Friday, December 21, 2007

Art Space Talk: JenMarie Zeleznak

JenMarie Zeleznak's paintings deal with themes of death and despair while exploring the emotional sensations that stem from hopelessness, loss, and social disconnection. JenMarie's paintings seem to contain cruel layers of paint-- each mark representing a sense of peril, but further observation reveals that a glimpse of hope remains. JenMarie's work is about survival-- overcoming the obstacles and burdens that each of us face at some point. They are like psychological landscapes... revealing the conflicting storms of the human psyche, condition, and collective humanity.

Brian Sherwin: JenMarie, do you have formal training in art? If so, who were your instructors and how did they influence you?

JenMarie Zeleznak: I would not refer to my previous schooling before college formal training because the programs lacked. It was just basically your typical art classes. Currently at the Cleveland Institute of Art, I don’t feel as though I am being formally trained in the practice of painting, as much as I am participating in a dialogue involving issues in painting and what it means to be a painter at this current place in time.
I did however have a phenomenal instructor by the name of Blake Cook, who helped shape me into the painter I am today. It wasn’t his formal instructing, but his conceptual way of thought in which I was inspired by. I learned we valued the same things in art and life, along the lines of seeing beauty in loss, death, and the unknown. He helped me realize my values and what I was truly interested in to the point that I wasn’t making paintings to just fulfill an assignment or just to get by foundation requirements; I was making paintings because I was creating a body of work, which I had not known I was capable of.

BS: Tell us about your early artistic influences and experiences. When did you decide to pursue art?

JZ: As a child I was always involved in the creative aspects of life; be in art, theater, music, performance and the like. I guess I have just never thought otherwise. I never had thought about being anything else "when I grow up". It seemed to be a given, though it didn’t always come easy. Seemingly intuitive, there were times when I had to decide if what I was doing was worth it, or should I be doing something else with my life? Of course it was worth it, and now this is what I do. I couldn’t, and still can’t imagine not being a painter. Not so much the act of painting, but the process and ideation that becomes the painter; the painter’s ideas or philosophy on life.
Hanging in the Wait of Fading Echoes, Yet I Only Yearn for You, 2007, oil on canvas, 72x72"

BS: With that said, how would you say that your work has advanced since that time?

JZ: I’ve understood my position as an artist and painter as taking on many roles such as the painter as a cultural producer and philosopher. Aside from just being immersed in the process of painting, I find myself always searching for answers like stepping back from a situation, assessing it, and delving into it. I search for answers and give meaning to things through the process of painting.

BS: JenMarie, you've mentioned your interest in philosophical studies... do you feel that artists-- in general --should embrace the role of philosopher? Also, people often say that society is built from creative minds-- that art is the backbone of civilization --do you agree with that charge? If so, do you feel that it is being lost today or do you feel that artists are still navigating us toward a new cultural horizon, so to speak?

JZ: Absolutely. I think it’s a significant aspect of our lives to always be searching, and gain understanding of the world we live in and things we experience. Through this act we are in sense cultural producers, and I think by being more philosophically engaged that "charge" could be relevant. I think throughout the years it might have been lost, sure. But I do feel that there is something of this sort on the horizon if in fact more artists engage themselves in this dialogue.

I Don't Even Remember Dying, 2007, oil on canvas, 48x48"

BS: Would you say that there is a certain degree of spirituality to be found within the context of your work? Perhaps not in the organized religious sense, but in a more private manner-- a search for the essence of faith... of keeping hope? If so, are you revealing that side of yourself to the viewer or is your goal for the viewer to discover aspects of their own 'soul searching'-- for lack of a better expression? Perhaps that is just my interpretation of your work-- what I see in your work for myself --do you strive for this sort of self-reflection from those who view your work?

