At Projective Eye Gallery, Don ZanFagna’s wild ride of vision and obsession

In his lifetime Don ZanFagna wore many hats – scholar-athlete, fighter pilot, academic, architect, environmentalist and prolific artist.

“Pulse Dome Project” at UNC Charlotte’s Projective Eye Gallery represents just a tiny sliver of ZanFagna’s creative output. These works on paper reveal ideas so complex and so oblivious to boundaries that they could be perceived in myriad ways: as visions – or parodies – or the observations of someone who knows more than most of us ever will and aspires to synthesize it all.

The Pulse Dome Project, an exploration in bio-architecture, was ZanFagna’s search for a way to “grow” a house and create a structure in harmony with nature.

In 2009, after living in Italy, New York, California, Illinois and elsewhere, ZanFagna, with his wife, Joyce, settled in Mount Pleasant, S.C., to be closer to family. Family members approached Mark Sloan, director and senior curator of the College of Charleston’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, asking him to look at ZanFagna’s work. Sloan plowed through paintings, drawings, sculptures and more, in a variety styles, but it was the Pulse Dome Project that drew him in.

In 2012, Sloan curated an exhibition featuring Pulse Dome, as well as work from ZanFagna’s “Cyborg Notes.”

At Projective Eye, Director of Galleries Crista Cammaroto drew from Sloan’s exhibition and supplemented it with work from other series.

This exhibition begins with 12 Pulse Dome pieces. In all of these mixed-media works on paper, the Pulse Dome’s shape remains the same, but it is rendered variously as a rainbow, grass, a network of tree branches, and soft, fleshy mounds. It is also presented in different environments, including what could be damp England, coastal Italy and the desert South.

Pulse Dome consumed ZanFagna for more than 20 years, yielding 100-plus works on paper and 100-plus sketchbooks. He tirelessly traveled and researched, amassing information from popular science magazines, theoretical writings, history, and nature, studying wasp’s nests, standing stones, and other structures, searching for some overlooked or hidden scrap of information in his quest to create sustainable shelter.

The work’s intensity hints at both determination and obsession. “The process was like popcorn in his teeth; he couldn’t let this go. It was this relentless thing going on in his brain,” Sloan says.

ZanFagna, who died in 2013, was a futurist, addressing issues – diminishing resources, climate change, the dark side of artificial intelligence and robotics – that seemed distant to the general public in the 1970s, when much this work was made, but affect us now.

“Cyborg Notes” are ZanFagna’s speculations on the mixing of human and robotic DNA. These works examine the confluence of the body and the machine with wry sexual references, impenetrable diagrams, and collaged magazine photographs.

ZanFagna’s work is crammed with details. Multiple viewings reveal more and more information – but no answers. It is entrancing and baffling, filled with unbreakable codes.

It is also open to interpretation, which extends not only to viewers but to curators as well. At Projective Eye, Cammaroto chose to end the show with a drawing of a building that resembles the LEED-certified Center City building, which houses the gallery.

While Cammaroto is proud of the building and admires ZanFagna’s notions about following the lead of nature, she says, “You are not really looking hard if you do not implicate yourself in the questioning.”

The work’s title? “It’s All A Big Joke.”