There Is No Shelter For The Nomad: Kati Heck at Corbett vs Dempsey

December 21, 2015 · Print This Article

By Kevin Blake 

The front tire wobbles as the weight of the planking jerks the fork of the bicycle from side to side. It will take rhythm to get anywhere. It will require a centering–a perfect distribution of the unbalanced load. The salvaged wood scrap stretches across the handlebars, bending under its own heft as it distances from the bicycle on both ends. There are bricks in the back basket–a milk crate strapped with rope to the frame. It rubs the back tire like an out-of-place brake pad…the every-other-rotation kind of rub. The tires have the pancaked look of low air where the rubber meets the road. Conditions are ripe for an array of potentials.

This is a moment in a story. It is not necessarily the beginning, the climax, or the end. It is a picture of a picture–the recollection of an unclear memory, that morphs into clairvoyance only as it is repeated and deployed situationally. It is the word made flesh, and the flesh made word. It is the construction of one’s identity from available material–material that is both tangible and ethereal.

Überhaupt: was macht der Zeitgeist? 2015, oil, pencil on stitched canvas 90 1/2 x 137 3/4 inches, photo courtesy of Robin Dluzen

As I walked through Kati Heck’s inaugural exhibition, “Ins Büro!” at Corbett vs Dempsey, I found myself thinking about my own life as a scavenger–hoarding all the potential I could carry. I was seeing similar moments described in Heck’s images–potentials picked out of the mundane, or the recently discarded, and harvested to distribute into complex riddles with seemingly endless possibility. On the canvases, I could see the dialogue between the painter and the thinker. Between the subject and the object. Between the story and the fragmented reality in which it exists.

These concurrent and perpetual dialogues in Heck’s work are best understood through their relationships with the paint itself. For example, in the faces of central figures, there appears to be a deeply personal connection–not just to the sitter–but also to the technical precision by which she chooses to treat the face. Where there are sections of amplified care–smaller brushwork, attention to detail, and range in palette–there also seems to be amplified metaphor, or keys to following the artist’s inner dialogue.

ALLES-MEHR 2015, oil on canvas, 41 3/4 x 35 1/2 inches

“Alles-Mehr,” which google translated for me as “everything-more,” exemplifies this notion. In “Alles-Mehr,” one can follow the hierarchy of paint distribution–from the face, down to the jar of pickles, to the fabric, to the wood of the chair, to the skin, and to the wall. To me, the smaller marks represent larger roles in the image’s story. The larger marks are painting maneuvers. Small is big. Big is small. All are equally important to its existence as a painting–or as an aesthetically considered object of contemplation.

Here, a man appears to be in a pickle–as they say–four fingers deep. This idiom becomes the bedrock of the painting and it places the character in an air of mischief with an assuming look of low-cunning. The disappearing arm holds the glowing decoy–the legerdemain of the common wizard.  Admittedly, this is merely one possible thread in a heap of narrative grist, but my guess is as good as the next viewer, and it doesn’t matter much if anyone gets it “right.”

Der süssliche Erinnerungsmehrwert 2015, oil on canvas, 94 1/2 x 78 3/4 inches photo courtesy of Robin Dluzen

In the painting, “Der süssliche Erinnerungsmehrwert,” Heck introduces a sculptural element to the painting by sewing canvas to the bottom of the frame where it becomes an extension of the painted fabric–it literally flows off of the rectangle and spills onto the floor. This move is indicative of Heck’s unflinching intuition–uninterrupted by any hesitation from exterior pressures. She doesn’t make decisions based on how it will be received, (see the velvet frame around the bad girl, “Petit Pity,” in the corner of the show)she responds directly to the impulse. Directly to the vision. Anything that is susceptible to transformation, is transformed. There is no shelter for this nomad–and although her work pulsates with influences from the establishment, she cannot be pinned down. She emerges with a triumph, or at least the execution and invention of something that could not be made by anyone else.

