by Scott Gleeson
Zach Eichelberger is an artist equally in his element operating on the periphery of the art world or at its center working with some of the most reputable artists of our generation. Raised in Dallas, Texas, Zach Eichelberger committed to his art practice at an early age with intensity atypical of peers his own age. I had the good fortune of meeting Zach in elementary school, and of reconnecting in high school at the prestigious Jesuit College Preparatory School. As a teenager Zach dedicated his art practice to a visionary form of figuration informed by political, as well as humorous and ironic perspectives. I recall numerous impassioned discussions of art and aesthetics in which the contributions of the old masters and Picasso featured prominently. Zach since went on to study painting at the Kansas City Art Institute followed by an eight-year sojourn teaching English in Seoul, Korea and heading the Seoul Art Collective. In 2014 Zach earned his MFA in Painting from Columbia University where he studied with Liam Gillick and Dana Schutz. Peripheral Vision has caught up with Zach in his new home in Sumter, South Carolina to discuss his new series of paintings and the aesthetic territory he has traversed as a world-travelled artist and curator.
Tell us about your latest paintings. These are intimately scaled oils on canvas depicting solitary figures or landscapes in which the human presence is conspicuously absent.
I began these paintings after moving to South Carolina. The beauty of the environment here has influenced me, which is new – I’ve never had much use for landscapes by themselves until now. The paintings that don’t have people in them are actually the result of editing. For all of them I started with at least one figure. “Watchtower” for example had three men in rain slickers for a very long time and “Four Trees” had two people passing each other in opposite directions. The decision to remove the figures comes from deciding what the work needs. All these paintings have large ridges of paint and globs underneath from the way they were initially began. I think the inclusion of these marks has some integrity. Paint has often been likened to skin and was once revered for its ability to accurately portray flesh. I think of the skin of these paintings as being scarred, or tattooed maybe? The history is there.
You have been committed to painting and the representation of the human figure your entire career. What potential does the medium and your subject matter hold for you?
Representation gives me a language. Pushing paint around with a representational aim keeps me kind of grounded. My attempts at nonrepresentational, abstract painting are less satisfying to me, possibly because I don’t really know what’s coming through there, or what the parameters are. Also, I’m very interested in people as well as my own psychology. Painting reveals that kind of stuff to me.
Earlier works from your time living in Seoul such as Johnny English Teacher explicitly comment on local and national Korean social or political discourses. Whereas your recent works and paintings from your time at Columbia express an interest in individual interior spiritual or psychological experience. Could you talk about this tension between individual and collective experience in your practice?
I don’t do political stuff that often. I sort of chose art so that I didn’t have to be political – always being careful of what I say, etcetera. Inevitably it goes there sometimes, or the audience takes it there. “Johnny English Teacher” was part a series of large-scale drawings I did in my last year in South Korea. I got the biggest pieces of paper I could find, glued four of them together to make this 8’ x 4’ thing. Then I’d lay them on the floor and furiously scrawl charcoal into them. I was responding to a lot of negative reports coming out of the Korean media surrounding the growing tension between Koreans and the burgeoning foreign population. It probably strikes a lot of Americans as odd, but you can be strolling down the street in Seoul now and see signs like “No Foreigners Allowed” in English. I really tried to take aim at the more pejorative, biased types of reporting taking place around that time. It was like an exorcism. Just before I left for New York, I took part in this big expo thing. I got a booth in this gigantic place where they have boat shows and pinned all the drawings up. I was very nervous. I thought I’d be run out of there because I was critiquing a very nationalistic culture. Funny enough, all of these were bought by Koreans. They came and looked, some nodded, and eventually all of them sold. I kept wondering if they saw what I saw in the work. It reaffirmed the idea that if you imbue the work with enough feeling, or substance, or if you’re just honest about it, people can take it to places you didn’t really consider. It’s like the movie “Room 237” about Kubrick’s “The Shining.” I’ve read some biographies on Kubrick and I don’t think he was concerned with half the stuff people derive and conclude from that film. But it’s there all the same and it’s real to them. I’ve had positively epic arguments about this with other artists. There are those who think you should be knowledgeable and consistent with everything you do. I think this is unrealistic. You put the work out there and it lives on its own. I heard someone once describe the breakup of The Beatles as being the result of their music no longer being their own. It had become so relevant and so loved, the public took it from them. Not everyone will agree with that idea of course but I think it’s great. Imagine making a work of art that is so meaningful to so many that it is rested from your ownership. I think this is the way it should be.
