Realizing Realism: Gwendolyn Zabicki


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In my first interview with Josh Moulton, a strictly photorealism painter, I asked, “What future value does realism hold in the art world?” Moulton’s answer is in the success and sustainability of his gallery and client base.

For this second edition of Realizing Realism, I spoke with Gwendolyn Zabicki. Working from both photographs and life, Zabicki creates paintings that illustrate the aesthetic difference between these two starting points. Life paintings introduce an element of time that a photo cannot. Cool time-lapse photography elements are available in our smart phones, but paintings take time to create, even when a painter is attempting a gestural en plein air technique like that of the Impressionists. Time influences decisions about lighting, shadow, or even color as the painter rushes towards completion.

One of my favorite examples of time displayed through a painting is Debora Mancoff’s explanation of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies Bergères

Looking at the painting, there is discernible discrepancy between the barmaid’s position, which is directly facing the audience, and her reflection in the mirror behind her, where it seems she would have to be turned slightly away from the viewer for the reflection to be sincere. There are many theories for this move in Manet’s artistic license. Mancoff hypothesizes that Manet was attempting to convey the point of view of the man in the top hat, also in the reflection, passing the barmaid as he walked by the bar. A moment in time shows the barmaid facing the viewer across the bar; as you walk by, her body turns with you, altering the reflection in the mirror a moment later.

When a painter works from a photograph they lose the ability to make these spontaneous little choices.  The photograph gives the perspective of one eye, the camera’s. The camera is making color, lighting, and edge decisions that take place in one very brief moment.

Why would a painter use photographs at all? In this conversation, Zabicki answers this question better than I can.

As part of her regular art practice Zabicki started South Logan Arts Coalition (SLAC) to utilize empty spaces in her community and help emerging artists show their work. She also teaches at Lillstreet Art Center and curates the Lillstreet Artist Lecture Series that occur on the final Tuesday of each month. The lectures are free and open to the public.

Zabicki describes her work as “quiet”, which is a word I hear often from representational still life painters. What drew me to her work was her nighttime series of windows and houses. These works contain a creepy stillness, but the quiet element doesn’t seem meek and shy, as much as voyeuristic, thus requiring careful stillness and silence. The darkest points of the paintings are vivacious and energetic.  Zabicki utilizes these dark voids to build space and explore texture. Her most recent series of wrapped presents create a similar tension as her house windows. As a viewer I want to know what is beyond what I am allowed to see. Zabicki continues to explore texture and adds an element of pattern from the wrapped presents she chooses to work from. This is a brand new series for the artist, and it’s exciting to see where she will take it.

MB: Where you are from?

GZ: I grew up in Andersonville in Chicago. I went to boarding school in the suburbs: Lake Forest Academy. It was beautiful and a great education. I was with some super wealthy suburban kids. I was really self-conscious because I couldn’t afford fancy clothes, so I went the opposite direction and became this sad Goth.  All of those photos are embarrassing, but that’s what you do at that age.

Personal life: you have a boyfriend, right?

I always say that I’m too old to call him my boyfriend. He’s my "manfriend." We’ve been together for five years, and we own a home together. We want to do everything in the wrong order: buy the house, have a kid, get married, get a cat. That’s the plan. Then people will say, ‘Are you really ready for a cat?’

Where was the last place you traveled?

I was in Stockholm just in February because I had some paintings in a show. It’s great if you can show far away make a vacation out of it. Stockholm is beautiful. I was not expecting there to be so many children. Everyone - young, old, men, women - is pushing a stroller and has three, sometimes four, kids, which is a lot. They have so many great social programs: you get 18 months paid maternity leave; your job is guaranteed for you when you come back. Daycare is free and college is free and healthcare is free. So people must have a ton of kids because, well, it’s not such a struggle there.

What has been your training in the arts?

I got my Bachelors at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Then I got my Masters at University of Illinois in Chicago in 2012. I’ve been painting for around ten years. I started in high school, but I wasn’t serious. My advisor at the time, Susy Stevens, told me, ‘You don’t want to go to art school. You’re going to regret it and be miserable. You won’t have any job skills.’

So when you went into SAIC, what was your practice like?

SAIC doesn't make you pick a major—you can take any kind of class you want.  So, I took filmmaking, furniture design, and all kinds of stuff all over the board. My sophomore year I was very influenced by an urban landscape painting class I took with Judy Koon.