Petit Pity 2015, oil on canvas, velvet frame, 63 x 47 1/4 inches

In an interview for the exhibition catalog, Heck tells gallerists John Corbett and Jim Dempsey, that the title of the show, “Ins Büro,” means “go to the office” and for her, the office is the bed she keeps in her studio. It is a factory of dreams from which she extracts and deploys content, stamping them with her industrious logo before they leave the warehouse.  In a fractal universe fragmented further by processes of the human mind, it is no wonder that  Heck turns to her dreams as a means of deciphering any truth from the ether. The result may be a world without language. A visual world. A world seen and understood simultaneously.

The compulsion to realize this utopia is undeniable. It wants to be seen. It wants to be described. It is on the tip of your tongue too–the cusp of your visual field as you lay in the darkness and attempt to solve the world’s puzzles in the most quiet of spaces–the safest of landscapes–your dreams. However, it never quite satisfies. It never quite gives you the tools to see that place and how it works. It appears partial. As disconnected. As unimportant. It appears as meaningless potential–a moment frozen until it is thawed and put to work. Kati Heck in her Antwerp studio, attempts to bring that flight of fancy out of the castle in the sky and into her own reality. Whatever is constructed there–out of whatever material is available to revolutionize–may not be true, but for the maker, it is true enough.

If I were you, I’d go have a peak at her temporary office.



Corbett vs. Dempsey

1120 N. Ashland Avenue 3rd Floor

Chicago, IL 60622

Kati Heck

December 11-January 26, 2016

Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm

      and by appointment

Blind Man’s Bluff: Tom Torluemke at Linda Warren Projects

April 29, 2015 · Print This Article

Rolled Over 2010 acrylic, wood, and masonite 56″ x 96″

By Kevin Blake 

This is a recurring dream.

I am suspended over an in-ground pool of which I can only see a portion. The pool juts out of the bottom left corner of the frame–a rectangular frame. The edge of the pool makes an L shape–horizontally to the middle of the frame and at a right angle to the bottom boundary. The negative space is a surrounding sun-bleached concrete–an infinite wall contained only by the imaginary frame of the image. My limbs are sprawled out as if they are tied to an invisible force that keeps me from retracting. I lay idle just inches from the water, but I cannot touch. I cannot feel the textures. I cannot sense the temperature, though it appears to be warm–it appears to be late afternoon. It appears to be desert-like. Arid. Crisp. Cloudless. Stark.

The same external force that keeps me afloat, pulls me wildly in a spinning motion to an extreme height where I can see the pool in its entirety. As I reach the apex of this pull, it allows me a brief pause before dropping me and stopping me just inches before I hit the water. It leaves me there, in what feels like dangerous proximity to a glass-like surface. I have no physical control. No power. I can only wait to be pulled from idle and dropped again. As I plunge toward the pool, the water disappears, and I break through the powerless dream–returning to a powerless reality. I wake up with the feeling of being dropped that often plagues the dreams of many. That uneasiness. That bubble in the stomach. That rush to the brain.

The value of a dream is only quantifiable in the mind of the dreamer. It becomes something more than a dream only when a metaphor is established–and thereby attached–as the answer to an otherwise abstract experience. Like spinning around with a blindfold and trying to find people in the dark, the recurring dream becomes something more, when anticipatory and imaginative thinking creates an alteration of behavior, a change in consciousness, or a way to find things in the dark. It can become the blueprint for an artistic practice.

Natural Imaginings as if I Was Em’rynn 2015 irregular shaped painting, acrylic on paper on MDF 60″ x 53.25″

In Tom Torluemke’s latest offering at Linda Warren Projects, Blind Man’s Bluff, the artist seems to be fueled by the necessity to communicate his ideas–both to himself and to a perceived audience. Here, metaphors(capitulated by the title of the exhibition) are born in cultural experience, unadulterated thought, and dreams–they are the conduit by which this artist transmits his signals in this densely populated exhibition.