JZ: Deriving from the landscape, similar aesthetics lead to a method of creating, which usually consists of a solitary being within a sparse lonely space. The forms created depict hopelessness and despair by attributing human characteristics, such as the ability to weep, mourn, withdrawal, and seek solace in moments of being mentally, physically, or emotionally defeated. Through a cool somber palette with subtle warm undertones, my work lingers between romantic pathos and apathy. My work deals with issues related to the pragmatic burden of loss and the mental, emotional, or physical process one goes through when coping with the finality of something ending.

Within this body of work, earlier works are experienced within space of the mind, expressed from a first person point of view. Recent works depict a being that experienced loss; withdrawing itself within the landscape it once had imagined. Through the process of making these paintings, personally, I was going through a process of something ending in which I was not ready to relinquish. Through these struggles, each painting was manifested. I do see these works as a sequential whole; as a narrative which might bring about the possibility of understanding and identifying with these emotions one habitually tries to dismiss, move on and not dwell upon.

I see these paintings functioning by my projection of personal, experiential emotions onto them, in hopes that others might reflect on their past times, even if we don’t share the same memory. "The melancholic figure has a compulsive desire to ‘repeat the trauma of loss’; it is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish, because a substitute for the same love will never be found as it once was." By painting about this nostalgia for the past and inability to relinquish what once was, I am extending these relationships so that they seem to somehow still exist. It helped me get by, and come to understand the regressive tendencies of melancholia one might experience when it seems like there is nothing to grasp onto. I would hope the viewer would project their own experiences onto my paintings and see reflections of their own through them.

BS: Can you go into detail about your artistic process? How do you begin a piece? When do you know that a piece is finished?

JZ: Starting a piece is probably the hardest thing for me. If I don’t think I am ready or am seemingly avoiding starting a piece, I usually stretch and gesso other canvases. I think a really meditative state occurs during those times, which I enjoy. I usually don’t start painting right after I gesso. I let the gessoed canvas hang around in the studio for a while before I begin. I have been using black gesso recently-- it definitely has a presence. The black is so heavy and weighted. I just chose to work with black gesso because I had been fighting white gesso for quite some time, and the black somehow seemed more appropriate.
I have this default way of starting a painting, which usually is derived from the landscape. My paintings are very atmospheric, so I tend to meditate in that for a while as I begin to cover the canvas and establish space. I work between atmosphere and subject, though sometimes the atmosphere is the subject. A painting is done when it feels done. I know from having overworked many paintings in the past that when it communicates this energy of completeness, it is. I am not one of those people who work back into things far after they’ve been put aside. I work, bring it to a state of completeness, and then move on.
So This Is Me Telling You I'm Done, 2007, oil on canvas, 48x48"

BS: Are you influenced by current world events-- do they find a way into your paintings? How does contemporary life impact your creative practice?

JZ: Contemporary life impacts my painting in every way imaginable. A lot of my work has to do with loss, death and dying, tragedy, existentialist views on life…and I think these concepts are surfacing everyday for everyone. These issues are tough to really put into perspective until you witness it or it personally affects you. Between wars, a natural disaster, personal and societal relationships…I think there is always something influencing me each moment in the studio.

BS: Tell us more about the philosophy behind your art. What motivates you to create?

JZ: In spirit of the previous question, I think they go hand in hand. I am very influenced by contemporary life simultaneously inspired by nostalgia for the past. I have a hard time disengaging with people or situations, which I suppose through painting about them they still somehow exist. I guess by extending my relationships with these past relations and occurrences I try and bring them to a state of closure because I probably didn’t feel that closure at the time the [tangible or intangible] relationship ended. Just as I don’t quite come to understand human existence and relationships with others, by painting about it and bringing these issues into significance, I feel as though I am trying to better understand, analyze, or resolve these complex issues of human relations to the world and to others.

BS: Why did you choose to work in the medium(s) that you use?