How has your practice grown and developed since graduate school or in graduate school?

It made me a much better painter having two solid years of making work. You just make work. And you meet people. Then you have tons of studio visits with visiting artists but also with the faculty and with your peer group.

I had a horrible studio visit with Molly Zuckerman Hartung, who’s really blown up lately. But I knew her when she was at the School of the Art Institute. I was living in an apartment with a friend named Caleb, and I moved out and she took my spot on the lease. So when she came to do the studio visit I said, ‘Oh, hey! How’s it going? How’s Caleb?’ I thought we were going to have this real friendly talk.  Instead, I had the worst studio visit. She hated my painting.

She was like, ‘Your painting is boring and stifled.’ She said all these awful things. However, she loved my Halloween costume. I was working on a sandwich board, and it was a sanitary napkin dispenser. I went to a thrift store that had all of these sanitary napkins boxes from the eighties. The woman on the box—she had a rose in her hands—kind of had her head to the side, and she looked really bummed out to be menstruating. I loved these, and I just wanted to give them to people. So, I made this sanitary napkin dispenser outfit, and I could launch them from my costume at people. And she was like, ‘That’s what you should be making! This is the kind of work that’s interesting and challenging. You launch sanitary napkins out of your crotch. This is what you should be doing.’

I was like, ‘Oh. Ohhhh.’ I wasn’t weeping. I didn’t cry, but I felt like crying.

Looking back, I know she was right. My work has improved since, and she might even be responsible for some of that. A bad critique can be good for you, even though it is the most painful, awful thing at the time.

What are some misconceptions/stereotypes about art students or art school?

That’s a good question. Misconceptions would be that they’re—oh I don’t know—that there are very few super special, naturally gifted geniuses in the art world. That's just not true. Genuine artistic value comes from hard work. The quality of the classes at the Art Institute was really dependent on the other students in the class with you.

What was your greatest lesson learned from art school?

I remember my freshman year I took art history survey course with Robert Loescher. He was the first person who made art history sound sexy, relevant and exciting for me. I remember thinking that no one ever talked to me that way before. It was just one of those survey classes in a big dark lecture hall with a hundred other people, but he was so charming.

When I was older I found T.J. Clark and his writing. I feel like Robert Loescher is in the same boat as T.J. Clark. It doesn’t even matter if what they’re saying is true; it’s just so compelling. T.J. Clark wrote this book called The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing where he spent two months staring at these two giant Poussin paintings every day, and he’d write down his thoughts and new observations about them. His insights were rooted in his vast knowledge of art combined with crazy extrapolations about what the artist was thinking and feeling: impossible to prove, but compelling and humanizing. I learned that it is okay to use one's own experiences and self-knowledge to understand a work of art.

Tell me about your art process, and how you feel about working from photographs versus real life.

Well, photos are a means of convenience. Especially in Chicago, it’s just too damn cold to be outside.  I know a great painter who paints outside regardless of the temperature. Her name is Greta Waller, and she painted icebergs in Antarctica. She’s tough and makes me feel bad about myself.

I have a little box easel. It’s one of those wooden ones that are pretty much unchanged since the Impressionists. I take it out, walk around and set up someplace. I do use photos as a reference, and sometimes it's the most practical option—for instance [that painting is] from a photo because it’s in a car. Other works - the box of candy is from life.

The window paintings are from life, but there are some limitations. Most of the window paintings are pretty small. They were an interesting challenge because most of them are at night. Chicago has this orange street light. When you’re looking at your paint outside, and it’s dark, all of the colors are kind of skewed. But there are certain things, like I know the way I lay out my palette, and I know if mix this color and this color they will look this way. So I’m painting based sort of on what I know to be true, but also I would take my phone out from time to time, turn it on and hold it over the paint so I could see what am I doing. The paintings are done on the spot. Then I take them inside, and I was usually a little surprised. Like with this one, I was a little surprised when I got this inside.

What surprised you about Humboldt Blvd. 8:30-9:30pm?

I remember I didn’t think it was so streaky. I thought it was darker and these windows were a different color.

I find the light really striking in all of the dark window paintings.

I was in my old apartment looking from my kitchen windows into my neighbors’ living room windows. I watched them watch Jeopardy. Next Door Neighbor was a big one because I could set up inside, and that was nice because the light in my own house was less skewed.