The main gallery is filled with paintings, mostly executed with acrylic paint on irregularly shaped MDF panels. This device is useful. It appears to extend his metaphor. To exemplify the oddity that is his commodity–his ideas. Torluemke’s ideas may be his bread and butter, but his ability to execute and transmute his thoughts into compelling objects, is equally evolved.

Torluemke’s metaphors come alive in works like Day Dream 2015. This decisively cut panel adopts the profile of a man–a shape that is repeated again and again to develop the edge of the painting. A surreal landscape occupies the mind. Faces form the face. Dark matter makes the shadowy abyss beyond the dream. Paint is liberally applied to these slick surfaces, making it a joy to discover the miniature paint galaxies in the depths of the work.

Day Dream 2015 irregular shaped painting, acrylic on paper on MDF 60″ x 49.5″

In the smaller gallery a more intimate but more direct version of Torluemke’s metaphor adorn the walls. The drawings are made while blindfolded, with one continuous line–details are added later. What is interesting to me about these works is less the product(though I like the drawings), and more so, the idea of creating an action born in metaphor.  If Torluemke feels like his artistic process is often like doing a frankenstein walk blindfolded in the dark, as a child does in Blind Man’s Bluff, then it is this thought, this metaphor, that has driven him to thoroughly explore and excavate this idea and all of its potential. As a dream only becomes understandable by way of syntactic dissection and cultural grounding, so too must a metaphor be broken down into its component parts for reassembly as something new. Something learned. Something useful to the pursuant.

Happy Smokers 2014 charcoal and graphic on board 32″ x 40″

There is a multiplicity in these works that contextualize the conditions under which these objects are made. I can sense an urgency. I can feel the excitement. I can see ideas mutate on the surfaces. The work seems to be in constant transition–from panel, to sculpture, to blindfolded drawing and back again. Torluemke’s process plays out like a dream as he traverses from one unexpected place to the next. There are no answers here, only snippets of dreams. Remnants of action. Links to a lineage of ideas that are constantly evolving.

By following the hunch, pursuing the dream, and unraveling the metaphor, Torluemke seems to have developed a method for finding his way in the dark.

Linda Warren Projects

327 N Aberdeen Suite 151

Chicago, IL

Gallery Y & Gallery X: Tom Torluemke, “Blind Man’s Bluff”

April 17 – June 13, 2015

Opening Reception: Friday, April 17, 2015, 6-9pm

Artist Talk: Saturday, May 16, 2015, 3-5pm

Memory and Metaphor: Monika Bartholomé at Devening Projects

November 5, 2014 · Print This Article

By Kevin Blake

“Four score and seven years ago,” is how my mind tells me to start every essay I sit down to write. This is my memory at work. I remember the tone of the words that follow in Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. I remember the cadence. I remember that it was taught as a triumph. As a novel speech from a novel man. I can see the address in a block quote in a semi-thick American history textbook. It was highlighted in blue with Lincoln’s portrait in the top right corner of the elongated box, at the right side of the page, and at the end of a chapter covering the Civil War. I was given the task of memorizing the words and reciting it to my classmates, but all that remains are the first words. The image of the words. The feeling of time passed.

When I am staring beyond my computer screen–perhaps out the window–searching for the right words to begin with, Lincoln’s words make up the phrase that my mind tells me to jot down. It seems as much a method of mocking myself for my own distrust in my ideas and the effectiveness of recording them in this way,  as it is a natural beginning. A way to set the tone. A point of abstraction. Only now am I realizing that the attention I have paid to it–in this introduction–may either eradicate its insistence in my writing regiment, or forever disturb any ingenuity it may have had. Today, the words are there and I’m responding to them.

I recently admitted to a habit of writing my articles the day before the deadline, and since then, I have been stewing over the probability of procrastination. I’ve been questioning my routine and routinely questioning the validity of the way I think, rationalize, and project my ideas. I am forever convincing myself that my ideas are valuable and that the time I have spent Not preparing this article, has been used to decompress the information that has consumed me in the month prior. I am often successful in my persuasion, however, there also exists an acute awareness that convincing is essential. Therein lies the paradox. Therein lies the necessity for crackerjack acumen–or the ability to form enterprise with intuition and memory despite one’s rational concerns that may encourage otherwise.

