Layering: Zach Van Horn in conversation with Ben Grzenia
Zach Van Horn and Ben Grzenia were the joint winners of the 2018 artcritical prize awarded by faculty vote ahead of the Annual Student Exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Both were graduating students of PAFA’s MFA program. The artcritical prize – consisting of an interview in these pages with an agreed upon writer – has been awarded at PAFA since 2015, and has also been a featured prize at the New York Studio School Alumni Exhibition since 2017. For the PAFA 2018 prize it was decided that the winners would interview one another.
Looking closely at your work, I can see that you are cutting and collaging your own paintings. I am curious if you have something to say about the purposeful dislocation of the paintings you create?
ZACH VAN HORN
Initially I was interested in this dislocation because of my interest in digital glitches. I stumbled into this because of my interest in the way technology distorts information. I did some minor forced glitches on my own to see how and why they happen and I found that they occur when there is a mistranslation in the code. Computers assume the code is always correct and they will generate whatever the file is telling them to generate.
The process of cutting and collaging (though I prefer to use mosaic over collage) was a result of me wanting to bring that glitch element into painting. Though the glitch was an influential step getting to this point, I find that the end result, though still referencing technology, becomes something else.
Mistranslating digital images requires going into the image’s code, or memory. Would you say there is a ‘code’ in your painting?
There is definitely a code in my work and I would say that that code is the process. I follow the process like a set of rules. I do change it up from piece to piece though. These changes could be switching steps, omitting steps, addings steps, or something as simple as changing the color palette. I’m always amazed by how just a simple change can dramatically alter the outcome.
By altering the process it allows me to learn more about the medium. Every change doesn’t always reveal successful results but that’s valuable information nonetheless.
In some ways, you are mistranslating your own memories within painting, correct?
Oh yeah. One of the best thoughts to chew on I’ve received has been to think about how I am coded. I would say that the mosaic layer and the other layers in the paintings together build up a cocktail of memories, present information intake, and imagination. I don’t think I’m deliberately mistranslating my own memories but I’m trying to show how, when compiled with everything else being processed, my memories can be mistranslated or altered.
What information has your exploration in video and music given you towards your practice?
Both video and music have given me a much stronger understanding of how layering works that I don’t think I would have ever gotten to by just painting. I was originally taught to paint very fast. In undergrad, we would do upwards to 10 paintings a week with time limits on the paintings. It was ingrained in me early that that was how to paint. We also never went back to work more on these paintings. They were always one sitting and that’s it.
The interesting thing about the layering in video and music is you can do dramatic things with little consequence. You can apply endless filters and effects on the layers while still keeping the original video, image, or sound intact. This helps reduce my anxiety towards failure a bit and allows me to be more creative.
I think music has helped me the most to understand layering. The key to producing a great song, for me, is to really have a strong balance between the entire sound spectrum while having each individual sound be hearable. You obtain this by using equalization tools to help allocate sound frequencies. The layering in my paintings are the instruments and when I go into a painting and sand off the top layers, I’m creating that balance between the frequencies in the painting. It then becomes successful when it all seems like it’s producing some new things beyond the original layers.
It seems like the ability to make dramatic gestures in the two previously mentioned mediums have allowed you to be more courageous in painting. What would you say was one of the biggest creative leaps you’ve taken?
I’ve had a couple creative leaps in my work but I would say the most recent has been sanding my paintings. I build up all these layers and for awhile I was satisfied with how that would look but everything felt so stiff. The paintings were too built up and they needed to be destroyed in some way. Around this time I was also looking more intently at Mark Bradford’s work and it all just kinda clicked for me.
The hardest part of sanding was being courageous enough to let it happen. I remember after doing it for the first time, I needed to sit with the painting for a while to figure out what I just did. I think I sat with that piece everyday for two or three weeks. There were days I liked it and there were days I didn’t but I knew that it’s what the work needed so really those two to three weeks was the time needed to get out of my own way so that I could listen to what the painting needs.
Do you have any expectations for the viewer when they are looking at your work? Has the audience made an impact on your work?
That’s a great question. If I said that I don’t think about the audience then that would be a great lie because of course I do to some extent. I definitely think about the audience’s engagement with art with the rise of .jpeg images and instagram and whatnot. It’s because of that that my work aims to be visually complex to pull the viewer away from just looking at their phone.
As for expectations, I hope that my work gives enough, but not too much, information so that the viewer can think through the piece on their own. I love to use the metaphor of my paintings as children. Once I give birth and nurture them, the paintings must then go off on their own to become individuals within society. Sometimes letting them go is very painful but I know it’s the only way they will grow. Part of this growth is that they can speak for themselves. They no longer need me to hold their hand and speak for them. If the work isn’t speaking for itself then it’s back to the studio where, hopefully, I can get them to a point when they can.