Playing with Heavy Meta: “Living Art” at ZJU

Art has always riffed on art.

That’s meta, dude.  Like meta-language, the language people use to talk about language, or meta-criticism, reviewers snarking at each other.

Zombie Joe’s Festival of Living Art is nothing if not meta.  It’s a series of his trademark blackout moments, all of them designed in homage to famous paintings and sculptures.

Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson

Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson

He’s translated well-known images from oil and acrylic, bronze and steel back into the breathing human bodies that were their models. The suddenly familiar poses the actors create are an achievement on that level alone.

But there’s more going on.  At ZJU, there almost always is.

For one thing, some of the tableaux vivants move, though paintings and most sculptures don’t.  They take their images somewhere the original artist didn’t — usually somewhere disturbing, yet amusing.   (One piece, a joyful nod to sculptor Alexander Calder, moves like his “mobiles” do — and adds a lovely, smiling human to the mix.)

For another thing, if you’ve lived in LA a while you’ll recognize another reference — to Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters, where for 80 summers live performers have staged meticulous re-creations of famed artworks.  The Underground’s show, done on a shoestring by starving actors, seems to fling a challenge at Orange County’s big-budget orgy of high kitsch.

Finally, there’s the whole business of bringing the visual arts back into the flesh, where they began.  This, I think, is not a criticism (as in “living art” vs. “dead”) but a reminder.  It completes one revolution in an endless cycle: from the flesh, via inspiration and imagination, into art; then back into living, breathing beings as humans experience the art they have made.

Beneath the scrappy playfulness, a ZJU hallmark, I sense a serious reverence.   And the fierce, dedicated discipline of this art’s makers is unmistakeable.

As the familiar scenes flip by, accompanied by music both classical and current, we involuntarily say “Oh!” and “Aaaah” and sometimes “Awwww,” and we often laugh, even cheer.  Several among us shared the desire to see it again — after checking out Janson’s History of Art (there’s an online version), so we could get all the jokes.  And all the homages.

Note should be taken of the understated yet effective costume (and prop) work of Jeri Batzdorff and Zac Hughes.  And, of course, a show that has no stars requires a constellation:  Charlotte Bjornbak, Jason Britt, Sara Ceballos, Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson, Ian Heath, Erin Poland, Chelsea Rose, Sasha Snow, and Julian Vlcan all shine, making an impossibly difficult performance go down easily and most pleasingly.

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Festival of Living Art, directed by Zombie Joe and Zac Hughes.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Saturdays at 11:00 pm (just under 1 hour), through September 6.

Tickets: <www.zombiejoes.com> or (818) 202-4120.

Disclaimer:  ZJU has been my theatre home for a decade, and I’m honored to count Zombie Joe and many in the show as my friends.  But I had no part in conceiving or creating the Festival of Living Art.