Hans Hartung, Untitled, 1956 Ink on Paper 34.5 cm x 26.5cm

I’m constantly waiting for a bolt of lightning to electrify my thoughts–to send a signal from brain to stem which results in an action–in this case writing. Molly Zuckerman-Hartung revealed to me the genesis of the lightening bolt as Hans Hartung’s signature. He believed the lightning bolt was especially for him, and that its form (the zig-zag) represented spontaneity in a way that was true to the idea of what spontaneous action might look like–erratic pivot points descending from above a surface it will eventually contact. It will be surrounded by other bolts (they come in storms), and will offer the conscience a choice at every zig and every zag, eventually determining where the bolt will be grounded.

Last week I was struck at Devening Projects by the drawings of Monika Bartholomé. Before reading any literature about the work, I felt the drawings had allowed me to access very intimate spaces that were not only intimate in their portrayal of domestic interiors. Though there is ample information to suggest that these drawings are simple representations of the artist’s habitation, a closer look reveals imaginative brushwork, a keen understanding of light, and most importantly, an uncorrupted investigation of memory.

Monika Bartholomé, Night Walk, 2014 Ink on paper 11.5 x 8 inches

My memory of the Gettysburg Address and the application of it,  is a corrupted memory in the way it has manifested in this piece of writing. It was stimuli that has since been captured, dismembered, and postulated as metaphoric reasoning. We reason from metaphors in our attempts to make sense of ourselves, our actions, other people, and the physical world around us. We engage in metaphoric thought processes simply because much of our experience is metaphorically structured, and it is from our experiences that we reason. It is through this type of reasoning that I have abstracted more rigid or formal strains of logical connections to perpetuate my ideas, and to understand Monika Bartholomé’s drawings through my own narrow framing device.

When I visited Devening Projects, Bartholomé’s drawings had the zigs and the zags of the lightning bolts. I could see choices being made. I could see the movement of the brushes as well as her hand, and I felt a connection to the impulses that drove those decisions. I envisioned the way the  brushes moved across the drawing surface and quickly made jagged sloping turns to radiate in a resting place. In each conglomeration of intuitive marks, a space would emerge. These spaces are ultimately derived from memory, but are defined by the hand’s memory rather than metaphoric representations of existing places. The work seemed to be about the impulse to move the hand from one place to the next using a tool that makes a mark on paper and leaves a trace that creates a dilemma for the maker. This dilemma and the response to it, is how her images are made. Everything else is corruptible. Every attempt to create, rather than respond, would be a false step in the process of creation.

Monika Bartholomé, Night Walk, 2014 Ink on Paper 29 x 21 inches

Looking at the drawings that materialize as living spaces, one can see how the hand’s memory is as familiar as the mind’s. Bartholomé makes repetitive decisions in similar situations. When she reaches an edge, one can see the pressure applied to the brush gradually subside. As the hand recognizes its place in space, it makes adjustments to the tool. The tool, in turn, responds with a trace of that impulse–a mark of muscle memory and the basis for the next drawing move.

Monika Bartholomé, Night Walk, 2014 Ink on Paper 11.5 x 8 inches

Bartholomé has an incredibly efficient economy in her mark-making strategies. However intuitive it may be, it is also learned. The labor and reduction required to arrive at such simple, yet elegant, descriptions of space doesn’t occur on a whim. In her essay, “The Eyes Following the Hand,” Bartholomé describes the marks she makes: “…they do condense into pictorial language by means of abstract abbreviation…The lines bring something into the open that I once perceived, for the most part unconsciously and incidentally, and that is recorded here in whatever form. To be able to get what has been recorded, to the connections that the perceived thing entered into, and then create a place for it and be surprised by it–this is what interests me, among other things, in the medium of drawing.”

