Vision Quest: The Drawings and Journeys of Domenico Zindato

Domenico Zindato insists he is not a folk artist. Indeed, the term seems out of place for the 47-year-old global traveler who has resided in Italy, Berlin, India, and Mexico. To pin him down to any folk tradition would be to misrepresent the diversity of his experiences.

Yet what are we to make of his bright, richly patterned drawings with their recurring figures of humans and animals—birds, fish, horses—connected through lines that evoke veins or umbilical cords that all migrate towards a common destination? Over and over again, the vividly colored pieces speak a kind of personal mythology. There is a tale here of the unity of nature, of the strength of the spirit, of a pull towards some transcendental truth.

"This Transcends That," Pastels, Inks, and Acrylics on Handmade Paper, 9.8" x 15.7".

“This Transcends That,” Pastels, Inks, and Acrylics on Handmade Paper, 9.8″ x 15.7″.

Zindato talks about the recurring forms as his “vocabulary.” If the forms are words, then there is a syntax here, too, in the continuous patterns that span across the different areas of flat color, and in the lines that tie human and animal forms together, like the veins of a living body. Zindato thinks of his artistic output as all part of the same overall ‘work’ (he criticizes the lack of continuity in the work of artists defined by their ‘periods’): the images testify to a lifelong attempt to spell out some universal message about what it means to be human.

Contemplating one of Zindato’s works can take hours as one’s gaze switches between the minute details of his patterns—like pieces of colored glass in a mosaic—and the overall composition, large and tightly woven like a tapestry. What begins as aesthetic exploration can lead one on a spiritual journey.

"At Time Zero," Pastels, Inks, and Acrylics on Handmade Paper, 9.8" x 15.7".

“At Time Zero,” Pastels, Inks, and Acrylics on Handmade Paper, 9.8″ x 15.7″.

The power of Zindato’s drawings cannot be adequately explained in words; it arises only through prolonged viewing. While Zindato is reluctant to explain his own art, hearing about his journeys adds to the range of experiences that it incites. The pictures begin to make sense as part of his ongoing vision quest in which the viewer can partake.

We meet in the cafe of a museum exhibiting South and Central Asian art in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Our conversation begins with a simple question: Where are you from, and how did you get here? Zindato answers for over an hour, interrupting himself only to collect his thoughts or to calculate which year corresponds to the event he is describing. Each chapter of his story weaves into the next not unlike the patterns of his drawings.

Born and raised in southern Italy, Zindato took to the visual arts while in secondary school. He began taking photographs at the age of sixteen, using a camera given to him by his father. At the same time, Zindato performed in cabarets and was a member of a noise band. About the latter, he says, “Imagine somebody pounding on a piano while I ran around screaming, growling, and banging on a plastic tub and you’ll get the idea.”

However, the artist’s search for self-expression did lead to some initial disillusionment. In 1988, twenty-year-old Zindato was nearly finished with his program at a Rome university and in the midst of a crisis. He was frustrated by the judgments of those around him: fellow Italians were not so welcoming of his extravagant hairstyles, golden shoes, or the beard that covered only half of his face. “Because I was so eccentric,” he recalls, “I was looking for a place where I could fit in.”

Pastels, Inks, and Acrylics on Handmade Paper, 9.8" x 15.7".

Domenico Zindato on a recent visit to New York.

Berlin in the late eighties offered such a place. The walled-in city was the global capital of drifters, dropouts, and avant-garde visionaries; a haven where “with very little, you could find what you were looking for and do whatever you liked.” Zindato felt “immediately accepted.” He got involved in the city’s nightlife, making sets and decorations for parties.

When the Berlin Wall suddenly fell in 1989, the sense of freedom and creativity peaked. Semi-legal raves took over vacated buildings; techno beats reverberated off sections of the Wall, now broken up and abandoned. By then, Zindato “knew everybody.” The artist speaks humbly about having been part of a historic movement. He became one of the organizers of the first Love Parade, a now legendary ‘rave on wheels’, and managed a dance club. The latter, he notes with a laugh, ended “disastrously” thanks to his complete lack of accounting experience. Regardless, here Zindato had found his tribe: “the colorful freaks like myself that made up the indigenous people of the Berlin underground.”

