Stories from the Inside

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A conversation with Nick Van Zanten, recent MFA graduate

Gallery 400's spring curatorial intern, Marie Pfaff, recently sat down with MFA graduate Nick Van Zanten to discuss his work in the MFA thesis exhibition Ain't Easy to Love and Harder to Hold.

Nick Van Zanten, an MFA graduate from UIC and artistic chameleon, creates pieces that challenge the mind. He was originally trained as a painter, but when asked how he relates his previous work to his new creations, he asserted that they couldn’t be more different. The constant in his work, however, has been the humor he uses to tackle the topics at the center of his art: “I like funny things…like packing peanuts made out of cement.” He used to work mainly on stretched canvas, but now uses a variety of media, such as lycra, plexiglas, and cement.

During his graduate studies, he tried many new processes for his art practice; challenging himself with nearly every kind of media. He stated: “grad school permitted me to meet other students who were doing things in materials that i had never seen before.” This widened his perspective on the different types of art he could create and he tried myriad materials for his pieces. Van Zanten noticed an intersection between the paintings and clothing he was making, and sought to intermingle the two artistic practices in his Formfit series, which pair art and garments together. For Formfit IV (Emblem/Short Shorts), one of the pieces in his thesis exhibition, he found an unusual piece of fabric—a faux leather-coated mesh—which he made into shorts that were quite short. He later explained that through more revealing and “formfitting” clothing—incorporated in his installations—he wanted to highlight the parts of himself he believed people had not previously noticed. By bringing attention to the article of clothing present in the piece, he forces viewers to think about body image, and defies the societal norms of what men are “expected” to wear.

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Nick Van Zanten, Formfit IV (Emblem/Short Shorts), 2018, artist-made shorts, stuffed fabric, heat-shrunk mirror mylar, acrylic, and wood, with electrical components, 51 x 31 x 12 in.

Exhibited in his thesis exhibition at Gallery 400 in March 2018, Formfit IV (Emblem/Short Shorts) is in the shape of an hourglass, made roughly to human scale. Even though the artist used to sign his works with an hourglass symbol as a child, Van Zanten explained that he didn’t only borrow from personal experience. Rather, his inspiration came from things that he saw in the world that he found appealing. The upper part of the hourglass has a mirror in which viewers can see themselves and the lower part has a pair of shorts that seem to be floating in the air. Van Zanten found a way to make his piece an interactive experience in which the people who stand in front of his creation literally become part of the work.

Nick Van Zanten is an interdisciplinary artist whose primary focus is painting. He was born in Chicago in 1988, received his BFA from Pratt Institute in 2011, before returning to Chicago to study for his MFA at UIC. Van Zanten has shown throughout the country, including at group shows at Fjord in Philadelphia and Shoot the Lobster and Martos Gallery in New York. He has been a resident at VCCA, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Wassaic Project; and he has appeared in publications including Art in America and New American Paintings.
by Marie Pfaff, the Spring 2018 curatorial intern at Gallery 400. Pfaff earned a BA in Spanish Language and Culture from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada in 2017.