Mario Zoots is a Denver-based artist who has explored the medium of collage for nearly fifteen years, and pushed against the genre’s boundaries and expectations.
Hundreds of aged covers torn from hardbound books radiate from the corner of Mario Zoots’s studio, tapering inward as they extend across both the north- and east-facing walls. On the inside of each cover, which face out toward the viewer, the artist has painted a unique, abstract shape in black. This work in progress—titled The Broken Narrative—will be on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver in February 2023 as part of a fifteen-year retrospective show for RedLine Contemporary Art Center. For now, though, Zoots continues producing more cover-based components, adding to the wall-hung assemblage in his Tank studio while tinkering with the overall form of the piece.
“I’ve used 246 book covers so far,” the Colorado-born and Denver-based artist says of The Broken Narrative. “I’m going to fill my walls out to both edges, edit out the pieces I don’t like, then create an organic grouping in the shape of an oval.”
While his primarily collage-based work may now be shown in museums, Zoots began his artistic career in his teens “growing up in West Denver [in the graffiti scene] off Federal. There was graffiti everywhere in the ’90s before the city had a dedicated team and started cleaning it up. If you went downtown or on East Colfax,” one could see it covering large sections of the Denver cityscape. “That was a big part of my life: documenting graffiti, writing graffiti, and trading pictures with artists around the country.”
“Around this time,” Zoots says, “I got on the internet and discovered Art Crimes,” which archived graffiti through photography. Inspired by the website, he created his own page—titled Freight Life—that documented graffiti on trains. “Art Crimes linked [to my site] and I met all these graffiti writers, networking with people outside of Denver.”
As he connected with more artists, Zoots “decided to go to art school because a lot of graffiti guys I knew were getting into graphic design.” But soon thereafter, he changed his focus to new media, centering his practice on media such as video and digital art.
While in school, Zoots “discovered collage in an art history class, which just made so much sense to me—a lot of Dada, Surrealism, and Cubist stuff. The usual suspects like Braque and Picasso.” He also learned that “collage experienced a resurgence during the Vietnam War through punk culture.” This connection between collage and punk resonated with the artist who, at the time, “was in a band and playing a lot of shows at Rhinoceropolis. There were a lot of cool flyers and art kids living in [River North Art District, or RiNo], doing really weird shit. That whole scene from 2005 to 2010 had a big influence on me.”
Dovetailing with the artist’s introduction to collage and punk was his exploration of blogs and social networking. “I created a Blogspot in 2006 and started posting all these fucking collages. Every day, I’d post two or three of them. Then I started using Flickr and met an international group of artists. The internet and my online network are a very big part of my story, [helping me get my start with shows in] Brooklyn, Rome, and LA before I had anything in Denver.”
Now that he established himself in both local and international communities—Zoots is represented in Denver by K Contemporary and in Mexico City by Daniela Elbahara—the artist is looking for ways to enlarge the field and practice of collage. To begin with, he wants to create collages that are “monumental in scale.” Pointing to a large gray, steel sculpture in his studio space, the artist says, “That’s a collage to me. I went to my friend’s metal shop and he let me pick the scrap from public artworks, which I collaged together into shapes that you can see in my work.”
Likewise, Zoots mentions that he enjoys “finding objects around the neighborhood that remind me of my collages. I want to put them in groupings and make assemblages in order to think about collage as more than cut paper and glue. What can it be? Everything is a fucking collage. Everything is made up of all these parts and put together. I’m interested in moving forward and exploring this philosophy of collage, pushing past the boundaries of what it is.”
In addition to creating collage and challenging his understanding of the medium, Zoots dedicates a considerable amount of time and energy promoting other collage artists. As a curatorial advisor for the Pardon Collection, he assists with the development of what’s intended to be “the largest private collection of collage in the world.”
He’s also the curator for the new daily email-based newsletter Collé. “We feature a new collage artist from around the world every morning,” he says. “It’s been very fulfilling because I get to meet so many artists.” If that’s not enough, Zoots also co-curates the special projects collaboration Hardly Soft with the artist Amber Cobb; and, with photographer Mark Sink, periodically curates shows under the Denver Collage Club moniker.
As for the future of his practice, Zoots notes that “my collages of the last decade have focused on consumerism, celebrities, pop, and American culture. Lately, I’ve wanted to grow beyond that and have a more worldly view.” Specifically, the artist mentions that, since his first Mexico City show in 2012, he’s noticed “something bubbling down there. I would say it’s one of the top five art markets in the world. Mexico is our neighbor, man. There’s so much I can see down there, and things don’t operate down there like up here. Something there is drawing me to it.” And it is that “something” south of the U.S. border that Zoots looks forward to exploring further in the coming years.