Thursday, March 3, 2022

Gallery Watch: Robert Zehnder at Rachel Uffner

Interview by Clare Gemima 
Photos courtesy of Rachel Uffner Gallery

I was fortunate enough to interview Robert Zehnder about his alluring and obscure series of paintings in “Buried and Deep,” a two-person exhibition in Rachel Uffner’s upstairs gallery (170 Suffolk St.), which closes on Saturday. The show also features new paintings and sculptures by Erica Mao. 

We discussed Zehnder’s relationship to Erica’s work, the conceptual framework behind his pieces and his wide-spanning artistic influence.
The nature of your landscapes invites a sense of infiniteness, be it only restricted by the size of your canvas. Are you painting crops of larger scenic scapes?

I hope that sense of infiniteness is registered by the viewer. To answer your question, yes. They aren’t specific landscapes that I have come across, in which I then crop a specific view, but rather what I can fit within the dimensions I am using. 

For example, if I scaled the dimensions of the canvas, I wouldn’t necessarily scale the forms in the painting, and it would just be a larger or smaller window. This is important to me because a lot of my work is about what we aren’t privy to. Allowing for questions such as “what is over the hills?” or “what is to the right or left of our vantage point?”...  I see my landscapes as blankets that are ever-expanding and boundless.

Although your work is devoid of any wildlife or humanity, are your landscapes a result of civic extinction or an invitation to a promising and untouched new Utopia?

There isn’t a narrative that I am trying to imbue in the work. I wouldn’t say that these landscapes are a result of civic extinction. Still, there is a tonality of civic insecurity and the fear and anxiety of what lies ahead in these certain conditions of our contemporary times. This idea of Utopia comes up a lot, and these works actually try to reject that. 

Depicting a landscape void of humanity can imply the reversal or result of an industrialized society and its detriments. The works I am making aim to speak about the post-industrial/ digital/ internet world and our psychological relationship to and within it. These could be before or after the Anthropocene, but they are not. They are metaphorical spaces that depict our view of something familiar in concept but unfamiliar in tone and composition. I believe these feelings are echoed in the many new interfaces we navigate today. 

Regionalist painters like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood lend a notable influence to your work, yet some of the organic curvatures in your paintings remind me of Renaissance’s Bosch and your palette of Rococo’s Fragonard. Do painters from other periods of art history inform your practice?

The American regionalist painters lend a lot of influence to my work. Though, they are not my only inspiration. The works of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton were an entry point to the landscape paintings. I looked to them mostly for their formal attributes. Though, the context of their works and why they were making them do apply to my conceptual inspirations as well. These artists were producing imagery during the post-industrial revolution, capturing the turbulence of the early 20th century. The visual perspectives are skewed and the mundane American life depicted is electrified with unease.
Bosch and Bruegel are also great inspirations to me. What I see in their works is that there is no visual hierarchy. Like many of their contemporaries, a centralized figure typically dominates the composition, creating an imbalance of focus.

On the other hand, Bosch and Bruegel depict society, nature, and the mythical as one naturalistic force that has no bounds or order. That is an operation I employ in my work.
Fragonard’s palette is beautiful. I was recently looking at Progress of Love (1771-2) at the Frick. Such a fantastic series of works, yet, I do not have any intentional relation to Roccoco at the moment.

Could you break down your process in creating, say, Desk Shaped Stone (2022, above)?

Desk Shaped Stone most likely started with me drawing a few of the circular trees. From there, I would draw in hills and lines, leave some places blank and then paint from the top down, starting with the sky. I typically have an idea of the palette, but a lot is done or decided on the canvas. It is a lot of moving color and removing paint with a rag to then reapply. The act of making these works is primarily expressionistic. 
This work specifically is about Bellini’s Agony in the Garden (1459-65). They say that the stone Jesus is leaning before and praying upon is shaped like a desk or an alter. That stone is depicted at the bottom of the canvas, and I also see it as two knees in a robe.

