Artist Profile of Yuri Zupancic
by Thomas Hardy
One day recently, in a staircase at the KU Natural History Museum, a man sat on the floor. He was on the landing between the 4th and 5th floors, stuffed mammals below him and a giant lizard above him.
He had long black hair and a scruffy beard. He sat with his back propped up against a wall, legs out in front of him, head leaned slightly back and his jet eyes staring at the taupe wall opposite him. He was eating a blueberry muffin.
“Just trying to get a feel for it,” said Yuri, not taking his gaze away from the wall. Munching his muffin, sitting with Mad Max-esque leather attire, he smelled of smoke and motor oil.
Yuri Zupancic is a Lawrence painter and sculptor. When asked about his influences, a smile creeps across Yuri’s face. This artist knows his forebears. He references Max Ernst, a German Dada artist, as if he had breakfast with him that morning. He talks about Leonardo da Vinci as if he is present in the room.
Leonardo is perhaps the best example of an artist who shared Yuri’s interests. Citing Leonardo’s love for nature and technology, Yuri says that both inform his own work. When asked whether the charms of nature or the power of technology hold his interest more, Yuri replies, “The premise of your question makes a certain distinction. It makes a dichotomy out of it. I don’t see nature and technology as fundamentally different. Technology is just an extension of nature – our extension. Cars are our legs; houses are an addition to our skin.”
The wall that Yuri was observing will be his canvas for an installation entitled Mirror Neurons and the Internal Congress. A musing on man’s sense of self, the piece is a web of black cords that wind their way to a central circuit board. On the board is a microchip. On this microchip is a miniscule painting of a group of men in 18th century attire. And at the terminus of the splayed cords are microchips, each with a barely-visible painting of brain cells – mirror neurons that are thought to be responsible for empathy.
A natural history museum was an appropriate place for Yuri to install his work – a place where art engages those who aren’t expecting to see it. “There’s a need for pubic awareness of our imagination,” says Yuri. “Just seeing something is an undercurrent to painting and the creation of art. My work attempts to grab the viewer, show them a concept or idea, and finally to urge them to continue it, to become an artist themselves.”
Yuri has a surreal style. His works often depict an event in history or a character in literature, but he juxtaposes the subject and background just enough to make the viewer uncertain about how the two interact. A portrait of Geronimo is framed by the text of an airline ticket. A violinist’s music moves through a room, blurring and twisting the background. But the blurring and twisting is repetitive – perhaps it’s the tessellation of the wallpaper? It is hard to tell.
He creates paintings with stencil, rubbings, and spray paint. “I want to blur the line between painting and sculpture. I want my work to seem as much like a surface as it is a window. I think that this enhances the surreal effect.”
Yuri hadn’t noticed his artistic inclinations until, at 17, he attempted to draw the portrait of a close friend. As the portrait took shape, it showed a resemblance and also a mood, a seriousness: “After I drew it, I knew that I had to explore making visual art. It would have been a waste if I hadn’t.” After a motley education at community colleges and KU, Yuri went on to help found the Fresh Produce Artist Collective, which is known for its prolific exhibitions. The collective is located in a drywall-divided liquor store – on one side, booze, on the other, art. Yuri uses this space to work.
The studio is a high-tech version of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab – there are stuffed animal heads, mannequin limbs, computers, circuit boards, and dismantled radios. By an easel next to a window, dozens of paintbrushes are scattered around, a few soaking in the bottom half of a sawed-off, water-filled piggy bank.
He tells me about an old friend, an elderly French artist who rarely left his Paris apartment, dedicating his life to painting. After he died, Yuri “sorted through thousands of paintings. He painted all the time. He had a lot of methods of painting that I used. Great fun.” Yuri scrounges around in a box full of small paintings. “There’s so much of my stuff in here. He told me ‘If you can paint anything perfectly, you can paint everything perfectly.”
“He also had some really great high-quality paper.” Yuri picks out one of these sheets of paper, with a painting of an opera singer in a hazy background. A gold fractal dances its way diagonally across the page. It is signed: simply, “Yuri.”
What art does he hate? Yuri pauses, opens his mouth and closes it again. After a pause, he says, “I hate things that are composed well to look pretty. I hate thin art – art that is only good in one way.” He continues: “Some artists shortchange the viewer by giving them what they want, and some artists are so far into their own heads that they forget the viewer. In every way, we are trying to identify somehow.”
We move on to a downtown café, Mirth. Yuri fills his coffee cup. He points to a painterly, bright work. “This artist is OK, but he’s just painting to paint, making something pretty. Making something to go up in a restaurant. As an artist, you can’t help but put yourself into the work.”
Yuri refills his coffee with his painted hands, smearing pigment on his cup. Which works of his own are his favorites?
“Sometimes I make something that stands out. I always like whatever absorbed the most emotional energy. I don’t know who said it, but there’s a quote, ‘Emotion is the fuel of writing.’ It’s the same way with art.” He refills his cup. “There’s a whole lot of mystery out there.”