Shadow boxes filled with beautiful death
If Zak Elstein is right, the future on this planet doesn’t look bright for most humans. Thanks to our overconsumption and unsustainable growth, there will be a tipping point and Earth ultimately will win the battle. “She’ll shift a few gears, change a couple of settings, and humanity will no longer find this a comfortable place to be.”
That’s how he puts it in the artist statement for his current Shadow Box Exhibit on the walls at the Winchester Goose through March 23. It’s for the humans who survive Earth’s reset that he’s made these shadow boxes filled with animal bones, dead flowers and various bits of rusted detritus.
“I wonder what will have meaning for them in a world that has rejected their kind.”
That’s a heavy notion to consider, yet proves to be a unique and enjoyable exercise while touring the exhibit and nursing a snifter of potent craft beer.
Each shadow box is constructed with unfinished wood and contains a delicately arranged scene behind glass, and the scenes inside are further affected by battery-powered colored lights. The viewer is welcome to operate the three-way switch(es) on the front of the box—with at least two lighting options available on each piece—and alter the mood with different colors, light patterns and shifting shadows.
Like shrines featuring relics of mysterious creatures, the boxes are darkly beautiful.
In one, a small animal skull is suspended from a branch with a clutch of feathers dangling beneath an overgrown forest of dead star thistle on both sides. When the pink light comes on, dark shapes in the background transform into wings for the skull creature, but when switched to the red light, the shapes shift into a spooky mountain range.
In another, against the glow of a fiery orange sky and surrounded by dry shrubs filled with thorns, is a bird skull fused to a rust-covered piece of metal on one side opposite a tree containing various rusted metal bits and what looks like a bird’s femur. It looks like the aftermath of a deadly confrontation in the dry desert of the Old West.
By terrible coincidence, Elstein has recently found himself in a position to ponder meaning in a world upended by climate-change-enhanced disaster. He lost his Concow home in the Camp Fire, and some of the only things that survived are a dozen or so of the shadow boxes in his show. The morning of the fire, he scrambled to grab the pieces he’d been working on and he says by the time he’d packed them, his property was on fire. Had he known how close the flames were, he said he wouldn’t have started with the art.
When asked about the parallels between his own life and the post-disaster scenario laid out in the show’s artist statement, Elstein answered via email: “I hadn’t really thought about it that way before. But the version of myself I was able to recollect has largely been based on the things I took from the fire. Whereas the parts of me that were represented by the things I lost seem strange and distant.”
There are a few items salvaged from his Concow property that made it into these shadow boxes, including some bird wings in one that have been arranged in a bouquet and surrounded by dry white flowers all bathed in a cool blue light. Elstein says he lost a couple cats in the fire, and this piece appears to be an homage. “My favorite was an absolute terror. I hope that those wings are the evidence that he made it, and is still out there killing things.”