It has to be a process to set up anywhere, to move your paints and basically your studio.

You get better and better. Most of my paints fit inside my box easel, and I usually have a backpack with a lot of plastic bags and clean and dirty rags. It’s probably like packing a diaper bag for your kid. You know what you need, you always have it with you, and you can take it and go. It’s pretty efficient and inconspicuous. I don’t take up a lot of space.

Have you ever had a problem with licensing?

No. At night, no one has ever stopped to ask what I’m doing or noticed me or complained or called the police. During the day people will stop and say, ‘What are you doing?’ But generally at night, no one cares.

As photography has developed, how has that affected painting?

I think it’s just a wonderful tool to make better paintings.  I have made paintings from life, photos and cell phone photos, too. I love my amazing phone. It’s inconspicuous enough if you’re standing outside and taking a photo with your phone nobody cares. It’s such a different thing if you’re standing outside with a really big camera. I just bought this really nice digital camera for the Stockholm trip. I wouldn’t point this thing at somebody’s house, but I would take a cell phone photo for reference. I feel like it’s less invasive.

Was the painting Present done from a photo or from life?

It was done from both. I had this still life set up, but it wasn’t on this table. I took a photo of it on my wooden coffee table, and I liked it. It was sunny, and the wood was kind of reflective. Photography is just one more tool. You can use it, and I think if Vermeer could have had a really nice camera he would have used it. Vermeer used camera obscura and so did Caravaggio.

I actually have a camera lucida right here, which is a great traditional tool. The camera lucida is a prism, and it’s on a little stand. You look through the prism down at your drawing, and you can simultaneously see your drawing and also the subject. It takes some practice, but people have been using it since the 17th century. If you wanted to do a really precise little portrait you could use the camera lucida, and it would save you so much time and so much work especially if you were doing it for a living like these guys. You would use all of your tools.

This has a lot to do with your bad studio visit: I often find artists begin with observation or representation, and then they change direction and move to something more conceptual or expressionist or abstract. They often feel like they need to explain this transition saying that realism is false, overplayed, or irrelevant.

Yeah. I definitely feel like realism in painting is so out of fashion, and it’s lonely. I felt lonely in grad school. There were very few painters in my program, and the painters that were showing work in galleries were making—what do they call it? —Casualism? It’s minimal, geometric, abstract painting. Jerry Saltz tried to give it the name Neo Mannerism in an essay that’s really bitchy and fantastic: Art's Insidious New Cliché: Neo Mannerism. I think people are in that stage now of ‘What do we call this thing?’ And you see it. It’s at the Whitney right now. It was at Art Chicago. Again Jerry Saltz nails it in Why Do New Abstract Paintings Look The Same?

In school I saw a lot of students come in to the program making representational work. Then they had a few rough critiques and started making this really process-based, obtuse, conceptual work. The end result was safe, plain, and cool. There was plenty of art-speak, but not much to look at. They went this route because it was harder for the faculty to critique. When you safeguard yourself from criticisms of technique or the visual component of the work, no one can say, ‘Well, you know, that shadow is too dark,’ or, ‘This corner looks sloppy.’ Everyone gets exhausted from the mental gymnastics required to have a conversation. It’s a defensive maneuver.

So what kept you from following that trend? It’s an obvious trend. There’s a lot of push to say, ‘Well you’ve got all of these creative ideas. Do something outside of 2-D work, and then if you’re going to do 2-D work, do something that’s not observational.’

I just love painting so much. It would hurt me to not do it. There are people still doing representational work, and we just keep at it. We’re just like, ‘I don’t care. I’m just going to keep doing what I do. And someday you will all be back. I’ll be smug and arrogant, and I’ll just say I told you so.’

How and when did you first start exhibiting work?

I still feel self-conscious that I don’t show enough, and I haven’t had any substantial shows. I think I got a couple of juried shows and smaller things in between grad and undergrad. I started showing more recently because I know more people. People know who I am because I curated the Milwaukee Arts Festival, and I have been running SLAC. I’ve organized some pop-up shows and met a lot of people through Lillstreet and through grad school. If you do big projects, you meet other artists, and more people become aware of you.

I have a show coming up at Comfort Station. I write so many proposals and apply for so many grants/jobs/residencies. I have submitted nineteen applications this year already and will probably receive two acceptances. Doing it repeatedly makes you better at it. Some shows come out of nowhere. I had some paintings in a show at North Park University, and they found my work Internet somewhere.