I don’t believe in being lazy about this kind of thing. Certainly no one would say Kubrick was. But I don’t want to bludgeon the content of the work either. Matthew Barney said something to the effect that he wants part of the work to be mysterious to him as well. When I heard that I really took it to heart.
As for the spiritual and psychological that I think my work tries to get at, I think it’s a response to setting the practice against the mainstream in a way. It is not so popular to talk about that kind of stuff right now, and I think there is value in exploring what doesn’t get a lot of attention. For me, if I’m not “leaning towards a divine light” as Schnabel says, then I’m just decorating.
The theme of dualism appears in such works as the Shooter series and in newer works like Fork in which a dark silhouetted figure appears to be trying to walk in opposite directions in a landscape without a destination. How has this theme developed and what significance does it hold for you?
The “Shooters” were all about certain spiritual ideas surrounding the negation of the ego that you find in Buddhism and Hinduism. The core of these is a non-dualistic belief system. There’s a great line about this that says the ego of the thoughtless mind is like the stick that stirs the funeral pyre, in the end, it too is consumed. I think that’s really great, but it was a very extreme, radical idea to me and so the paintings reflected that. Paintings like “Fork” are about journeys and all the easily indexical stuff that accompanies that, but they are also self-referential in terms of my painting practice. I don’t really know where I’ll end up when I start a work. They never look the way I imagine them to. It’s an exciting and frustrating part of the whole thing, but if I plan it out it’s completely dead, stiff. So a large part of the new work is about simplifying and if the figure stays in there, then he or she is just out there in the world like everyone else. Of course, the figure in “Fork” and others like it are largely to do with me and all the places I’ve lived and being a journeyman and needing to shape that experience.
How did the shift from the periphery of the art world (Seoul) to its center (New York) change your perspective about your work?
The geographic movement was very dramatic. I’d been in Korea for 8 years and I was pretty comfortable there, to the point where New York was like a reverse culture shock to me. I’d visited a few times but relocating there was a momentous shift. I don’t know that it changed my perspective of my work. My work changed, definitely, as it always does with any relocation. I suddenly had access to materials and equipment that were previously unavailable to me. In Korea the art stakes are very low and the gain is minimal. In New York the stakes are high, but it’s very closed-off and the gain or loss, as far the art world goes, is maximal. A lot of great things come out of New York. No doubt. But as per the times in which we live, there’s a great deal of caution in art there right now and I don’t see the tough, subversive element being particularly strong.
Columbia University administers one of the top MFA painting programs in the country. What is the most important lesson you learned during your time there?
That is very hard to distill to one thing. New York was kind of an education in itself. The environment at Columbia was intense, I felt very aware that I was in this particular place, doing this particular thing and that this had potential to matter in a way that the environment in Korea just couldn’t accommodate. You could have 3, 4, 5 critiques in one week, sometimes with artists you’d followed for years and suddenly they are in your studio going, “Oh…yeah…” But I think one of the things that struck me and that seemed to run throughout all those people was that they were exceedingly practical about how art gets made; it doesn’t come from the ether to sit on your lap. You have to get your ass up and make it happen.
Among the new paintings, Young Washington stands out from the others as a representation of an historical figure. A few American artists made their careers painting Washington’s likeness for a patriotic clientele hopeful about our nation’s future prospects, foremost among them, Gilbert Stuart. The painting of this work is timely because of the present national discourse; however, to me this work seems to be about hopefulness imbued with a self-conscious awareness of frailty. Am I way off base?
I don’t think so, but I hope the work goes elsewhere too. America is peculiar in the way that determining what is and is not American is something we continually re-exam. A strong feature of the culture is renewal, but this also has some basis in the lack of integration we have as a society. So, an examination of Washington in portraiture makes sense to me right now. It’s interesting to note that the most famous portrait of Washington is unfinished. I have David McCullough’s “1776” on CD and I play it sometimes while working. The character of Washington is a major feature of that book. Washington was betrayed by one of his officers and the way he handled it was really incredible. I hope we haven’t lost that character, but it certainly isn’t a popular aspect in the merchant-dominated culture we’re in now.
One of the anecdotes of Washington’s mythology is that this great leader was plagued by dental problems early in his adult life, and that his dentures were a source of pain and caused the reshaping of his facial features, which come across in Stuart’s iconic Athenaeum Portrait. Washington’s dentures are held in the collection at Mount Vernon. The boldest compositional feature in Young Washington is the President’s smile, jagged teeth and all. So, I want to play with the notion of Washington’s dentures as metaphor to see where that takes us.
