Return of The Magic Sword: A Conversation With Zachary Ochoa
Here is the thing, we've always enjoyed seeing what the new generations are bringing to the table cause no matter how comfortable we might be with familiar things, the new wave is always more exciting. So when we first saw Zachary Ochoa's wicked creations, both drawings, and paintings, unable to tell how exactly are they're done or what they're about, we got intrigued.
So we got in touch with the Milwaukee-based artist and part of the explanation of the imagery was, "If a god-like trans Mickey Mouse warrior has issues with loving their body or yearning for friendship." Ok, now we were REALLY intrigued. While original and unique as a whole, each of the images is imbued with familiar elements - cartoon references, manga stances and/or dynamics, as well as fantasy or historic accessories such as tools, weapons, or outfits. Oftentimes accompanied with brief and ambiguous textual elements, the work continuously felt like a tiny part of something bigger. Like an alternative mythology or something. And on top of all that, there are dates/years occasionally scribbled in there too. Neither ancient times or unknown future, but recent ones from only a few decades ago. Apparently documenting times we've lived through by depicting something that feels familiar but is utterly fresh and exotic, Ochoa's works swaddled us with that sweet sweet strangeness.
Ahead of a big solo debut with Steve Turner which opened on November 23rd in LA, we've reached out to the artist with a hope to learn a bit more about the work. And boy, did we get a treat...
Sasha Bogojev: Can we start with a Magic Sword and the story behind this exhibition?
Zachary Ochoa: When creating this latest series of work I pulled a lot of inspiration from the classic novel The Sword in the Stone, written by T.H. White (1938). The tale of ‘the chosen hero’ has always been interesting to me and a common subject in my practice. The history of the sword exists long before the main characters interacted with it. To some degree, there is an inherited expectation for the sword to bring forth some sort of fantastical power or mastery. I wanted to challenge that story or create an alternative history where Girl Hero’s interaction with this weapon is reimagined through the Magic Sword. I personally am not into weapons very much, or violence for that matter, so it was interesting that I found myself making these swords in my work. I think I had denied a lot of my interest in things I deemed as masculine.
And what does the Magic Sword represent in your work and where is it returning from?
The Magic Sword in this work becomes a physical representation of power; I wanted the object to represent ideas of violence, masculinity, and revenge. When you see the object it is often mutating and changing form as an act of intimidation. Never knowing the Magic Sword's origins or true form, we can only imagine and try to predict what it can do. The idea of the object’s impermanence exists to show the challenges of masculinity. Girl Hero sees the Magic Sword as a monolith of strength and rejects the object. Her long understanding of femininity and relationship with her body has only taught her to reject the parts that are seen as non-desirable. She learns quickly she has to accept her fate, there is no denying her masculine expression and the rejection of such an integral part of her experience only denies her liberation. The Magic Sword is not returning from anywhere specifically. Despite the impermanence of the object, the connection between the two remains constant. We find that there is no actual history of the sword or the sword ever existing at all, merely the sword becomes an extension of herself.
So, was this body of work conceived as a whole, following a particular story?
I was thinking a lot about Star Wars when I was planning the exhibition and the work itself. I have always loved the way the movie interjects us into this story in a non-linear path. We are kind of expected to run with it and pick up as many context clues as we can. I wanted the work to be engaging in that way. I focused a lot on this current work to kind of introduce the story, the characters, and some of the themes I was talking about earlier. In a way that still never settled on what actually is happening between them. I wanted to suggest that these characters and stories have already existed, are happening now, or will exist in the future.
What informs your characters, imagery, or narratives, and what are some of the references for those?
Lately, I have been drawn to tarot cards in terms of imagery. There's a long history of tarot and the illustrations accompanying the cards. Over time and through different interpretations we see small changes and forms becoming abstracted in the cards. It's really a gold mine in terms of composition and symbology. If I look through my iPad, I probably have hundreds of old Disney coloring book photos and renaissance portraits. In some of the recent work, I've used emojis and medieval weaponry for references.
The characters are reoccurring, right? Do you continuously develop their story?
Yes! I spend a lot of time thinking about what interactions these characters have and their relationship with each other. I want to examine each character thoroughly. It's important to me to be constantly considering how I can humanize each character while also keeping their forms of representation abstract. I never want to define a character visually or idealistically, I think that would take the fun out of painting them.
