In Foster/White Gallery’s new show, painter Eric Zener takes us into a watery void with his luminous, rippling studies of swimmers.
In Eric Zener’s 2011 oil on canvas painting “The Light,” an underwater figure leans backward in a swimming pool — eyes closed, bubbles seeming to dribble from her mouth — as the pool’s tiled edge wavers distinctly if blurrily above her.
In “Unbound,” an oil on canvas from the following year, a similar swimmer floats at an angle against a sun-dappled swimming-pool floor, but the pool’s perimeter is now out of view.
“Coming Together Again” (2014), the third oil on canvas in Zener’s show “Voyager,” frees its swimmer from any obvious pool context. She’s facing upward in a backstroke, but it’s hard to say whether we’re viewing her from below or from the side in the watery void we share with her.
Eric Zener: ‘Voyager’
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through Oct. 24, Foster/White Gallery, 220 Third Ave. S., Seattle (206-622-2833 or fosterwhite.com).
And in the 10 glossily layered mixed-media images of swimmers that dominate the rest of “Voyager,” the California painter immerses us in a subaqueous world that is a yawning abyss all the way.
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In both subject matter and technique, “Voyager” is as probing and transcendent as its title suggests. The three oil paintings from 2011 to 2014 make it obvious that Zener can conjure any illusion he likes from oil paint. The play of air bubbles, water distortion and seeming camera-glare in “Unbound,” for instance, are a tour de force as they veil and illuminate the painting’s swimmer.
But in his newer mixed-media pieces, most of them completed this year, something more intricate and atmospheric is at work. And it stems directly from methods Zener has developed using underwater photography as a starting point.
“Distressed photographs,” Zener explains in his artist’s statement, “have become fodder for a world of inks, metallic leaf and resin. The unique properties of these mediums, when used together, allow the inherent subject of ‘light’ to come alive with refraction and reflection.”
David Salgado, Zener’s technical collaborator, spells out what’s involved: “These works begin with a photographic base sampled from the artist’s own oeuvre, a transparent print that is then coated with resin and painted opaque behind the areas the artist wants to retain. … Once the original subject matter is sealed in resin, Zener paints layers of ink over the image. The resin is cast on top of the paint or ink, enhancing its colors and providing a translucent source of light.”
The glowing, quasi-3D quality of the resulting images is due to the thickness of clear resin — one eighth of an inch — inserted between two to six layers of photographed or painted imagery.
“When most painters want to paint light,” Salgado notes, “they paint white or variations of white. The quality of internal light — the point of the resin — is that it is not the illusion of light, but actually working with light.”
Walk past these luminous “resin pieces” and they seem to shift and ripple. Air bubbles glisten. Water shimmers.
Some of the swimmers cavort underwater, as titles like “U Turn” and “Summer Tumble” suggest. Others are more searching and contemplative, as in the paintings “A New Direction” and “Into the Void.” In “Mirror,” the underwater swimmer makes twisting headway in the flesh — while, up above, her reflected image on the water’s unsteady surface dissolves into pure abstraction.
Whether antic or meditative, all these figures inhabit a seductively shadowy vertigo.
Two quite different pieces round out the show with dizzying depictions of colorful waterslides. The human figure is conspicuously missing in them. But if you go to Zener’s website (www.ericzener.com), you can see he’s bringing it back — in one instance, in the form of a young man plummeting from an amusement-park attraction in a splashy yet highly preposterous way.