; though I attempt to preserve some objectivity, painting is about manipulation.
IV. This work is autobiographical. I contradict myself. I share it so I may be known. To be known is to be vulnerable. I may not want to answer too many questions.
V. This work is autobiographical. I created it as a form of abreaction. I created it so that it might exist so that it might help me exist. This is symbiosis. This is part of survival.
Narcissus, 2020, digital rendering.
The Limits of Subjectivity
I feel an amount of personal disdain for the dominating mantra “art is subjective,” and in order to share this work with the world I feel the need to address that disdain. I recognize that each of us humans, with our distinct experiences and unique lives, is perhaps exclusively capable of subjective perception. Neurologically, biologically, developmentally, and socio-culturally, we differ from one another in ways that impact our perception of ourselves and of the world in which we exist. During the neurological process of transduction—the transformation of physical stimuli into neural signals allowing organisms to perceive the surrounding world—even the most concrete phenomena of the human experience, such as tactile sensation or motor function, are affected by the subjectivity of our individual perception—sometimes in immeasurable ways.[i] If our sensation of the objective world cannot be directly translated by perception in such a way that allows us to experience the objective world universally, of course there will be incredible variation in the interpretation of something as non-objective as art.
Without discounting the inevitable variation, or subjectivity, that comes with our human experience, I argue that subjectivity in art—especially in the academic setting—must have limits. At its onset, art frequently stems from a specified idea or goal; likewise, it can be assumed that an artist strives to communicate an idea or goal to a viewer through the ultimate work to a certain end. Total subjectivity in art would suggest that an artist creates completely arbitrarily and without specific goals, thus vindicating any and all subjective interpretations. Undoubtedly, there exist artists in the world who match this description precisely, and there is no lack of validity in that practice.
This does not describe me or my thesis. This work is born from highly specific experiences and philosophies; because of the deeply personal and often diaristic (that is to say subjective) nature of this subject matter, I recognize that a viewer may not fully understand the issues I aim to discuss—and this is not a problem. It is when a viewer uses their inherent subjectivity to excuse a lack of investment in understanding the goals and ideas behind the work that I take issue. I believe that a responsible consumer of art and other media endeavors to inquire and investigate beyond simply observing the work in an attempt to gain a deeper understanding to the art itself as well as its relation to the world as a whole. This ideology leads me to conclude that, in some cases, there is such a thing as an incorrect interpretation of art; thus, I assert that a viewer may very easily interpret the work in my thesis incorrectly.
It is worth noting that a lack of understanding of or connection to this work neither diminishes the efficacy of the project nor derails the goals it sets out to achieve (see “Process, Product and the Role of a Viewer”). Still, a deeper understanding of the work by a viewer is of course desirable when achievable. Thus, in considering these issues of individual subjectivity and clarity, I have given deliberate titles to each painting included in this project in an attempt to provide more tools with which a viewer might reflect on the work. Titles are born out of necessity. Every painting doesn’t need a title; I rarely title my work. In these works, however, titles provide context or insight meant to inform and enrich a viewer’s objective understanding of the subject matter—without comprehensively explaining each work—when interpretation is less flexible.
What it comes to is this: this work is not devoid of gaps. Gaps appear incidentally in each painting; gaps permeate a viewer’s understanding of the work and why it exists. These gaps in understanding have become integral to the thesis. A viewer should embrace, rather than attempt to circumvent, these gaps in their understanding of the work, for any incorrect projection of meaning will most likely obstruct, rather than clarify, their grasp on the material.