I was gonna say that the work feels very fantastical but how much of it is inspired by real-life and perhaps personal experiences?
To me, the work is exclusively coming from my personal experiences. I created the Girl Hero world to dramatize my feelings in a way. If a godlike trans Mickey Mouse warrior has issues with loving their body or yearning for friendship, then maybe the things I'm going through are also important and hard. I think what is liberating about Girl Hero is that it is directly related to how I see myself and my relation to the world that I get to express through her. It's liberating to exist within her fantasy and her also existing in my very normal reality.
What's the technical background of your work? What type of techniques/materials are you using and what draws you to such an aesthetic?
I have been mostly using acrylic paint through an airbrush for my works on canvas, but all of the work starts as digital sketches. I make drawings that I turn into vectors. I prepare my canvas according to my sketch. Cover it in tape and then project my digital vectors and mask off the area. From there I start painting, for references of shading it all depends if I found a reference image for my digital sketch that had any kind of lighting to go off of. Most of the time I have to interpret light and forms from very silly reference images. I think that variable is always fun though, it keeps me on my toes and I get good practice.
What is your relationship with airbrush as a medium?
I will admit I was apprehensive to start airbrushing as it has become somewhat of a ‘fad’ to do, but I thought how exhausting it is to believe in fads in art, to begin with. I saw the work of amazing artists who use airbrush like Chris Ragner, Felipe Pagan, or Hank Reavis and they are all doing different things with the medium that are exciting and push the narrative of painting. I want the work to always remain in conversation with the history of painting while also representing the visual culture I grew up with.
Was such visual language something you were after from the start or did it just develop?
The visual language and execution exist in two separate realms for me. I create these sketches digitally and I plan how I could get different desired effects but there are also limitations and nuances that change when those ideas cross over to the physical painting space. I had a fairly good idea what these paintings would look like but there’s a level of humility when making the work in the real world. The true fun of the painting exists within the translation of the digital, and the limitations of the real world allow me to find new solutions and push me as an artist. The decision of how these visuals are represented is derived from the narratives of Girl Hero. While I began this story with ideas and an understanding of what I want this world to be and look like, the language of it has slowly developed over time and continues within the process of working through each painting. To me, the work feels very much present-day, a great blend of visuals around us.
It certainly feels beyond present-day even... So what are some of your biggest influences in that sense?
I tend to pull a lot of influence from the entertainment and visual media I’ve consumed, along with the things I’ve found online throughout the years. I like to take screenshots from movies I'm watching and draw them, or I see an artist on Instagram and kind of pocket their composition. I have been trying to deconstruct my hierarchy of influence. Taking ideas from places big and small adds up and all becomes important, and I feel like anything is on the table when it comes to making art.
I will add though, this latest series has been heavily inspired by a recent fascination with Berserk, Big Thief, and crime documentaries.
How do you go about including the elements of those influences in your work?
I think influences happen very subtly in my work. I want to always be moving forward but I am still limited by my abilities as a maker. I try to incorporate these influences in the early digital sketches. I may see a way a painter approaches highly contrasted light in one of their figures and so my sketch will focus heavily on working through that technical approach. Influence always seems like a starting place for my visual research, I get to take on the responsibilities of others and work through them. It is hard for me to pinpoint how I purposefully include different elements of influence in my work because I feel like every gesture or mark is in some way referencing or borrowing from something that already exists.
What about the textual part of your work? You seem to be using a lot of those and with distinctive typography. Is there a story behind that element?
When I was younger I loved graffiti and the idea of a tag. I use words and numbers as visual cues. They may point to the idea of the painting or take you further from the idea. The words specifically set up the compositions to create tension between language, mark-making, and composition. The visual quality to them is directly related to childhood. I always liked to add curlicues to make them look fancy. The writings seem like an ode to language and my inner child.
Finally, I've always been curious about the way you're dating your work. Can you tell me a bit about that aspect?
The dates follow a similar theme and pattern as the words but instead play with the paintings as objects of time. They confuse the archeological narrative of the work asking viewers to consider when the object was made and who made it. I think the gap allows the Girl Hero or myself the freedom to explore the past as well as the future of her story while also questioning our own hierarchy of sacredness and nostalgia.
Return of the Magid Sword is on view through December 31, 2021