Mining The Past For Clues About The Present : Jeff Zenick’s “2016-1960”

Jeff Zenick’s art ‘zines are always an intriguing enigma, specializing as they do in portrait illustrations that tease out the essential truths of people, locales, and even eras with a kind of intuitive eye for what matters most — his heavy, thick line (often, it appears to this critic, rendered directly in ink, maybe even magic marker) accentuating the “macro” elements of a person’s facial features while downplaying, frequently even bypassing, the “micro” details that would benefit from, even require, a finer line. The result is a quietly breathtaking blend of “big picture” accuracy with singular expressionism, pictures of other people that are clearly and indisputably the product of one artist’s sensibilities.

What all this means is that Zenick is uniquely positioned to do something not too many can — tell a thematically and conceptually dense story while eschewing narrative altogether. He sells the scope of his ever-evolving project short in the introduction he pens for his latest, 2016-1960, a self-published selection of high school and college yearbook portraits covering the years mentioned and arranged in the reverse chronology the title suggests, but otherwise provides just the right sort of preamble to put readers in the frame of mind necessary to feel, as opposed to merely “understand,” his aims. And while the notion of sixty densely-packed pages of small illustrations might seem a bit much, in truth it’s just the right amount to really flesh out the overall social history of our country that the book represents.

It only takes a few pages to start really getting into a “groove” as a reader with what’s happening, as subtle differences in people’s appearances become more pronounced over time and regional genetic traits begin to manifest themselves fully to the eye. By the halfway point of the book you can pretty well guess which part of the country is being featured on a given page without looking at the captions Zenick provides at the bottom, but his commitment to accuracy is nonetheless appreciated, and I can only imagine the reaction a person whose “picture from way back when” would have if they found themselves in here. A mix of delight and genuine surprise, most likely, with maybe a little bit of embarrassment at their hairstyle or choice in eyewear?

In any case, a kind of rhythm really does settle in as you pore through the contents herein, and a clear through-line from the present (-ish) to the past comes to the fore that goes beyond what the calendar year tells, and even what surface-level modes of dress and appearance belie — the people come to reflect the times and vice-versa, and what has remained the same stands out every bit as much as what’s changed. Very little about society as a whole circa 2016 resembled society as a whole circa 1960, it’s true, but individual people? Maybe we have more in common with folks from previous generations than we think.

Clearly, this modest ‘zine provides fodder for a lot of reflection, and rewards the act of spending time with it, but it would be a mistake to believe that it’s an inherently nostalgic piece of work, even if at first it likely sounds it. Rather, it’s a holistic and comprehensive visual representation of both who we were and who we are, and consequently offers a springboard for the imagination to visualize where we’re going. Only the most immediate and unmediated art has the capability to engender such a complex series of responses, and it helps an awful lot that Zenick seems to draw every bit as much with his heart as he does with his hand and his brain — hell, if you want to pull off something like this and really do it right, all three have to equally engaged.

If, then, I might be so bold as to offer a piece of advice to prospective readers beyond a simple “hell yes you should buy this,” I would suggest settling in with a cup of coffee or your warm beverage of choice and make an evening of this book. Let it wash over and through you, pore over each image, and understand that a portrait is an image not just of a person, but of the life they’ve lived and the future they are (or were, as the case may be) dreaming of. It’s true for each of us, and it’s true for the sum total of all of us.


2016-1960 is available for $6.00 from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half distro at

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