A viewer might more easily embrace the gaps in their understanding of this work—and therefore enrich their experience of it—by exploring the modernist poetry of T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. I would prefer and encourage that any viewer first read Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Plath’s “Edge” before confronting my thesis. Each of these poems encapsulates the desperate and vital need to communicate and be heard juxtaposed with an inability to be heard—a sentiment which is also present in this thesis. The frustration in both poems is captured in different ways: whereas “Prufrock” spans over 130 lines of text, demonstrating the speaker’s frantic and futile efforts to express himself and be understood, the speaker in “Edge” is resigned to being misunderstood, and the poem is nothing if not curt.[ii], [iii]
Each of these dynamics resonates so deeply within me in relation to my personal experiences and my attempts to create a body of work that encapsulates them. Any viewer who understands these poems will better understand how I feel about sharing my paintings with an audience. I want to be understood—desperately so—and have attempted to communicate through paint, yet it seems that despite any and all efforts, I can never be fully, accurately seen by a viewer. I am simultaneously infuriated by and resigned to this fact.
Perennial, 2020, oil on canvas (30 x 40 in).
Process, Product, and the Role of a Viewer
In making these paintings, I quickly came to the realization that the work takes on a very different meaning in its completed form than that which it bore throughout the process of its creation. Understanding the work holistically requires an examination of the painting process and its essence as well as the (very distinct) significance of the paintings as they exist in their current form.
For the paintings in this thesis, the creation process can largely be understood as an act of abreaction or decathexis. In psychotherapy, abreaction is the process of releasing repressed emotion; this is achieved by revisiting or reliving the experience which originally caused the fixation. Abreaction usually occurs synchronously with (and is highly similar to) the process of decathexis, which is the release of mental energy unhealthily fixated on a particular person, experience, or idea.[iv], [v]
The personal and sometimes traumatic experiences which this work primarily addresses remained largely private before being translated into paintings, the memories and attached emotions mostly repressed and undealt with. At the project’s conception, the central goal of creating the work was to share private experiences with a viewer in such a way that is simultaneously incredibly vulnerable and very empowering. To share my experiences and emotions that had gone mostly unvoiced for as long as they have existed was to allow myself to be known and to reclaim details of my human experience that had once controlled me. However, as soon as I began working on these paintings, I quickly realized the opportunity this project would give me to untangle my own entwined thoughts and emotions and work through previously neglected internal conflicts. The countless hours spent scrutinizing each letter of each text painting and time spent meditating on the personal symbolism woven throughout the work (See "Resiliency") required me to confront and overcome unresolved questions and conflicts that stemmed from those experiences which inspired the work. Embracing this process of breaking down my own internal barriers and overcoming enduring obstacles has been, in many ways, a process of decathexis and abreaction. Without qualifying as therapy, painting might possess certain therapeutic effects.
As such, the process of painting itself, rather than the product of that process, ultimately turned out to be the foundation of this thesis: had I not undergone this personal growth through the painting process, the paintings would not exist as they do today, and the personal philosophies embodied in this thesis would never have been uncovered and developed. It so happens that the personal experience I underwent in the privacy of my painting studio while creating this work is, in and of itself, the purpose for which the work exists at all. Whereas the entire project arose from the desire to share the final product with an audience, a viewer is now entirely nonessential to the successful realization of the purpose of this thesis. This is not to say that a viewer does not play a role; indubitably, the presence of a viewer adds a completely new dimension to the ideological substance possessed by the body of work, and there is potential for conceptual enrichment through consultation of a third-party viewer. However, the viewer’s role is decidedly secondary to the ultimate goals of the work, and the primary goals are self-fulfilling.
In Conversation with M (1), 2019, oil on canvas (84 x 22 in).
In Conversation with M (2), 2019, oil on canvas (84 x 22 in).
Throughout the journey of creating this body of work, I have agonized over one question: if I cannot tell these stories objectively, do I have the right to tell them at all? Although this work is largely diaristic and not meant to serve as a record of events by any means, I have struggled with the notion of representing someone else through something as public as my culminating thesis—someone who has no opportunity to represent themselves, at least within this context. What I present is incredibly one-sided. Although I have never felt that I had the right to share my “side” of the story until this point, I worry that, by allowing myself to share a one-sided version of a story, I become a hypocrite; after all, for years I have feared manipulation, feared that I have been misrepresented in someone else’s one-sided version of the same story.