Bartholomé’s drawings seem to posit that metaphor is a pervasive, yet indispensable structure of reasoning that calls into question some deeply rooted views about the nature of knowledge and understanding. This balancing act is at the heart of her work. The artist is both visible and absent. The spaces are both intimate and ordinary. Recognizable and abstract. Reductive and chock full of imagery. These drawings are easy to get lost in, but only a few steps backwards will bring your eyes back to a reasonable place.

I’m at that place of reason right now after having written this piece. I’m standing in a place that is far enough from the image I have created, and it seems to make plenty of sense–at least to me. My distortions of Baratholomé’s work are my attempt to regurgitate her production schematic–letting memory serve as the metaphor that describes the process.

Catch and Release: Kim Piotrowski at Linda Warren Projects

October 1, 2014 · Print This Article

By Kevin Blake

I drift. A good drift. A perfect drift. One that will catch a nice trout. I swing my rod overhead and flick the tip upstream. Mend. Mend. Recover and drift….fish. My memory takes me downstream and the water sweeps my feet from underneath me. I allow the current to drag me away from here.

As I rush past the shores of my recollection, I realize that it may take a lifetime’s worth of attention to learn the secrets of the river. I realize that each section of the stream requires a different understanding and consequently, a different approach, to unlock the mysteries of each pool, eddy, and riffle. I’m reeling but not too aggressively. I don’t want to lose this fish.

Fly fisherman, like painters, have an uncanny ability to liken any conversation to their pursuits with a rod or paintbrush, on the theory that the essence of anything is in how it relates to their quests. In Kim Piotrowski’s show, Catch and Release at Linda Warren Projects, this perpetual metaphor is alive and well and permeating from the walls of the gallery. The rush flows from one piece to another. The fish spook and swim under rocks and stay there until I walk away, only to emerge again as I distance myself from the work–forcing me to return and throw another glance at the image. These are freshwater works(predominately made with water-based media), bottomless and infinite–their currents creating a generative energy for their creator that seemingly erodes her immediate boundaries and transforms those limits into the conditions upon which the next work is made.

Process Photo Tide Tango 2014 12′ x 43′

I lodge the toe of my boot underneath a submerged log as to brace myself for another run. It’s trying to get away from me. I hold my rod high and behind me with my left hand and keep my right hand on the reel. My body twists to make the position possible. I’m adding line as fast as the fish rips it off. The cold water makes new seams around my legs, adapting to my temporary damn. I watch my line tighten. The fish changes direction–and once again–I’m reeling.

I stand suspended in the gallery, surrounded by effort–large and small. Piotrowski has transformed the space to not only display her achievements, but to advance her inquiry. In her debut exhibition with LWP, Piotrowski casts her lines in every direction. Her massive site-specific painting done directly onto a gallery wall that spans 43 feet, is a glowing example of her fearless attempts to allow opportunities to be the source of her invention. She has titled the piece Tide Tango and in her words, it represents “the dance we do with the rush of thoughts as life runs over and through us.”

Tide Tango 2014 12′ x 43′

Like the river, Piotrowski’s paintings meander, dash, swirl, and coalesce in spaces that cannot be confined by the limits of the page. She recognizes the necessity to expand the space into different formats(see Corner Lot, 2014), providing new borders to break free from and allowing new puzzles to emerge.

Piotrowski’s paintings remind me of Matthew Ritchie’s complexly scaffolded spaces that find organization in chaos. The ability of arbitrarily small occurrences to greatly affect the outcome of a painting is particularly present in both artist’s works. Though Piotrowski seems to be making the paintings with much less discrimination. Less rules. Less fuss. More risk. Yet, in both artist’s work, there are common mark-making strategies, similar viscosities in paint applications, and there is an ever present familiarity in the natural locomotion of fluids on the surfaces they paint on.  While Ritchie seems to be interested in corralling those fluids to work within his system, Piotrowski seems to let paint go where it wants, and her next move is a response to its uninhibited resting place.

