“Somebody called me the Bruce Springsteen of painting,” said Gwen Zabicki. We were eating homemade steak and ale pie, sitting in Ikea recliners in her UIC studio. Gwen is one of only three painters in the most recent crop of the University’s MFA students. “And I thought, oh no, so I’m really earnest and hamfisted and there’s a honking sax in the background.” It seemed like a real concern, especially because Gwen paints subject matter that can be easily associated with the middle or blue-collar urban class. In other words: solidly in Springsteen territory. But after our conversation, it was readily apparent that there is an important difference between earnestness and inquisitiveness. The former is about latching onto an emotion and glorifying it. The latter seems more about asking why we feel a certain way in the world, and whether we might be able to feel differently by changing our perspective.
In thoughtful and measured paintings, it is this territory that Gwen’s work inhabits.
Her work deals with unseen and often ignored objects that populate the urban landscape, and grapples with questions about how we engage–or fail to engage–with the material that makes up our everyday life. She paints mailboxes, dumpsters, billboards, interstates, leftover food, streetscapes and Popeye’s restaurants. When it comes to style, she is influenced by the Ashcan School of painters, Americans who worked at the beginning of the 20th Century. Like the Ashcans, Gwen is interested in how objects interact with one another, and compete with one another for our visual attention. Her latest project is a 24-foot long painting of a decommissioned Washington Mutual sign hanging at Division Street and Ashland Avenue. The sign is wrapped in a sheet of plastic covering, but is still clearly legible. The attempt to erase the sign from the city turns out to draw attention: to failure, to finance, and to the importance we place on material accumulation.
In general, Gwen’s pictures operate from the assumption that the ordinary is shot through with unseen tensions–and it becomes the painter’s job to expose them. The works do not elevate or celebrate what seems merely mundane or boring (that would be hamfisted boosterism; or perhaps more simply, Springsteenism), but rather seek to expose the hidden contradictions that reside in the margins of city life and enliven the ordinary.
What’s compelling about Gwen’s work is that it is able to generate an awareness of thematic tensions from a formal perspective. Her landscapes consistently produce a sense of isolation in a crowd, or the feeling of placelessness in a specific urban context. In the absence of precise markers of location or direction (we don’t know that the WaMu sign is in Ukranian Village, for example) , we are forced to confront the relationship between objects. In A Bridge During Travel we look at the road from the interior of a car. We are surrounded by other cars and other drivers, but are at the same time alone in an anonymous Plains landscape. In Billboards our perspective seems to be just above street level. We are too high to see pedestrians and cars that pass just beneath our eyes. Neither can we see street signs or storefronts to position ourselves with any degree of certainty.
These works allow us to think about objects, not necessarily with respect to a larger sense of place, but in relation to one another. In Bridge During Travel, we notice the interruption of the horizon line by the dark bridge, and the contrast between the sky and the road. We have to drive toward the darkness under the bridge before returning to sunlight. In Billboards smokestacks, light posts, and ladders reach vertically. But the billboards themselves are dark and horizontal. We are looking at their backs and cannot be distracted by advertising. Instead, we experience them as pure material: as horizontal shapes in an otherwise vertically oriented scene.
But over the course of the year, Gwen’s work has also been examining different ways to “zoom in” on individual objects. It seems significant that this thematic shift is also marked by a formal difference. Unlike the landscapes, works like Spanikopita, Chandalier, and Mailbox are lush with thick paint and vibrant colors. What seems consistent across the works is a sense of warmth–a feeling of being invited into (rather than pushed away from) the pictures. But whereas the landscapes often seem merely melancholy or lonely, the object paintings seem capable of inducing a wider set of emotions. These paintings thematize the relationship between the viewer and a specific object and get us to think about how we develop attachments to inanimate things. And there’s something particularly depressing about cold, dried out spinach in a foil container.
My favorite of these paintings is Mailbox. The box stands on a street corner in winter, though the context takes a backseat to the object itself. “They wanted me to give it a background, give it a place,” Gwen said of a critique she received of her work. Earlier efforts to paint objects seemed to miss a crucial point: “We want to see the object as we experience it,” she said. But paint changes objects. By hanging the life-sized object on the wall, we are positioned below it. It’s as though we are experiencing the mailbox from the perspective of a child. The object looms, and is thick with brushstrokes. The handle is invisible, as the “mouth” of the box gets obscured in darkness. In this rendering, I think of being held up by my dad to mail a letter, thinking that if I wasn’t careful, I’d get swallowed.
It is this attention to our relationship with things that Gwen’s work enlivens.