Photographer Melissa Spitz provides huge inspiration for me to find the courage and self-confidence to give myself permission to embark on this journey. In her ongoing series “You Have Nothing To Worry About,” Spitz documents her tumultuous relationship with her mother, who lives with mental illness. In conjunction with the thousands of photographs she takes, Spitz writes publicly about her experiences—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and her personal journey of navigating her relationship with a mentally ill parent.[vi] To me, this project is about using an artistic medium to share an objective truth—or the closest thing to an objective truth—even when it is difficult, frightening, or vulnerable. No attempt is made to spin a nonexistent narrative or build an argument: it is a documentation of reality. Spitz does not pretend to be perfect or impartial in her portrayal of her mother and their relationship; rather, she embraces the many complexities of her experiences and the project itself.
Theories explored by Adam Pendleton through his Black Dada series deal with similar questions of ownership over histories: in these works, “the ‘dominant’ narrative of the past … becomes mixed up with the other, ‘minor’ ones. Mingling them challenges the very idea of any version of history prevailing.”[vii] In a similar sense, the text paintings included in this thesis allowed me to open up a conversation about my personal narrative of past experiences which I had previously kept private. Throughout this process, I have come to terms with the fact that no particular version of this personal history provides a full picture, and thus none “prevails” over another. In other words, there may not be a right and a wrong: there are only two people and their individual (but entwined), complex experiences. By constructing my individual narrative, I contribute to and inform—but do not dominate—this history as a whole. This, I believe, is my right.
For the first paintings in this thesis I created, In Conversation with M, I decided on specific parameters which I felt diminished the possibility of misrepresenting others through the work. First and foremost, the text, which is not my own, is unedited, untouched. I also chose to maintain the font, colors, and dimensions of the original text; the only formal element of these paintings left up to my own choice was the scale. I did not choose these words: they were chosen for me, and I chose to turn them into a painting. In this way, I don’t feel that I have represented, or misrepresented, anyone. In both a literal and artistic sense, this was an issue of authorship, in which the paintings I created were dictated almost entirely (albeit unknowingly) by someone else.
That said, I cannot deny that the very act of creating these paintings may itself be a form of manipulation. I acknowledge that every brush stroke kneads the letters into slightly different shapes that deviate from the objective truth. The chosen format of large-scale painting is itself is an intentional choice designed to arrest a viewer and illicit a specific reaction, which is the literal dictionary definition of manipulation. In order for this work to maintain integrity, I must recognize that it does involve manipulation, and therefore I may be, to a certain extent, a hypocrite.
Samuel Beckett’s “Not I” (1973) is one of the best pieces of art I have ever come across and, in being so, one of the most unpleasant things I have ever seen. To sit through this piece is torturous and disorienting, and there is no choice but to see it through to the end. One cannot escape the isolated mouth floating in a black void nor tune out the constant bombardment of sound. The words, repeated over and over again, lose their meaning; the viewer, assailed by this constant stream, gradually loses their grip on perception. The essence of language ebbs and flows as words disintegrate back into noise patterns, and the form of the mouth gradually decomposes until the flashing teeth, frenetic lips, and convulsing tongue are barely recognizable. There is a certain violence to this performance which is simultaneously undercut by the viewer’s splintering ability to recognize the material on a cognitive level.[viii]
The In conversation with M series as well as the "That is not what I meant at all" series both strive towards a similar effect as that achieved by Beckett’s “Not I.” Like “Not I,” the material is approached in ways that are meant to distort the viewer’s perception on both visual and cognitive levels. Whereas the color choices, compositions, and abstraction of text in each painting in the “That is not what I meant at all” series contribute to visual confusion and complicate a viewer’s ability to comprehend the image before them, the upsetting content and large scale of the In Conversation with M paintings aim to evoke the disruption of emotional processing which frequently results from traumatic interpersonal experiences.
