At first glance, Eric Zener’s works of art seem to be straightforward photographs. But photography is only the basis for his process. There’s much more underneath and within and on top of the surface.
Typically, Zener lays down a gold- or silver-leaf background on which he transfers portions of photographs, then highlights or transforms areas with paint. The whole image is then encased in thick resin — these are large, chunky works — and Zener sometimes adds more painted details on top of, or within, the layers of resin. The resulting pieces are more three-dimensional, textural, and nuanced than they appear from a distance or in a digital copy.
The process is always impressive. The results are always beautiful. For me, however, the meanings or implications are not always equally profound.
The Astoria, Ore.-born Zener’s recent works — on view at Foster/White Gallery — can be categorized into two groups, which I have come to think of as “In the Pool” or “At the Beach.” The beach paintings offer more visual and interpretive complexity.
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Now, remember, I’ve invented these rather obvious names for the categories (and, yes, I could have been more clever in coming up with them). But the articles are important.
Solitary figures are IN the pool — floating, arcing, diving underwater, often submerged, although sometimes suspended on the surface. The emphasis is on the formal qualities, on the shape of the body IN the water, as it interacts with the surrounding bubbles and the blues and whites of the water.
These are highly composed images, suggestive of fashion photography or nudes-as-still-life, where the figures are really just beautiful bodies to behold. There are some messages, I suppose, in their isolation and beauty and the painterly highlighting of bubbles, but the beach paintings really keep me looking and thinking.
In these images, the figures are AT the beach. The initial approach is documentary; these are real people at the beach, with their towels and sand toys and imperfect bodies. They are profoundly natural and human. And yet, Zener astutely plays with the idea of a gathering of human activity in a natural setting.
These people are relatable, but Zener counteracts familiarity by adding daubs of paint to their faces — we cannot make them out. Zener builds tension between figure and ground by isolating the photographic figures in expanses of bleached-out sand or opaque seawater. “Happy People III (All the Therapy You Will Ever Need)” looks like a seamless photograph, but look closely at the sand; it is built up of subtle strokes of opalescent paint.
Ultimately, these “documents” are artificial and constructed. They are warm, pleasurable and social images, as the titles imply (perhaps ironically), but they’re also anonymous, futile, existential.
Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun. Beach scenes have been popular with photographers for over a century — it must be the potential to reveal intimate relationships with nature and each other. And, of course, there’s all the exposed flesh.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the recently discovered work by photographer Vivian Maier is of black-and-white moments that show flawed bodies and social distances. Contemporary photographer Gray Malin captures colorful beach scenes from above, emphasizing the formal qualities of the tops of beach umbrellas and the social organization implied by clumps of beachgoers.
I find Zener’s beach images so compelling because they do all of these things and more. They portray social relationships and formal qualities. And they suggest ideas about transcendence and artificiality. They remind us that a wide stretch of beach allows us to go to the edge where society meets nature, to dip our toes into the vast beyond.