They’re the creatures that plague your nightmares; the monsters hiding under the bed; the shadows looming in dim corners; other-worldly entities that transcend time and space; demons that beg to come out and play. For more than two decades, artist Chet Zar has been rendering these beings that are bred in the imagination and subconscious. His creations populate the realm of Dark Art, a movement that exudes no fear when it comes to embracing the macabre, grotesque and uncanny.
Something Dark Art does so well is provoke. It rouses emotion. It knocks on the door of the psyche. It terrifies and mystifies. Chet Zar and the many other artists in this scene don’t shy away from presenting the grisly side of life and the world. They expose the underbelly of human nature and in doing so, challenge onlookers to question their reality and preconceived notions.
There have been several artists throughout history that have portrayed gruesome imagery and are an inspiration to Zar. One is Hieronymus Bosch, a 15th-century painter who depicted visions of hell and sin. Zdzislaw Beksiński and H.R. Giger, whose works are widely lauded for their morbid themes, have also made a significant impact on him.
Anyone familiar with Zar knows he has an impressive body of work. Before dedicating himself full time to fine art in 2000, he was a special effects makeup artist and designer in the movie industry. He’s collaborated with director Guillermo del Toro, metal band Tool and many other notable figures. The documentary Chet Zar: I Like To Paint Monsters gives viewers a fantastic in-depth look at the artist and his background.
After Zar left his career in film to unleash his creative prowess, he began producing incredible pieces that appealed to a diverse audience, from art collectors to horror fans. He’s used his platform to elevate awareness of Dark Art, and this mission culminated in the formation of the Dark Art Society—a community of artists, collectors and advocates of the Dark Art scene. The group is on Patreon where supporters can become a member for as little as $1 per month. Plus, Zar hosts the official podcast where he interviews artists and discusses topics ranging from literature to the paranormal. The Dark Art Society has seen great growth since its inception and continues to flourish.
In the following interview, Chet Zar talks more about the Dark Art Society, the need to increase recognition of Dark Art and his hopes for the future of the scene.
Q: There aren’t many communities out there like the Dark Art Society dedicated to the Dark Art movement. How did the concept of DAS form? Has it become what you envisioned?
A: It all started during the production of the documentary that Mike Correll made about me called “Chet Zar: I Like to Paint Monsters”. As Mike would come out to LA to visit with me and shoot B roll footage of me at tattoo conventions and art shows I was in, we would have these in-depth conversations about where we were in the doc, how it was developing and how to move forward. It was very collaborative in that way. But during one of these chats we kind of realized how big the Dark Art scene was getting and decided that the doc should reflect that. As much as it was a doc about my career it would also become a doc about the whole Dark Art scene. From those talks came the idea of the Dark Art Society, creating a community that would help galvanize this grassroots art movement that was very scattered. Part of the reason for it also was that everybody on the ground was referring to the type of work we do as “Dark Art” and I felt like we should take advantage of that and kind of “brand” the scene using the term. I got a bit of pushback from other artists within the scene (who wanted a cooler name), but my perspective is this: the name is not the important part. The important part is that we HAVE a name. Look at any art movement- Surrealism, Impressionism, Cubism, etc. Think about those names out of context. They are just weird words that sound fancy, but they don’t really describe the full scope of what those art movements have to offer. It’s the artwork within the movement that makes the title cool, not the other way around. “Lowbrow Art” is a good example of this. Anyway, I thought, “Everybody is calling it Dark Art so why not just lean into it and settle on that name and get on to more important things?” It’s also vague yet still descriptive and the most important aspect of it is that when somebody says, “Dark Art,” you know exactly what they are talking about!
Around this time Mike and I became aware of an art podcast that David Stoupakis was doing and that gave us the idea of starting our own podcast, using the Dark Art Society moniker. From that, the Dark Art Society Patreon was created ( Patreon.com/darkartsociety ) and it was from the private DAS Patreon Facebook group and website that the community really started to develop. And I have to say that it has not only become what we had envisioned but it has surpassed it greatly! It has grown in ways I had not anticipated (online art jams, related group projects, artistic growth of members, etc.). It has been extremely gratifying.
Q: With DAS, you’ve set up community hubs through the official website, social media and Patreon, plus you produce a podcast where you’ve interviewed a prolific number of gifted artists. Not many media outlets are highlighting artists creating Dark Art. Why do you think it’s important to showcase this overlooked talent? And how has doing the podcast and interacting with so many guests affected your relationship with the Dark Art scene?
A: The fact that not many others are doing it is the reason. There is a podcast of just about any subject you can think of. This is my favorite kind of artwork so why isn’t there a podcast out there for me? It’s also one more piece to the puzzle in terms of establishing it as a legitimate art movement. The more we use the term and represent it with the best that this scene has to offer, the more of a foothold we can get. And some of the best contemporary painters and sculptors fall within the Dark Art category so they deserve it. The other reason I think about a lot is that Dark Art seems to me to be the most relevant art scene for the times we currently live in. This is truly the time for Dark Artists. Between the ongoing climate crisis, the global pandemic, civil unrest and the breakdown of so many trusted institutions, etc….do I need to go on? Ha-ha. Dark times call for Dark Art.
