Death Rattle: Philip von Zweck

It's the end of the world, Ragnarok, the apocalypse, and it's coming … well, erratically, in fits and bursts, dives, dips, Archimedean spiraling and humming all the while, fitfully humming, aggravated and unabated, zzzzzzzz the score to the very end, death born upon a cello string … death!, thousand eyed, six-legged, sword-endowed, floccose sickly-sweet smelling death in the personage of a honey bee, listing to one side like the Costa Concordia, vascular window pane wings over its corpse like a widow's umbrella, the victim of colony collapse disorder, laid low by a syndrome we do not understand, a fatal flaw in its system—maybe some sort of inherent vice?—or something wrought by our own machinations, with the little fellow ending up dead regardless; the flowers and crops and agrarian economies wilt, and the apocalypse comes banded black and yellow, apian entropy. – B. David Zarley, Chicago Contributor

Philip von Zweck | Dead Bee, 2015, acrylic and oil on canvas, 9x 11 inches. Photo courtesy of Michelle Harris

Dead Bee is the simple distilling of an inherently complicated subject—all anyone wants to talk about, of course, the end of the world—and there is quite a bit of weight on that little exoskeleton. fourteen landscapes, or all everyone wants to talk about is the end of the world, at 6 5 Grand, is Philip von Zweck's examination of systems and their inevitable dismantlement, whether they be(e) the Art World or Western Europe, popular conceptions and realities regarding personal freedom, security, and the proper place and scope of government action vis-a-vis said conceptions and realities, or even the very biosphere itself (the Real World, one supposes, as opposed to the Art). 

von Zweck takes to all of these like Orwell did totalitarianism, albeit with a less obvious pillory, drawing from the certain and uncomfortable milieu of ruin and rendering it—some notable exceptions, namely the sculptural elements of the exhibition and Dead Bee, aside—abstract, in both the regular and art specific sense, paradoxically elucidating our various obsessions and relationships with downfall via the obfuscation of its obvious elements.

An image of the NSA building—long the unsexiest, with its cryptologists and computer screens and analytical ipseity, of intelligence organizations, an afterthought which ended up being as innocuous as a knick of the carotids—is buried beneath black acrylic and enamel, redacted out of existence; the commentary would likely cause epistaxis if one needn't, in a delicious mirroring of the subject, need to enquire as to what, exactly had been painted upon, at which point the most vague delineations of the building—or a psychosomatic manifestation of the observer’s desire to see as much—hover just beneath the surface. Off-white and adrift on a periwinkle sea, a Rothko-esque rectangle, trimmed in Tyrian purple, abstracts the plight of the polar bear and the denizens of other fragile systems, destined—via our actions and inactions—to be eaten away by tepid doom.

Philip von Zweck | Untitled (NSA), 2015, acrylic and enamel on canvas, 15 x 20 inches. Photo courtesy of Michelle Harris

The meta-art considerations which von Zweck's practice “explicitly and implicitly orbits” are most obviously manifested in the exhibition's floor, which is covered in knock-off Oriental rugs; Cheap Imitation is a play on Conceptual art vanguard Seth Siegelaub's sideline dealing in the authentic articles –playing the classic merchant—whilst simultaneously developing methods of salesmanship previously unseen in artistic spheres. There is something deliciously irreverent as well in Artificial Duck, Artificial Owl, and Artificial Falcon, sculptures of the titular birds made in ever-more-precious beeswax—oh,  your great sacrifice, dead bee!—which tie into von Zweck's Chicago Artificial Bird Society, which in turn forces, via scientific categorization, a re-evaluation of intent w/r/t its importance in delineating art from, say, a particularly beautiful tool (and to really twist everything up, here comes the mental balloon animal that is the realization that fourteen landscapes' pallid flock, made to be decorative, do not even qualify as artificial birds via the society's own definition).

Looming over all of this is Frederick Winslow Taylor, sire of Management Consulting, grand espouser of the Efficiency Movement (so much so it is popularly known as Taylorism), tennis player extraordinaire, and Olympic golfer. Taylorism, in its vicious drive to eliminate all forms of inefficiency and waste, would seem in opposition to art, which, from a basic needs perspective, is comprised of little else; that in its systematic and analytical way some sort of blown-out, fever dream arch-Taylorism may, in fact, help prevent colony collapse disorder or global warming or political/societal unrest is quickly smothered by the realization that it would do so via scientific hegemony, a tyrannical technocrat class which, after having observed, vivisected, and diagnosed whatever monumental pockets of flaws are contained in whatever—any, really, they are all fallible—system, would then be responsible both for their solutions and the continued, regular application of said.

Philip von Zweck | Untitled, 2015, acrylic and enamel on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Photo courtesy of Michelle Harris

von Zweck's portraits of Taylor are practically pareidolic; he is lurking in the luxe sunset—oranges and purples deep and rich enough to drown in—of Untitled, what echoes of businessman's proud bust which can be distinguished a pantomime of the royal portrait; he is hidden completely in the midnight blue of Untitled; his rapeseed visage, unmistakable this time, finally rears itself in the only portrait bearing its name, as if standing before the mirror after the third Bloody Mary … and this grand controller of systems, despiser of waste, gazes out on the death of all those structures which he could not control and ergo save, not the least of which the art world he is now part of.

Philip von Zweck | Untitled, 2015, acrylic and enamel on paper, 10 x 22 inches. Photo courtesy of Michelle Harris

Fourteen landscapes, or all everyone wants to talk about is the end of the world takes its name from the opening sequence of The Sound of Music, wherein fourteen landscapes, filmed with the 70mm Todd-AO process, are presented the viewer, massive in their scope and pulchritude. Of fourteen landscapes, only one is on display, painted with the same aspect ratio as the movie's, a violent smear of rose red atop a green a bit too dark for Eden. It is a curious allusion, this remnant of a (as far as the viewer is concerned) a dead series (oof, but is it dead if it is made yet unseen? or if it is unmade, yet still conceptualized?), until one realizes what is truly important, hidden in the majesty and gaiety of the musical's opening montage, the efficient horror climbing slowly up the Alps. 


B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist, and book/music/art critic based in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter (@BDavidZarley) and at


Recent posts

Tuesday, August 3, 2021 - 15:19
Friday, June 26, 2020 - 13:03
Tuesday, March 31, 2020 - 14:02
Tuesday, March 10, 2020 - 14:55
Tuesday, December 17, 2019 - 18:09