Russian literary theorist and critic Viktor Shklovsky once famously said that “art makes the familiar strange so that it can be freshly perceived.” This is fully borne out in the orderly Brooklyn Navy Yard studio of artist Zak Kitnick, where the eye is drawn to a series of marquetry works based on the design of a backgammon board and executed in bronze, brass, copper, stainless steel, galvanized steel, and aluminum.
“Found images and found objects and found patterns have always been important to my work,” says the California-born Kitnick, whose sculptural pieces often riff on ordinary objects. The Productive Years (Construction Tools Cookie Cutter Set—4 Piece—Saw, Pliers, Wrench, Hammer—Ann Clark—Tin Plated Steel (2020), for example, takes as its starting point handyman’s tools, whose shapes were cut out of a wax slab with cookie cutters before the slab was cast in bronze. It is currently on view in Kitnick’s show, “Crenellations,” at Planet Earth LLC in Woodbridge, Connecticut.
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“When I think of cookie cutters,” says Kitnick, “my mind goes to houses. What I love about cookie-cutter houses is that they’re based on seriality, variation, and repetition. You might have, for example, two possible roof lines available in two different paint colors. That gives you all these different combinations from the same four elements.”
The piece is one of a series of works made with commercially available cookie cutters whose themes—girl’s night out, baseball, baby shower—correspond to phases of life. “For The Productive Years,” Kitnick says, “I chose tools.”
To make each work in this series, Kitnick first cast a slab of foundry wax in the size he desired for the final sculpture. After heating his cookie cutters with a blowtorch until they were red hot, he donned leather gloves and pressed the cutters into the wax. While the wax was still warm and tacky, he flipped up each cutout so that it sat (and cooled) perpendicularly to its corresponding negative space.
“I probably made six or eight wax molds for The Productive Years, that I haven’t melted down yet,” Kitnick says. “I could potentially still cast any of them at a later date, but this is the one I chose.”
A foundry in California made bronze casts from the wax molds for the series. The first few times Kitnick sent works to the foundry, he says, “I made a box and sent it to the foundry, and then the foundry sent back the cast in a different box. Then I took the cast to the polisher, who sent it back in yet another box, which the gallery picked up before making their own box to store the work in. So, there were all these different packages made for just one object.”
Eventually Kitnick spray-painted through and around each work to create a stencil, then used the stencil to make a box with foam inserts that could be used over and over, to minimize environmental impact.
He also ended up doing his own polishing—“one of the filthiest jobs you can imagine,” he says. “But I still wasn’t sure how I wanted them to be finished.” Kitnick experimented with finishes for the pieces for several years. “After about a year, I used a chemical to darken the bronze,” he remembers, “which made it resemble the color of the foundry wax. But I wasn’t happy, so a year after that, I gave the pieces a really high polish. I lined the studio walls with plastic and used all these different high-RPM rotary tools along with a polishing product for bronze called rouge.”
In the end, the entire process of making the series took five years. A professor of mine once said, ‘When you think a work is done, sweep up,’” Kitnick says. “I remember the first time I had somebody help me in the studio. At the end of the day, they grabbed a broom and started sweeping, and I was, like, ‘No, I like to do that.’ Because that’s when the piece is done.”