Frequently unloved and overlooked, Australia’s classic suburban architecture is worth celebrating in the eyes of this artist.
They used to be everywhere in the NSW coastal region of the Illawarra but mid-20th-century red-brick and fibro homes are disappearing. “You can’t really heritage-list asbestos houses,” says 31-year-old Wollongong-born artist Christopher Zanko. “Which is one reason why they’re not respected as much – because of the materials.”
Knocked up quickly and cheaply to accommodate migrants and others who arrived after World War II to work in the local coal mines and steelworks, these suburban houses may have an assembly-line quality but their inhabitants found ways to make them their own. “In houses I’ve lived in, I’ve found cast-concrete pots and fruit trees – ghosts or relics of people who’ve lived there 50 years ago,” says the University of Wollongong creative arts graduate and one-time teenage graffiti artist. “When a bulldozer takes out one of these places, it takes that sense of history with it. When the built environment is changing so rapidly, it’s fuel for me wanting to create a sense of permanency.”
Zanko has done that through his woodblock artworks. “Carving into the wood is similar to writing your name in cement.” He starts with a photograph (often snapped on neighbourhood walks with his four-year-old daughter, Lux), which captures a serendipitous moment – when the sun hits an awning and casts an appealing shadow, for instance. He draws on a timber board and chisels into it, before painting in the colours and rolling black all over the relief carving as if he’s going to make a print – but doesn’t. “These homes were mass-produced at the time,” says Zanko, whose influences include Japanese woodblock printmakers and Australian modernist Margaret Preston. “But the retention of the carved woodblock highlights their individuality.”
Awards: Sulman Prize finalist, 2022; Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship finalist, 2020; Wynne Prize finalist, 2019
What the critics say: “Zanko’s work intimates an understanding of broad social and economic forces and how these intersect with aesthetics. This deepens his work beyond the surface of façades and streetscapes.” – Brooke Boland, Artist Profile magazine
Image credit: Kane Grosvenor