JZ: I think that is a common question for painters these days, and an issue that painters constantly confront. Painting isn’t just paint on canvas anymore; it is a way of thought and can be stretched rather far. I, though, have a romanticized relationship with traditional easel painting, and find value in the hand of the artist. There is also something about oil painting and the engagement with the brush and mark making that I find myself always lusting for. I can’t really describe it. All I know is I can’t imagine it any other way.

BS: What is your studio like? Can you go into detail about your studio routine? Do you work in silence-- listen to music? What is it like to be in the studio of JenMarie Zeleznak?

JZ: My studio is pretty organized. I like to have space to work and move around to step back and see what I am painting. Sometimes I listen to music, sometimes I work in silence. I find them both to be inspiring. Some of my favorite music to paint to would be instrumental rock such as This Will Destroy You, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mono…and bands of the like. I feel like much of that music deals with the element of a certain aura I want my work to have. Sometimes the studio can be pretty intimidating.
I try to be in the studio as much as possible, so when I’m not painting I’m usually reading or having studio visits and vice versa. I’m not one to start many paintings at once. I usually just have one I am working on, so that I am solely focused and immersed in it.

BS: What are you working on at this time?

JZ: Right now I am very excited. I am just finishing up a body of work which I haven’t necessarily decided a name for, but it deals with relationships, the idea of loss and having to let go of lingering feelings for another. It was a very personal series that I am ready to move on from.

I am just about to start a new body of work dealing with existential issues. I have been reading much Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche. I am very influenced by their ideas, and am very excited to start this body of work.

BS: Do you have an upcoming exhibit? Where can our readers view your work?

JZ: Yes. I will be exhibiting in a select group show locally in Cleveland, Ohio. Your readers can find out more about that here, Also, my latest news will definitely be posted on my website
Please Tell Me Everything Is Going To Be Okay, 2007, oil on canvas, 48x48"

BS: JenMarie, the Internet is changing how we discover and view art. In your opinion, how have sites like empowered artists?

JZ: At first I was skeptical about viewing art on the internet. I have stumbled upon some wonderful work, especially on myartspace, which is what impelled me to join the site myself. I think myartspace is a great resource in sharing and discovering new work. I think the idea that galleries can seek you out by browsing sites like this or that you can submit work now via the internet to renowned exhibitions is exciting and convenient. I’m not sure what that all means, but I think it’s deemed appropriate at this day and age though I do believe reproductions lack a lot in terms of viewing work. I know my pieces lose a lot when viewed online. There is a tactility that is missing or won’t be able to be comprehended as I would like it to be, but I guess you have to sacrifice some things to get your work out there. I wouldn’t have known half of the art world newly emerging artists existed if I hadn’t had seen their work via the internet, so I guess I shouldn’t been complaining. Thanks for the opportunity.

BS: What are your thought on the meshing of painting and technology-- the addition of digital images or monitors upon a canvas-- works that combine the traditional methods of painting with the technology of today? Paintings on photographs, on monitors, or enhanced with computer programs-- or done entirely on the computer --are they dangerous territory for a painter and for the study of painting in general? Or are you open to that form of exploration? Should a painting be a painting... or can a painting be something that goes beyond the traditional materials and definitions of what a painting can and should be? Can painting, as a whole, be stretched so far beyond tradition that it damages the validity of painters from the past and present... while obstructing a true study of painting in the future? What say you?

JZ: I believe that painting can be stretched beyond its traditional materials, though I very much believe in the idea of the hand of the artist. You can’t deny technology, and in some instances other materials might be a better solution to conveying your ideas. I think it’s an issue painter’s deal with everyday in this contemporary art world. I think a lot is said through paint that other mediums cannot live up to. Painting is sensual, romantic, and emotional. And I think through other methods of creating, work like mine might be read as satirical or insincere, though I think these issues are relevant to painters today.

