Pittsburgh artist balances the mystics and man

Courtesy of Zach Brown | Zach Brown Art | "Artemis as Apollo"were created with contrasting glazes to emphasize the shift from lunar to solar.

Emily Fritz | A&E Editor

Opening the doors to 707 Penn Gallery, you are greeted with the powerful smell of perfume, transforming the small space into an altar for the gods, old and new. Along the walls are 12 paintings, called “Death of a Lunar Cult,” showcasing the shift from the morose and ominous underworld toward the shimmering glow of the new age.

This cryptic and otherworldly display was created by local Pittsburgh-born artist, Zach Brown. Self-described as working most frequently with themes of mythology and mortality, Brown became interested in what lays beyond at an early age.

“I was always drawn to the idea that there’s things that are much older than I have any concept of,” he said. “I liked old stone, I liked old structures and things that felt eternal.”

Drawing upon the resurgence of pagan themes during the Renaissance and old-world painting and glazing techniques, Brown has created a signature style that delves into mysticism and ethereality.

Brown’s original concept for the collection was to create an underworld burial show, which included a five-by-ten boat painting surrounded by the gods of sleep, death, night and darkness (Hypnos, Thanatos, Nyx and Erebus). However, the boat painting sold more than a year before the exhibition was set to open with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Instead, Brown elected to focus on the similarities and differences between cultures and ancient histories.

Now the show was “one foot in the underworld, one foot in the daylight,” Brown explained.

“[There were] different cultures occupying the same place at the same time, like Apollonian and Dionysian ideas [and I was] weighing them against each other. … You have Perseus and Medusa, and then you have the Sphinx and Oedipus interacting. [That’s where] those two [realms] meet. That’s kind of how the show came together.”

The underworld, or lunar, side of the exhibit is decorated with deep shades of greens and blues, creating a creeping comfort in the darkness of its occupants. Meanwhile, the solar side of the exhibit was adorned with precious golds and glowing hues, rightfully named “Dawn 1-5.”

The warriors who belonged to the dawn were left anonymous, with helmets covering their faces and uniformed in leaves from the ginkgo tree. Having encountered the golden foliage in the Allegheny cemetery, Brown dressed them similar to “Peter Pan covered in leaves, or fish scales on the early Robin costume.”

In the intersection of the two halves was a portrait of “Artemis as Apollo.”

Although Artemis is known as the patron goddess of the moon in Greek mythology, she is portrayed with the golden palette of the solar arc and the stern, unwavering expressions of the lunar underworld.

Her role as an entity also encompasses the hunt, which Brown emphasized as timeless and useful in the new-age solar storyline.

“War was eternal and always around waiting for the best practitioner, which was man,” he said. “Different gods take on different faces and stay useful. They change and adapt with [time.] It seemed appropriate to move her into her brother’s role as I changed from the underworld to solar.”

Enjoying visual art can be largely intimidating, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the art scene. “The Death of a Lunar Cult” was intentionally created without additional context. Brown is an avid supporter of open interpretation and individual meaning.

“You don’t have to have an art history background,” he said. “You just let it wash over you.”

In an age characterized by activism and direct messaging in the visual arts, Brown noticed that people have started to seek out the predetermined meanings of shows, movies and books. YouTube channels dedicated to explaining pop culture have started to get in the way of appreciating what a work means to us on an individual level.

“Have enough confidence to form your own opinions about something and talk about it. It’s not about being right or wrong,” said Brown.

707 Penn Gallery is a smaller venue that is free to all. Open hours are from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, with a single exhibit on display at a time.

“It acts more as an altar. It’s really fun when you create something almost like a temple with all the artwork in it. You know, it’s like, the Rothko Chapel type thing, where you’re kind of dictating the whole environment, and you get to see it all in one place.”