Matthew Ritchie Self Portrait 2064, Oil and Marker on Panel 80″ x 100″ 2003

I’m bringing him afoot. The line is tight but loosening. As the fish lays down, I pull him softly toward my free hand. In an instant, before I could grab him and at exactly the moment our eyes meet, he gives one last fit of terror and snaps free of the fly.

Fishing and painting are matters of timing in a changeable universe, and even when one returns to a place or moment of success, its doubtful that it will be under the exact conditions. Having broken the rhythm of a brilliant performance, it’s possible to never go back at all, and one shouldn’t go back–forward is the only worthwhile direction. The next hole upstream holds a trophy too, and its there that Piotrowski seems to be constantly aiming.

Corner Lot 2011 84″ x 120″ silver leaf, acrylic ink, flashe, markers, acrylic paint on synthetic paper (Yupo)

Life is a dangerous and unmanageable mess, but somehow these paintings have achieved a different description. Piotrowski’s description of life and linear time, is something much more approachable. Catchable even. As life runs over and through her, Piotrowski stands in the river waving a stick, trying to catch the catchable and upon success, immediately releases it back into the water for the next fisherman to stumble upon.

Off the Wall, Through the Surface, and Around the Painting: A Conversation with Zoe Nelson

January 20, 2014 · Print This Article

By Kevin Blake

Abstract painting is coming off the walls. It is evolving. Zoe Nelson talks with Bad at Sports about her engagement and participation in the evolution of abstraction, which appears in her work, to be a deconstruction of traditional painting parameters. Through a physical dismantling of the images’ supports, Nelson blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture, creating perpetually shifting spatial dynamics.


The Chase, 2013 oil on canvas, metal, holes 16″ x 12″

Kevin Blake: Chicago artist Sophia Leiby recently turned me onto an essay in the Brooklyn Rail, Worlds With Us by Katy Siegel, in which she suggests, “In terms of art, unthinking the opposition between representation and abstraction is particularly vital to understanding art objects and practices afresh.” I’m wondering how you have arrived at abstraction. It seems to me that artists arrive at abstraction out of some sort of necessity that is the resultant of a struggle with conceptual as well as formal frameworks. As I was looking through your archives on your website, I could see a departure from representation, and it occurred to me that this was a relatively common evolution for abstract painters. Abstraction does not seem like something you just set out to do one day. I’m wondering if abstraction, for you, has been a product or a solution to struggling with the idea of representation and abstraction as polar opposites.


Zoe Nelson: When I started grad school at Columbia University in 2007, I was working on a series of portraits of friends with their demons. Imagining what my friends’ (and my own) demons might look like if they were externalized allowed me to begin to think about the entire space of the canvas as a loaded psychological space, with all parts of the canvas (foreground, background, demon, person etc) having the potential to be equally descriptive of the psychological state of the person. It was at this point that a shift occurred and I started to become more interested in the potential of the “background” or psychological space around the person than in the portrait. As a challenge to myself, I decided to try to remove the figure from the work, while continuing to make an interesting painting. I’d say that my first conscious plunge into abstraction occurred with this initial act of negation–the negation of the figure. Absence and negation continue to be strong conceptual and formal frameworks for my work, as you can see in my current body of cut-out paintings. What is cut-out or not depicted in my work is often defined by- and defines- the form and content of the painting.

Going back to your Katy Siegel quote, I would agree on the importance of deconstructing a binary understanding of abstraction and representation in painting. I arrived at abstraction through representation, and in some ways one could say that I am currently working through abstraction to arrive at a type of active, moving representation: a representation of liminal psychological spaces and shifting states of being.