Does your work toy with allegorical, biblical or phantasmagorical themes?
Yes. My works want to talk about the power of allegory in painting, but there aren’t any allegories in the work. Though, that may be up to the viewer’s discretion. I became fascinated with the landscapes in early renaissance paintings, which typically lay behind the figure or the symbol. These landscapes do not intend to be allegorical.

I am interested in what that implication of expanse meant back then. At the time, most people who would view these artworks had no understanding of when and where the pastoral began or ended. This feeling of boundlessness had a very different meaning to its viewers of the time. Today, we understand all-natural land to have had some sort of eyes on it or to have been documented or known to one degree or another. I wonder how we understand a ‘worldly boundlessness’ in the age of now. 

I look at religious paintings through an ontological lens. I am excited about how they operated during their time of creation and how they function today. Being a visual artist, there is a lot to investigate and learn from biblical art and architecture. For example, Desk Shaped Stone may be inspired by a religious artwork, but there aren’t any images or symbols that signify anything from the bible. 

For me, the phantasmagoric comes to mind when thinking about any high-fidelity artifice we engage with. Whether or not my works are phantasmagoric is up to the viewer. They do, however, want to talk about feelings of being in an altered state - ones that are not necessarily drug-induced, but rather those that are so believable yet, untrustworthy.  

Of your co-exhibitor’s work, what paintings by Erica Mao are most conceptually in line with your body of work? Do they host complementary or contrasting relationships?

A Shadow Following (2022), by Erica Mao, is a work that I keep returning to and spend a lot of time with. It has a great palette and composition, and I believe its title and theme relate to my work conceptually. Erica and I had conversations leading up to the show in which we spoke about the uncanny and how specific regions are fruitful for fiction. This work definitely achieves those similarities. 

Erica’s ceramics I see to be very complementary to the paintings I have in the show. There is a great relationship between the objecthood of the ceramics and the pictorial qualities of the paintings. They are exhibited on low-lying circular pedestals we designed together. The pedestals are made of slatted wood and are finished with a very dark stain. They create a great weight in the center of the show, like two mirrored wells, and the ceramics are our memories or visions of hidden sheds and geological formations we may or may not have come in contact with within our conscious reality. 

The paintings in the show, by both Erica and I, operate in their own individual way, allowing the viewer a murky unforgiving view of landscapes that may offer threat or salvation. To return to the work A Shadow Following, we don’t know if the shadow is a friend or foe.

What makes you gravitate toward the Hudson River School art movement? Does it hold any personal significance?

What interests me about the Hudson River School is how those artworks operated within their time. Once again, I am viewing these artworks ontologically. They utilized idealist naturalism to depict the untouched regions of the Americas, which coincided with the development of American tourism. The artworks were allegories themselves. The landscapes were soaked in the light of God. This goes back to what I was saying about the high-fidelity artifice. 

Hudson River School painter’s aptitude for realism allowed for viewers to have entirely immersive experiences with these artworks, flooding their sensorium with the promise of prosperity and the idea that God had given them boundless amounts of resources and freedom. My work wants to look at that flooding but in our contemporary time. There isn’t that same nationalistic and spiritual whole that the viewer is intended to put faith in, but rather an individual pursuit through a newly interconnected world. 

Are your landscapes melting or static?

They are melting rather than static. But I wouldn’t use melting because that alludes to a singular direction of movement. I would describe them as being in a constant state of change. Different moments of perspective arrive and disappear in vignettes and blend with one another while also negating one another. The painting is a still image of this. 

Atmospherically speaking, are your landscapes earthly or other-worldly? Perhaps, they are a mix of both?

I would say Earthly. They are very much our local environments. If these local environments appear to be altered, that distortion is coming from a place within rather than a place outside. 
Rachel Uffner is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 170 Suffolk St. between Houston and Stanton. The show ends on Saturday. 


Clare Gemima is a visual artist and arts writer from New Zealand, now based in the East Village of New York. You can find her work here:

1 comment:

sophocles said...

Intriguing paintings and thoughtful answers to your questions