Years before the word “selfie” was coined, prolific multimedia artist Isaiah Zagar captured his own self-portraits.
While the award-winning muralist is recognized by his kaleidoscopic works of public art, much of Zagar’s creative compendium encompasses private works, as well.
Recently, Adam Mazur, exhibitions manager of Zagar’s brainchild, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, 1020 South St., uncovered dozens of the artist’s painted reflections. Browsing through the landscape of canvases, which narrate Zagar’s influences, community and life over the past several decades, Mazur selected 20 to showcase, establishing PMG’s newest exhibition, “He Lives a Painted Life.”
“You can look at these individually and as a whole at the same time,” Mazur said. “It’s a conversation about Isaish’s spirit. One may see that this is a very gentle and very playful exhibition, but if one looks at each piece, you can see aspects of Isaiah’s thoughts and feelings. Some portraits are much more direct where it’s just playing with materials. Other portraits seem to develop to become more abstract…The abstraction of those memories start to become more like him, of him, or reveals more of him. So, it’s just an interplay between how Isaiah sees himself and that moment in each painting.”
As a student at the Pratt Institute of Art, the 19-year-old Zagar, a Philadelphia native, was given an assignment to gaze into the mirror and illustrate the individual staring back.
Heavily influenced by the abstract expressionism movement of New York City’s post-World War II cultural scene, as well as distinguished self-portrait artists such as Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh, the now 80-year-old Zagar found a zeal he’d often return to throughout his life.
“Everybody knows me as a mosaic artist, but over the years, I’ve done many self-portraits….It was something that affected me,” Zagar said. “The selfie, as it’s called now, and I was very touched by the artists who made self-portraits.”
One portion of the exhibit pays praise to modern painter Milton Avery, who Zargar says once showed him a stack of self-portrait-related works.
The exhibit’s portraits specifically were painted during the 1980s and 1990s. From the range in pallets to the spectrum of textures, the display unveils a visual evolution of Zagar’s self-perspective and world perspective throughout two decades.
For the artist, he says painting, as opposed to mosaic murals, is a curious medium to cultivate introspection.
Crafting his more than 200 murals around the city required a team of individuals creating works that were made to be displayed. But, Zagar says peeks of his personal art, which were not all necessarily intended to be seen, often surface in the whimsical labyrinth of his murals.
“Well, the paintings were a process that was solo, alone in the studio,” Zagar said. “And it was something that I could express my own inner longings, inner feelings and also the mysteriousness of being alone rather than being out on the street and working. And it all collapsed into one lifestyle that was a mixture between being a very lonely person and being a very gregarious person with a whole team of people working with me.”
Whether intentional or not, the mural and self-portrait inspirations often overlap with one another.
In Zagar’s mosaics around Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, as well as throughout the city, one may recognize contours of his face, yet, in his self-portraits, one will notice hints of his loved ones.
Resonating on a larger scale, the artist says his mosaics focus on the anonymous people who are everywhere – the people that we don’t know, and yet, when we look at the mosaics, we can see a reflection of ourselves, explaining that, “It’s the everybody that they see.”
“What I like about this show, too, is you’re seeing a glimpse of Isaiah’s all-encompassing kind of view that Isiah has towards art,” said Emily Smith, executive director of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. “It’s not just mosaics. He’s able to work on canvases and make all these paintings at the same time, working in the public area and the private. It’s literally an obsession of all materials, really.”
While producing art that, even at first might seem purely personal, Zagar explains that, over time, his work, especially the self-portraits, developed a sense of “glossolalia” – a religious phenomenon in which people can supposedly communicate through unknown languages.
Descending from different countries and speaking various languages, Zagar hopes audiences lingering the mosaic mazes of Philadelphia’s Magic Garden will all share a sense of feeling of “joy or love,” suggesting that the interactive experience of art does not need words in order to be conveyed.
“In a sense, what I’m doing, hopefully, is communicating something that is uncommunicable but has a vibration in each person who sees it and who comes here,” Zagar said. “So, that, for me, was a key in understanding what I wanted people to take away. It was something nonverbal. It was something about the spirit.”
Info: To learn more about the new exhibit, visit here.