What’s your experience with Lillstreet been like? What benefits have they provided for you?

I applied for the artist in residence program at Lillstreet Art Center when I was finishing grad school, and I got it. It’s a year long residency. They give you a studio and a stipend, and you can teach there if you want to. That gave me some really nice structure after grad school.  Getting out of school is a scary time, and you start questioning, ‘What am I doing with my life? Maybe Susy Stevens was right, and art school was a terrible idea.’ But Lillstreet was great, and they were really generous and kind. The number of people that work at Lillstreet is very small. I asked Bruce or Eric (they are the guys in charge), ‘Hey can I start a lecture series?’

They were really permissive. ‘Oh sure. Go for it.’

I still teach there. I think it’s hard to make a living teaching, but teaching makes you a better artist because you have to keep revisiting those beginner-building-block rules of painting. Lillstreet is a traditional kind of school. Like when I teach a class I show them, ‘This is how you use sighting and measuring to draw a still life, and this is how I would do it.’ Sometimes I make a painting in front of a group of people, and it’s a total failure. ‘Oh no. Well don’t paint it like this.’

I still have a studio though I’m no longer an artist in residence. There are four new artists in residence: two in ceramics, one in metals, and one in textiles. I manage the events and things related to the artist in residence program. I still do the lecture series, and that’s been fun for me. In addition to the lecture, visiting artists will conduct studio visits. I invite artists who will specifically benefit one of the artists in residence.

What goals do you have for yourself in the art world?

I would like to keep making my paintings and keep getting better and better. And I feel like I have. When I changed my website around the other day, I was looking at my old work and then my new work and thought, ‘I am so much better than I used to be. I used to suck.’ I am not even at the height of my painting powers yet. Can I make a perfect painting?

Oh, I have a list I keep it in my notebook. To Do List 2014: paint (more), curate (more), show (more), more SLAC, maintain health, don’t ignore your friends, teach/fun job, do more residencies, lecture series, apply for lots of things, learn to drive, write letters to John Kiriakou, make money somehow. I have never made more than I think 24,000 dollars in a year. I didn’t get into this to make money I guess. No one ever does.

What has been a struggle or disappointment about choosing art as a career?

Support. There is so much arts funding in Sweden. I talked to a lot of the Swedes there, and they were like, ‘Oh yeah. It’s really easy. You just ask the government for money, and you can get it.’ They had this beautiful building for the show I was in and all of these slick promotional materials and advertisements downtown. They didn’t have to hustle and go find some corporate sponsor for their fair. Sweden is a very special case.

I believe we need more opportunities for artists here. That is the reason I started SLAC. All of my friends moved back to their homes because they missed their families, or they moved to New York or LA because they felt like that’s where the real opportunities are. So I asked them, ‘Well what could I do for you? What could make you stay?’

A lot of them said, ‘A job.’ ‘A studio.’

I thought maybe I could help with the studio. There are some pretty exciting things out there. Theaster Gates is building artist housing in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood and we have Mana Contemporary and Chicago Artist Coalition, but we need more. I would love for the Department of Cultural Affairs or somebody at the City to step up and fill this void. Do you remember Cultural Plan 2012? I'm still waiting for the Department of Cultural Affairs to figure out a way to accomplish some of those goals.

I just joined the board of Autotelic Studios. Autoelic's mission is to provide affordable, accessible workspace, facilities and opportunities for artists in the city. We are about to begin working on a new project in Logan Square.

I am a young representational artist who is getting started. What advice do you have for me?

That’s a good question too. Keep painting. Don’t give in and make work that looks trendy. That is the other thing that baffles me, too; when you adopt a trend, you must be conscious of it, and can you be okay with that? That feels inauthentic to me; it didn’t come from you. You’ll look back on it one day, and it will look dated. I am always surprised how people square themselves with that.

My advice to you is to be brave. Master your technique. Read about materials. Find or make a community to be a part of—to plan shows with and to give each other feedback. You can only get better by practicing. When I teach painting I notice that the metaphors I use to describe painting are always violent ones, ‘wrestle the edge into place… push, force, make that object lie down.’ They describe a struggle, but a good struggle. That’s what painting is.

You can see Zabicki's work in her upcoming show at Comfort Station, July 1-25.
Opening reception on July 11, 5-8pm.