How is one to make a sincere painting without riding the lines of satirizing sincerity? I still deal with these contemporary issues today, and believe I will for quite some time, as any artist would. Even in my school today, the school is changing to where they are abandoning classical training towards a more theoretical view of art. These theories aren’t just art related but also revolve around philosophical thought, which is why I believe the artist as philosopher is important. We are taught that the discipline of painting can be stretched, but to what end? That is why I believe to take on a role as philosopher is of such contemporary significance. To explore philosophical ideas through painting and to participate in that dialogue is a way to stay involved with contemporary society, while still maintaining your presence as a painter. It’s a tough but exhilarating position to be in, as well as a tough question to have an answer to.

BS: You've mentioned how you deal with certain themes within the context of your work-- do those themes cause a form of symbolism to emerge? For example, your use of black gesso-- would you say that is a symbol? Do certain colors or movements of the brush upon the surface represent aspects of a selected theme in a symbolic manner? Or is that something you discover after you put the brush down, so to speak?

JZ: I do believe symbolism plays an important role in my paintings. These symbols, though, might be somewhat abstracted to the viewer, which leaves room for thought. I’d have to say the overall impending theme would be the idea of death. Some might take that to its literal translation, while others might understand death as the absence of life, death as departing from this life, death as a personification, or death as a time at which something ends. Just as the grave structure found in my paintings; I am using representational form to signify an idea which can be abstracted into something other than its literal connotation.

Metaphors are implied as a consequence of considering the relationships between the formal structures and the subject matter of a work of art by analyzing the form-content relationships. The form within the space is created with the idea of a termination point, not necessarily for a human being. As a metaphor, the grave-like structure functions as a void; simultaneously suggesting death beyond its literal implication by alluding to a time at which something ends.

My paintings function allegorically by abstracting the idea of death through the use of the grave-like structure suggesting the finality of loss just as an actual grave would. I think the black gesso functions in the same way; as this heavy-hearted void on an easel before I even start painting. As I paint, I am painting inwardly, as opposed to my works from 2006 which is very textural, tactile, and paint is literally hanging off the canvas. These recent works are painted into the canvas; into the void.

I'm Sorry I Wish Things Could Have Been Different, 2007, oil on canvas, 48x48"

BS: Your work is obviously very personal for you. Philosophically speaking, when you sell a piece do you feel as if a part of you leaves with it... or the pain that you dealt with in the work leaves with it? Do you ever feel regret about a painting that you know longer can touch? Or would you say that you view it like a book, each painting is a page and when a 'page' leaves you it gives the new 'reader' a chance to gain insight into their own life-- the memory of the message is still there... is that all you need?

JZ: I think you hit it right on the nose with the latter statement. I am very emotionally attached to my works. As works sell, they leave my possession, but the memory of the reason I made the work and the making of the work itself never leaves me. As I mentioned, I have a show coming up in January, and I am interested to see how the work is received, and if some paintings sell, what that persons story is and how they perceive the painting.
I believe everyone can see a little bit of themselves in the works, seeing as loss and death are so universal. We all experience loss in our everyday lives whether we deny it or not. Most won’t dwell on loss, while others reminisce to its fullest extent. The human condition allows us to realize our existence and the inevitable emotions we will experience through the journey of life, love, death, and loss.

BS: Finally, what are your goals as an artist? What do you hope to accomplish with your work?

JZ: I find a strange lack in emotive work in contemporary painting. Maybe I’m completely mistaken but, I find most tending to dismiss involving or discussing their emotions when it comes to art. I think many of us in this technologically advanced society have grown cold to the idea that sincerity and honest emotions still exist and seem to engage with ironic or satirical works of art because that seems to be how things are perceived.
I just hope to stay engaged with what I value in painting whether the art scene or life decides to go the other way. I hope to stay true to myself as a painter and set out to move and evoke emotion on others through my sharing of personal experiences of what much of humanity experiences every day— the sense of loss, despair, and hopelessness—even if we don’t share the same memory.
You can learn more about JenMarie Zeleznak by visiting her website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

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