What does the clutter on your coffee table say about you? These paintings have some ideas

Nicholas Zirk paints portraits — but not of people's likenesses. Instead, he captures them through the objects littering their tables.

Nicholas Zirk paints portraits — but not of faces. Instead, he captures people through their belongings

Sunday Morning, 2019. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 48" x 60". (Nicholas Zirk)

For the past three or four years, Nicholas Zirk has been painting portraits. His scenes — almost always domestic and reliably set at a table — are littered with empty beer cans, chicken bones and spent cigarettes. You'll see teacups, doilies and magazines; there are submarine sandwiches, houseplants and dirty dishes. But, in Zirk's portraits, you won't really find any people.

The Toronto-based artist is a believer in the idea that you can tell a lot about a person by the objects they surround themselves with. So he portrays his subjects by painting their creature comforts: the playing cards, ashtrays and rolling papers that clutter their spaces. Though his paintings may not each picture a specific sitter, he says, they capture someone he certainly knows well. It's a scene he recognizes in the kitchens and countertops of a thousand peers.

That's because the person he is always painting is the "struggling millennial." "The Precariat," he calls them: gig workers, freelancers, the un- and underemployed, minimum-wage earners and others whose income is chronically unstable or inadequate. In the crumpled bottle caps and greasy pizza boxes, he sees his generation trying to cope with tremendous anxiety and economic stress. He renders their messes like tea leaves or tarot spreads, auspices waiting to be read. And in this year of utmost uncertainty, Zirk's paintings have become especially apt: we've all been shut inside, staring at our stuff and searching for some sign that things will be OK.

Proverbial Table Setting, Oil and Acrylic on Canvas, 48" x 60". (Nicholas Zirk)

Zirk's tablescapes began after visiting a friend in Vancouver whose busted coffee table was so littered with last night's party there wasn't space for a mug. "There was a real dynamism to the scene," he says. The artist sensed that the mess perhaps expressed something larger — more social and economic — than routine wild years.

In the iconography he's developed, the bottles and cans that people his panels represent vehicles for escape. "Maybe you don't watch America's Next Top Whatever," he says, "but you go drink a six-pack with your friends in the alley. I think that's the same thing." The cigarette butts perform a similar service. ("It's like a little vacation and you've got 20 little vacations in your pocket for 15 bucks.") They're not healthy coping tools, he recognizes, but together with junk food, entertainment media, miscellaneous parlour games and other small amusements — all of which appear on Zirk's tables — they form an important program of getaways, relief valves and reprieves to those who are faced with constant instability.

He sees something almost magical in the way such objects get used, like spells incanted for calm. They are, undeniably, rituals and Zirk expresses this by ordering his bottles into geometric patterns and lining his burnt matches into perfect rows. He makes the items appear like tokens waiting to be divined, because he perceives a deep want for meaning during this particularly chaotic slice of time.

The Provider, 2020. Oil and Acrylic on Canvas, 12" x 16". (Nicholas Zirk)

Relatedly, in recent paintings, augury has become something of a motif. This is the ancient Roman practice of reading omens from the observed behaviours of birds. Romulus and Remus, for instance, are said to have chosen the site where Rome would be founded based on vulture sightings. Zirk says his partner is more the augurist in their relationship. Whenever they spot a rare bird, something good seems to happen for her. Of course, this is ultimately "apophenia," he says — the human tendency to find connections where there are none. Nevertheless — and perhaps because of it — birds have become a regular image within his scenes.

The best example is a bravura four-by-five-foot painting titled The Augurist, which includes a cuckoo clock, a calendar showing geese, a box of Redbird matches, a plate of half-eaten chicken wings, a laptop playing Hitchcock's The Birds, a drift of origami swans, a chairback decorated with a bird cutaway (The Byrds' sixth album Sweetheart of the Rodeo propped against it), half a dozen drained Tecates with their iconic thunderbird logo, one Daffy Duck smiling smugly from the side of a coffee cup, and six genuine pigeons watching from outside the apartment window. The riddle it suggests is empty; its meaning is just that we want so badly for it to contain one.

The Augurist, 2020. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 48" x 60". (Nicholas Zirk)

Such is the world for Zirk's subjects, desperate for some sign that better days lie ahead. The artist's portraits may not contain any people, but if you've had experience with precarity — if you've ever felt a deep sense of uncertainty about your future — you may well find yourself painted there, sitting at the table.


Chris Hampton is a Hamilton-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton

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