You mentioned above that the New York’s art scene may not be conducive to supporting subversive practices and art forms. Do you think contemporary painting as a genre still has “bite” as, say, modernist abstraction tied to political revolution, feminist praxis from the 1970s, or 19th Century Realism?
I don’t think so. Not in the same way at least, because then it was subversive and now it’s the order of the day. I think we want to look to New York to give us some bearing, much the same way we might look to the Founding Fathers. Like, for a sense of coordinates. But this has to be tempered against reality. In Washington we have grit and a morally pristine demeanor set against wooden teeth, owning slaves, elitism, etc. You can double back on this too; Washington’s “personal servant” rode around on a horse (very prestigious at the time) and dished out orders to white volunteers. Washington’s demeanor could be thought of as elitist relative to his countrymen, but this was also given to self-sacrifice. It’s not as though a lot of people were begging for the responsibility of leading a militia against the world’s most dominant military. But I don’t think one side cancels out the other. I think you can have both and establish integration and disintegration points if you like, or you can compartmentalize things if you want. This is where I find the possibility of multiple truths or “competing narratives”. But when you have major New York gallerists declaring a lack of energy in the New York scene, there’s a fissure in a long established narrative. I would like for New York to be the powerhouse that people know it to be and have highly potent work being made there and being held to a high critical standard. But 2016 isn’t 2007 or 2000 or 1969, if you catch my drift. What would a robust, critically accomplished art “scene” look like in the South, or the Midwest, the Northwest? Cities across the country have figured out that their wealth depends - in part - on having cultural offerings. We see this in Boeing’s decision to relocate to Chicago over Dallas or Kansas City. Such competition might actually strengthen the relatively uncontested New York scene without overburdening it.
If the paint film may be read as a metaphor for scarred skins or history, may Young Washington’s smile be read as the revelation of what’s below the surface, a flaw or rupture of representation?
Like the illusion aspect of representational painting? I suppose. But my starting point there is that by keeping all the under painting in place, you can see the history. In some cases you can actually see the silhouette of the image that came before. I don’t want the paintings to look fresh and quick. I want them to look earned.
For a long time Young Washington didn’t have a face. It was just a blank, flesh void with the hair and collar. When I went back to it, the face ended up having a youth and brightness to it but also a savage kind of look.
A key component of historical avant-gardes has been a tension between art and politics, with certain movements advocating political or social ideologies and others advocating a turn away from an art in the service of politics or propaganda. Where does Young Washington fit in this history? Is an avant-garde painting possible today or are we consigned to modes of production complicit with market demands and popular, accessible content?
Let me start with the second question here. I think it’s entirely possible to have that. The point at which that stops is when artists become complicit with such demands. To the extent that this is happening now has something to do with the difficulty of being an artist today. There isn’t really an industry on the other side of whatever degree you might earn in art. There’s a networking kind of thing, but this isn’t the most stable thing in the world.
Mostly I think of my work as not being a part of espousing a particular ideology. If I look around, I see plenty of bickering and fights to be had and some are very worthwhile, but if I ask myself what I want the work to be about at the end of the day, then I want something that appeals to our better nature and appeals broadly in that sense.
What may we expect as you continue to develop this body of work?
Well, I don’t have a grand design on it except to make the overall practice a career. I feel that mostly I get to work, the painting goes some place and I just kind of follow it. In terms of the paint itself and a body of work, I’d like to connect the dots more and follow the bread crumbs. If I had my druthers I’d like to push things along at the level of material in painting, although I’m not sure what form this takes. A stretched canvas over a wood support has been around for long time after all. I’d like to be a member of the group that keeps painting relevant. I don’t think this is especially contested at the moment, but it will be one day. If painting now is the round wheel, I’d like to make a square one just to challenge it.
In high school we were in a senior year English class together. It was organized much like a college course and we sat around and discussed whatever book we had to read. The class required a big project at the end that you could interpret in your own way. I chose to do sculpture out of junk and they let me put it all in one of the auditoriums. It was all pretty silly, but one of the pieces was a mash of all the pamphlets and brochures that universities used to send out to seniors in high school. I just dumped all these on the floor and it was a big, colorful mess, but it was also about glut and the confusion people feel around that time. I had to go around with the class and explain it all. Afterwards a classmate came up to me and said at first he thought it was nonsense, “A bunch of pamphlets on the floor?” But then he said after I’d explained it that, “a big change went on,” and he tapped his temple as an indication. I think that kind of individual, quiet, interior expansion is an experience that art is uniquely suited towards and that’s the kind of thing I aim at these days.
Learn more about Zach Eichelberger on his Artist Profile page.