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INTERVIEW: Painter Gwendolyn Zabicki On Observation & Urban Landscapes

By Staff in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 3, 2013 7:30PM

Spanakopita, oil on canvas, 16”x12”, 2010
Chicago-based artist Gwendolyn Zabicki’s paintings skew the conventions of contemporary art in a surprising way: painting from observation. In an art world compelled by the narrative of “innovative” techniques and content, Zabiki’s approach feels refreshing and almost radical. Wanting to make paintings for “anyone and everyone,” her desire to make accessible artwork is explicit in the content of her paintings without appealing to the lowest common denominator, but rather a common good. Loving depictions of middle class suburban chandeliers or a casserole dish of spanakopita provide a sense of comfort and warmth. Sometimes at night, she takes to the sidewalks of Logan Square with her paints and easel to depict her neighbor’s illuminated windows against a backdrop of dim residential architecture, forcing us to focus on basic architecturally imposed divisions.

Urban architecture is another subject she explores, and Zabicki has recently started to work directly with the built environment by forming the South Logan Arts Coalition (SLAC), which helps artists transform vacant Logan Square storefronts into studios. Chicagoist recently talked with Zabicki about her paintings, growing up roller-skating in her living room, and SLAC.

Chicagoist: Zabicki means “frogman” in Polish. Do you think the origin of your family’s surname has a connection with the decision your immigrant relatives made to move to an amphibious city built on a swamp?

GZ: Ha ha! I hope so. My Polish ancestors were metalsmiths who left Poland to avoid a military draft. I was told that my great grandfather hopped a freight train in New York with his brother and jumped off in Chicago because it looked nice.

C: You use novelist Aleksandar Hemon’s statement that Chicago “was built not for people to come together, but for them to be safely apart” as a prompt for your most recent work. Is Hemon’s description something you experienced growing up in Chicago? What other effects has Chicago had on your work?

GZ: I love people so much. So much, that my biggest fear is loneliness. When I was about six I was in the car with my family. We were driving down Lake Shore Drive and I saw a man jogging. He was in his mid 40’s, a little overweight, and he had yellow shorts. I remember seeing him and feeling incredibly sad that this was our time together. We would never cross paths again and that if we knew each other we might even be friends and that there were countless other people I would never know. I decided to make an effort to remember that man. I think that story is at the heart of all of my paintings. It embarrasses me to talk about it. In grad school, I never told anybody that story until the last week of school. I was at a party and not sober and then I told my adviser about it.

C: What would you have said to this man? Was this a simple matter of wanting to share a common enthusiasm for the latest in spring fashion?

GZ: I’m not sure what I would have said to him other than ‘I see you.’

C: You have a rather sunny disposition. Did you miss the memo that states a painter must be a depressed and mad genius, isolated from the rest of society?

GZ: I have great parents. They let me roller skate in the apartment where we lived and my dad put two swings and a trampoline in our living/dining room. My mom and dad are really happy people too.

Next Door Neighbor, oil on canvas, 32”24”, 2011

C: That is interesting because it makes me think of your painting Spanakopita, which is a direct depiction of spanakopita in a casserole dish. This connotes gathering and sharing for me. It is a good counter to the window paintings, where the viewer is cut off from entering. We are not allowed to join the party. Do you see your paintings as an invitation to a party?

GZ: I do love parties. That invitation to a party, either offered or withheld, is very much what I want these paintings to suggest.

C: I would guess that your paintings appeal to people who do not have a specialized education in contemporary art or art history. Did this type of appeal in your work cause you any grief in graduate school, which is a very academic and specialized context for considering an artwork?

GZ: Critiques in grad school are very stressful events. The night before, you hang and light your work in one of the galleries at school and then all the grad students and all the faculty and visiting artists come and critique your work. It was anywhere from 30 to 60 intimidating people scrutinizing you and your work for about 45 minutes. And you’d do one critique after another, all day for an entire week. For the most part, my critiques were very positive. I think my peers and faculty were grateful that I gave them work that was so easy to talk about—a little break from the drier, esoteric stuff. I did notice a double standard, when I spoke fondly of the Ashcan Painters, during a critique. The Ashcans were American artists who painted in the 1910’s and 1920’s. Some people thought that referencing their work was dull or dated, yet Duchamp, who is from the same era, was still somehow considered a fresh and acceptable influence.

C: You are doing a lot of arts administration and organizing in addition to your painting practice. You have organized a group of artist lectures at Lillstreet and recently started the South Logan Arts Coalition (SLAC). Given Chicago’s reputation as a hub for DIY projects, do you feel it is crucial for Chicago artists to curate or spearhead community oriented art projects?

GZ: It’s not that it’s crucial for Chicago artists to spearhead community projects, rather it’s that in Chicago, artists can spearhead projects and can find a lot of support here. Chicago is a city that wants you to do well. Everyone will help you—aldermen, professors, journalists, strangers. I haven’t experienced that kind of support anywhere else.

C: What is the long-term goal of SLAC?

GZ: The goal of SLAC is to make blighted and neglected sections of Logan Square more desirable to businesses and potential renters. Long-term, SLAC would like to fill vacant storefronts citywide. A lot of the vacant properties in Chicago are bank owned. We would like to partner with a bank or banks and help other neighborhoods as well. In a perfect world, we would disband because all the empty storefronts have been filled with thriving businesses.

C: How do you see the connection between SLAC and your painting practice?

Double Billboards, oil on canvas, 60”x48”, 2011

GZ: The urban landscape has always been the subject of my paintings. There are architectural remainders that surround us, i.e. bricked-up windows, remodeled porches that don’t match the original house, painted over signs. They remind us of how people used to live, where a business used to be, and (big picture) our place in history. Now instead of painting the landscape, I’m changing it.

C: It seems that you are now organizing inhabitants to occupy a window instead of depicting that window and its contents. Classically, paintings operate like a window. Do you think you will ever attempt to work without that binary of the inside and outside, or is that even possible?

GZ: I really like this question. You get it. You get the work. If I had a gold star, I’d put it on this interview. I may work outside of this framework someday, but I’m very happy operating inside of it for now.

C: How do you think SLAC will affect the issue of gentrification in Logan Square? Do you think a neighborhood beautification project like SLAC has lost its potential to signal the idea of safety to the mobile middle class given our current economic predicament?

GZ: I see an opportunity to fix several problems simultaneously—help artists get studios, fill unattractive vacant storefronts with something beautiful, and eventually attract new businesses to the neighborhood. This benefits everyone. Our alderman, Rey Col√≥n, has agreed to attach his name to this project and to help us reach out to building owners. So far, we have been met with only support and enthusiasm by everyone affected by this project.

By: Christopher Smith