"That is not what I meant at all", 2020, oil on panel (12 x 12 in each).
Despite the disturbance—both visual and emotional—present in these series, there is also an element of reclamation over language, which in this case has been a source of trauma and distress. In In Conversation with M, the time I spent in the studio poring over each letter of each word was a process of stripping the language of its harmful meaning, reducing it back down to units of speech (see “Process, Product, and the Role of the Viewer”). Similarly, a viewer might find that the inundating, relentless aggression of the text overrides itself, leveling out until the wall of text is no longer meaningful language but merely empty figures on an empty ground. In “That is not what I meant at all”, text that was once meaningful has been deliberately manipulated into this role of an unbiased figure; the words have been distorted into barely-recognizable shapes that no longer carry their original meaning. Inadvertently, the process of creating these paintings became a method of exercising power over that which has previously controlled me.
I have come to appreciate the self-empowerment in translating these experiences into art and art’s potential to heal. In vulnerability there is incredible strength. If nothing else, we have the right to not only tell our own stories, but to control the way in which we choose to tell them. We have the right to share imperfect stories in imperfect ways—for we as people are imperfect beings, and it is through our shared imperfection that we are able to connect and understand one another.
Self-Portrait, 2020, oil on canvas (30 x 40 in).
Ultimately, this work is about resiliency. In some ways, I was aware of this during the creation process; in other ways, only in retrospect have I realized the full extent of this truth. Erik Erikson, a pioneer of ego psychology, believed in the inherent strength of people—that although stress and trauma can delay or even derail a person’s development, these experiences and our ability to recover from them ultimately becomes the foundation upon which we build a stronger, more resilient self. Erikson’s model for personality development divides the lifespan into distinct stages—from birth to death—and suggests that, at each stage, an individual will encounter some form of conflict. One’s ability to cope with and respond to each conflict influences the success with which they advance beyond each stage and ultimately develop into a well-rounded, resilient person.[ix] That which does not kill you makes you stronger.
Making paintings about my own stressful, disruptive life experiences has been a helpful tool in my journey of personal reconstitution and in navigating my way through these intrapersonal conflicts (see “Process, Product, and the Role of a Viewer”). I have come to realize that this process is cyclical: with each new conflict brought by each new stage of life, we must repeat the cycle of reconstitution. Like sand in an hourglass climbing upwards, forming peaks, and then crumbling back down when the weight becomes too much to bear, only to begin climbing again, this time taller than before—so, too, do we rebuild.
For me, this cycle is emblemized perfectly by the daffodil, a flower that dies every winter only to bloom again the following spring. This personal symbolism signifies the importance of resiliency through all stations of the cycle; moreover, I am reminded that we cannot skip the parts of this cycle where we shrivel up and wither away, for it is only out of these moments that we are reborn stronger and more vibrant than before.
Deficits, 2020, photograph.
Afterword: In This Unprecedented Time
Self psychologist Heinz Kohut developed a theory of deficits which states that personal development is disrupted in the presence of “deficits,” or the absence of things in life which are often regarded as certainties—things one can reasonably expect. For example, one can reasonably expect that in their life they will have shelter, food security, and loving parents; it is in the absence of these “certainties” that we experience deficits—holes left unfilled—that can ultimately disrupt our growth as people.[x]
We are living through a pandemic and experiencing deficits in new and devastating ways. College seniors have lost their long-anticipated graduation; artists are forfeiting exhibitions and opportunities of a lifetime. At the intersection of these populations, my classmates and I have spent the final weeks of our careers as fine arts students picking up the scraps of our theses. Though we are all experiencing and coping with this loss in different ways, and although I recognize that there are far worse things than this happening around the world, we have indeed suffered a deficit. Nothing, it seems, is certain.