In the early nineties, as Berlin was heading down the path towards normalization, Zindato was eager to explore new territory. Before embarking on a month-long excursion into the nightlife of Goa, he traveled around India, taking in its kaleidoscope of color and textured fabrics. A year later, in 1994, Zindato and two artist friends drove along the backroads of rural Mexico in a battered Volkswagen bus. They visited several communities of indigenous peoples, created art out of their home on wheels, and dosed themselves with psychedelics like peyote and mushrooms. The sights and sensations of Mexico, like those of India, enriched Zindato’s artistic range and “vocabulary.”

Pastels, Inks, and Acrylics on Handmade Paper, 9.8" x 15.7".

“For All of Us in Each Other,” Pastels, Inks, and Acrylics on Handmade Paper, 9.8″ x 15.7″.

Whereas his earlier drawings had been done in black ink on plain white paper, the colors and textures of the places he had seen were becoming ever more present. By this time, Zindato reflects, his works had developed to the point where they presented “more density of color” and “more harmonious” visuals where “everything fit.” Zindato had also found the next place where he felt he belonged: after post-Wall Berlin had “started to feel heavy,” he decided to relocate to Mexico (today he lives with his partner in a sunny, spacious home in Cuernavaca).

On the way back to Mexico from Berlin, Zindato stopped over in New York. This brief stay would become a crucial point in his journey. At a club, he ran into a friend, another Berlin emigre, who insisted they go the very next morning to show Zindato’s work to Phyllis Kind, one of the early proponents of the outsider art movement from the seventies and eighties. Zindato remembers anxiously waiting in the lobby of the Phyllis Kind Gallery while its formidable owner scrutinized his portfolio behind a locked door.

"I am Mountain I am River," Pastels, Inks, and Acrylics on Handmade Paper, 9.8" x 15.7".

“I am Mountain I am River,” Pastels, Inks, and Acrylics on Handmade Paper, 9.8″ x 15.7″.

The rendezvous was a success—ten years later, his works have been featured in group and solo shows in eight countries. Zindato’s drawings are part of the collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York and other major fine art museums. Exhibitions in which he took part have been reviewed in Art in America and The New York Times, and his name appears on the Christie’s auction catalog. The chance meeting in New York wound together the separate strands of Zindato’s travels and launched him into the global art world. This wealth of international experience is present in the artist’s work: perhaps, for someone who has found a sense of belonging on three continents, the idea could take root that all beings are mystically connected in a universal network.

Pastels, Inks, and Acrylics on Handmade Paper, 9.8" x 15.7".

“From Watching and Listing We Learned,” Pastels, Inks, and Acrylics on Handmade Paper, 9.8″ x 15.7″.

Zindato’s method of artmaking does not entail a direct translation of his life into images. Rather, it is spontaneous and open-ended. To create his drawings, he enters into a state of complete focus and immersion. He begins with handmade paper — his favorites are the thinner Japanese and cotton varieties. It is essential that the material “speaks” to him through its texture, what Zindato refers to as “its calling.” Next, he uses his fingers to spread pigments into patches on the paper’s surface until it resembles an abstract painting. Finally, he sets to work with very fine brushes and nib pens, adding forms, patterns, and sometimes words.

“It develops as I go along,” Zindato says. He starts each new piece with no idea of how it will take shape or what it might look like when finished. “When it feels ready, it’s done,” and he merely “turns the page” by starting on another drawing. In this way, each finished piece constitutes one story of many told in the same language. While the drawings extend beyond the concrete events of Zindato’s life, as well as beyond any of the distinct visual cultures he has encountered, there is something in his work of the twists and turns of his own exploration.

Any resemblance between the folk art of certain traditions and his own creations, Zindato says, must be due to “buried truths or an ancient, shared language” which can be “brought out through pure emotion.” In endlessly traversing this mystical territory, Zindato has undertaken a personal vision quest where art constitutes both the means and the goal of the journey.