I’m not sure how interviewing all these amazing artists has changed my relationship to the scene. Maybe that is for other folks to say but I feel a sense of responsibility to make sure it doesn’t get taken over by people with their hearts in the wrong place. I want to cultivate it so that it can keep growing and become all it can be. I think it serves an important purpose in society.
Talking with so many Dark Artists has been truly enriching to me personally. It proves over and over to me what Mike and I used to say all the time during our chats: “Dark Art people are way more kind than the average person!” Ha-ha. It’s true, at least in my experience. They generally seem to be more sensitive to the plight of others, they love animals (many, including myself, don’t eat them for this reason) and they are a very inclusive group. While we love Dark Art, we also love art in general. This is similar to the tattoo world in that way. Nearly all of the tattoo artists I have met not only LOVE Dark Art with a real passion, but they love and appreciate all art.
Q: It seems that because of the more macabre or grotesque nature of Dark Art, that mainstream society has been hesitant to accept it. Do you think it’s overlooked because it’s not taken seriously by art critics? And what are some of the stigmas related to Dark Art that you’d like to see dispelled?
A: 100%. I think the rejection of Dark Art works in the same way that the rejection of the idea that we all have a shadow side. People don’t like to admit that. “Influencers” on Instagram will show you their happy, shiny life in pretty pictures and like to pretend that they don’t have fears, doubts and anxieties. Dark Art is the opposite of that. It’s bringing the things we don’t like to look at out of the shadows and into the light in a way that feels safe. I think it can be a really helpful tool for anybody to use. They just have to get past the surface and look deeper. By embracing the darkness in this way we help it to become more acceptable to “normal people” and then it can be utilized and appreciated by them.
One of the biggest stigmas that I want to dispel is that Dark Art is “evil.” It is the opposite of evil. My favorite Jung quote is “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” That kind of says it all to me. Dark Art is an expression of transmutation of evil into good, of exploring our own darkness and turning it into something beautiful, engaging and personally enriching for the artist and viewer alike.
There are other misconceptions that I would like dispelled (it’s not serious, it’s only for angsty teenagers, etc.).
Q: Looking at the trajectory of Dark Art over time, how has it evolved in your eyes?
A: I think it has evolved in many ways alongside all movements of representational art, new materials, techniques and stuff like that. But one area where Dark Art has really grown is in the digital realm. There are a lot of Dark Artists who are taking advantage of 3D digital sculpting, animating and using the computer to paint with. Maybe it’s because we are less tied down to tradition. But I don’t think of it as evolution as much as exploration. The dark recesses of our psyche are an endless well of subject matter. This is one of the reasons I love it so much. The human soul is so deep that you will never run out of ideas. And the dark stuff is just so much fun!
Q: What are your hopes for the Dark Art Society and the Dark Art scene as a whole, in the coming years?
A: I want to see it flourish. I would like it to be considered by more academics and critics, although this is not crucial for me personally. Fuck ‘em if they don’t get it, ha-ha! But I would kind of like to see it get its day in court, so to speak. Somebody still needs to tell me why a painting of a bowl of fruit is a serious piece of art, but an equally well rendered monster is not. I would argue that the monster painting (done well) is an even MORE serious piece of art. But they should both be able to coexist in the art world and be given equal consideration.
On a more practical level, I would love to see an official DAS convention. One thing we have talked about a lot in the group is setting up booths at art fairs and conventions to advocate for Dark Art. Explain to people why it is important, etc. Give regular folks a reason to consider it. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” might be a good slogan, ha-ha.
Q: Before we wrap this up, what projects are you working on and any teasers you can leave readers in regard to upcoming endeavors?
A: I am currently working on keeping up with the weekly podcast interviews, finishing some outstanding commissions and running my own personal Patreon ( Patreon.com/chetzar ). I post all of my new work on there as it happens, in stages. I also have different tiers that offer things like time lapse videos, pro tips and painting and sculpting tutorials. At the higher levels I also have a Collector’s tier for serious collectors to get the opportunity to purchase new print and merch releases before the general public as well as significant discounts on all of my work. I also have a one-on-one Mentorship tier where I have a monthly Skype meeting with artists to give artistic and art career advice.
But the biggest project I have is my Dy5topia book project. I raised money for it on Kickstarter and (embarrassingly) it’s over 4 years late now! It was a huge undertaking and I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. But the good news is that it is almost finished up now. It’s basically a guidebook to the world I have been painting over my fine art career. Mike Correll basically interviewed me about every single painting that I had ever painted and organized it all and wrote the text (he is an excellent writer) and from that we were able to discover a whole universe of characters, good guys and bad guys, territories, etc. It puts everything in a mythological context and presents itself like it’s a guidebook to a real place (albeit in another dimension). I am really excited about it!
To follow and support Chet Zar and the Dark Art Society, check out the links below!