I refuse to normalize the losses we are facing or pretend that I am getting something out of this deficit we are experiencing at the present time. I’m not sure I believe that everything happens for a reason. Like many of my peers, I have mourned my senior year and the memories never formed.
Still, I know resiliency is not about what we do today. It’s about what we do tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. It’s about what we do a year from now. Through the ages, art has faced pandemics and war and sociopolitical upheaval—and through it all, art survives. In the face of adversity and deficits of all kinds, art ebbs and flows, changes form and function, expands into new territory, hibernates—but it never goes away. So, too, does the human condition evolve. Today, the losses we experience cannot be remedied by remote learning or virtual experiences; I cannot pretend that they can. Even so, art and artists will inevitably change course as we adapt and respond to the deficits we experience today. The uncharted new journey on which we as creatives will embark—a journey influenced by our losses and the way in which we deal with them—is an exciting prospect to imagine. The art we make now, as with the art created in the midst of any global tragedy in history, is a necessity. The art we make when we emerge on the other side, unencumbered by the restraints of worldwide cataclysm, will illustrate the next chapter of history books. I can think of no reason more worthy than this, no time more crucial than now, to be an artist.
"In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times."
—Bertolt Brecht, "Motto"
There are a few people I must recognize for the support they have shown me throughout this process and the culminating year of my BFA career. Without these people, I doubt this thesis would exist, and so I am forever grateful for them all.
To Dana Clancy, who has mentored and advised my classmates and me and helped me to distill my cloud of tangled ideas into clear and coherent arguments—and who also dealt with me in my more outspoken and opinionated moments;
To those professors in CFA who have profoundly changed my artistic practice and work ethic—most notably: Jill Grimes, Richard Raiselis, Jaya Howey, and Richard Ryan;
To my fellow painting BFA candidates, whose feedback and friendship has kept me going over the years, and whose exceptional skill and talent have inspired me and propelled me to push myself to improve;
To Kendall Gregory, who, in addition to being one of my closest companions, helped create the design for the cover of my thesis book;
To the “Slackerz,” my first friends at BU and the last ones to leave the studios with me almost every night—I literally would not have survived CFA without you;
To the friends who have stuck with me through the best and worst of times: Erin, Jen, Marcella, Emma, Hannah, Tim, Robert, Natalie, Julia, and so many more;
Finally, to my parents. For funding my practice and my artistic endeavors around the world; for trying their best to talk me out of all-nighters in the studio; for all the times they let me call to cry about an unsuccessful critique and other things not worth crying over; for helping me create a space to paint at home when my senior year was cut short; for everything.
Frequently Asked Questions
Have you looked at Alex Katz?
Yes, I have looked at Alex Katz.
[i] Wormwood, B. “Evolution and Perception.” The Psychology of Perception, 28 January 2019, Boston University, Boston, MA. Lecture.
[ii] Eliot, T.S. “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellman, and Robert O’Clair, 3rd ed., vol. 1, W. W. Norton, 2003, New York, NY, pp. 463-466.
[iii] Plath, Sylvia. “Edge.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellman, and Robert O’Clair, 3rd ed., vol. 2, W. W. Norton, 2003, New York, NY, pp. 614-615.
[iv] “Abreaction.” Def. 1. APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d. Web accessed 21 April 2020.
[v] “Decathexis.” Def. 1. APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d. Web accessed 21 April 2020.
[vi] Spitz, Melissa. “Why I Shot My Mother.” Tedx Indianapolis Women. 18 January 2019.
[vii] McDonough, Tom. “The Parallax View: Tom McDonough on the Art of Adam
Pendleton.” ArtForum, 2011, pp. 231-237.
[viii] Beckett, Samuel. “Not I.” Retrieved from UbuWeb Film. 1973. www.ubu.com/film/
[ix], [x] Shim, David. “Psychodynamic Theories and Treatment.” Introduction to Clinical Psychology, 11 February 2020, Boston University, Boston, MA. Lecture.