KB: Literally cutting sections out of the painting seems like an almost radical action against representation–in the sense of negating recognizable imagery–and simultaneously, it might be seen as a way of evoking a discussion about the state of being represented. Opening the canvas to view the guts of a painting, so to speak, allows the viewer to look past the painted surface and into the physical space behind it, calling attention to its objecthood. In your recent show at Western Exhibitions, some of the paintings protrude from the wall rather than hanging flush on it, further interrupting the spatial dynamic while creating a dialogue with it. Can you talk about the paintings existing in the third dimension and how do these issues perpetuate this idea about abstraction and representation being more of a consequence of one another rather than visually articulated opposites?


Installation View Western Exhibitions,
Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions, photograph by James Prinz


ZN: As I cut into the canvas, I uncover parts of the stretcher bar support, which inevitably opens up a whole chain of questions regarding the relationship between support, canvas and the physical space behind and around the paintings. Each painting deals with this relationship in a different way, I believe, and the double-sided paintings evolved as a natural extension of the work becoming more sculptural. When the frame is exposed, all of the sudden there are edges and different physical planes to consider, and the next logical step was to consider the “back” of the painting as well. Through privileging all sides of the painting, I hope to destabilize the hierarchy of front over back, and hanging the work perpendicular to the wall is a playful invitation for the viewer to walk around the paintings and take part in this process.

The paintings and installation at Western look completely different depending on where you stand in the room, and these shifting states are integral to the form and content of the series. If multiple people are in the room, you might see a hand or head or shoulder through the cuts in a painting, and these people (or body parts) momentarily become a part of the work as well. Blurring the lines between artist, painting, and viewer in this way is conceptually exciting for me, and I think circles back around to how the current work still references back to my initial interests in representing the body and psychological states of being, albeit in a performative way, and while operating within a realm of abstraction.


Installation View Western Exhibitions
Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions, photograph by James Prinz

KB: The first time you cut a painting, was it due to what you perceived to be a mistake? Looking at the evolution of your work, I sense a strong influence of painter Amy Sillman whose work seems to depend on the occurrence of mistakes and even more so on the corrective production emerging from those mistakes. Does your work engage with that dialogue?

ZN: Whenever I move to a new location, or even a new studio, I find that my practice often shifts with the move. After graduate school, I spent a year working on a series of process paintings about the idea of unwinding. It wasn’t until a year later, when I moved to Chicago, that I was able to take the project a step further and actually start to undo the surface of the painting through cutting into the canvas.

Although my initial cuts into the canvas were not exactly a mistake, they did stem from a place of anxiety and fear. When I moved to Chicago in 2010, I didn’t know the city at all, barely knew the art community, and only had a couple of names of friends of friends to contact. Everything around me seemed unstable, unknown and overwhelming that year, and the studio was the one place that I was able to channel all of that anxiety and fear into artistic risk-taking.

I worked with Amy Sillman in grad school, and she continues to be a huge influence for me–both her work and in the smart discourse that she engages in around her practice and painting. I’ve noticed in my own practice that if I have an idea for a painting, and I execute that idea really quickly, the work often doesn’t hold up a few days later. I think this failure ties back to the importance of the mistake: perhaps the reason that these paintings often don’t hold up, is because that struggle–of making, identifying, and working-through the mistake–hasn’t yet occurred. When the work falls short like that, there is often a part of the painting that has seduced me, and it’s only through literally cutting out or removing the seductive part that I am able to rework the painting as a whole, rather than as a showcase for one special element.

I think that the importance of the mistake also ties into the importance of feeling and intuition. Amy Sillman has an awesome zine, the O-G v3, in which she challenges the hierarchy of mind over body when discussing and making paintings. At the end of the zine, Amy advocates for the conceptual possibilities of painting specifically through “the radical merging of mind and body!” While it is often easier to talk about formal or conceptual concerns in painting rather than trying to find a smart way to talk about intuition, I am of the mindset that the two are not mutually exclusive. In my practice, intuition, feeling, mistakes, and elusiveness are just as important to the process of painting as the formal painterly concerns that I am also responding to.


KB: When I listen to other artists talk about their work, I always look for a takeaway-something useful to apply to my own practice or in this case regurgitate as a means of preserving the idea in my frontal lobe. I recently listened to artist Cesare Pietroiusti speak in Boston, and of the many things I retained from his talk, he said something profound that resonates in relation to our conversation. He said, “when there is discomfort, fear, and anxiety-go there.” It seems you have intuitively done just that and this impulse has yielded some positive results. Have you been able to abandon these themes as you have gotten settled into Chicago and more so into the community? Or do they continue to be the driving force of your work?


ZN: Anxiety and discomfort continue to be strong themes in my work, though the driving force (or one driving force–there are definitely many) has become the work itself. I have grown to love living and working in Chicago, and have met fantastic artists and worked with great galleries here, such as Roots & Culture, Lloyd Dobler, and most recently Western Exhibitions. I think that anxiety, fear, and crisis are all incredibly powerful emotions (or psychological states), and they hold an equally powerful potential for risk-taking in an art practice. That said, I also think that it can be hard to issue rigor and restraint in a place of real anxiety or crisis, as everything has such urgency and there is a lack of control. Thankfully, I am more settled now and I find that the work is organically building on itself. Each painting opens up a new set of questions and formal challenges, which lead to new decisions and new paintings. Right now I am in the exciting place where I have a number of ideas for new paintings and specific installations, and am juggling these different trajectories in my practice. I am able to continue to explore themes of anxiety and crisis while mitigating those states with humor, play, and pleasure in the work. Of course waves of anxiety, failure, and fear play a part in this process, and no matter how thoroughly I conceptualize a painting before I start it, the beginning almost always feels like a shot in the dark.


KB: The end result being a complete departure from the pre-conceptualized form makes me think about conflicting loyalties. You have loyalties to your methods which allow all the nuances and intuitive moments to take place within the process of making a painting, and being loyal to yourself in these allowances is an important if not essential part of your practice. However, you also have a loyalty to what you might still do, or what the painting might still become, which always seems to be connected to the pre-conceptualized form. How do you negotiate conflicting loyalties in this sense? Are your sketches or ideas of a final product just a jumping point or do you struggle to maintain those forms throughout the process of making a painting?


ZN: When I start a new painting, I usually try to either identify a psychological state, or a feeling attached to a specific moment, that I want to articulate. I then respond to this initial idea by imposing a set of formal parameters on the work, which also define the subject matter. For example, the painting “Skype Breakdown” started with an idea to make a painting about frustration, blocked communication, and distortion. I made the painting (and most of the work up at Western) this past fall, while I was at a wonderful six-week residency called the Lighthouse Works. The residency was on a small island off of NY with spotty internet connection, and after looking at my partner’s frozen and pixilated face on the computer screen for the umpteenth time, I decided to channel my frustration (and objective interest in the abstracted image on my screen) into a painting. Using the idea of arrested communication and distortion as a starting off point, I began the painting by first making mask-like cuts into the top layer of canvas. Any discernible figure or face is cut-out and totally abstracted, and this act of negation also becomes subject matter.  Circling back to you initial question about juggling pre-conceived concepts with method and intuition, I’d say that I try to stay true to the initial motivation and abstract idea behind a painting, while being open to chance, intuition, and the unknown in the process of making a painting.

Skype Breakdown, 2013 oil on canvas, holes 34″ x 30″


KB: Speaking of making new paintings, what are you currently working on, and do you have any upcoming exhibitions we should know about?

ZN: I am working on a few different projects at the moment, including a nascent but exciting collaborative project with a composer, and paintings for a couple of installation ideas. Just a few days ago I was asked to take part in an artists lecture series called “Artists Now” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee next spring, which should be a lot of fun, and I am working on an exhibition proposal for the fall of 2014 at the moment. Having the show at Western has allowed me to take some time to reflect on the work, and see the paintings in a different context. I am particularly excited to hole-up in my studio as the show comes to a close, and make some new work!