Stories from the Inside

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Q&A with Artist & MFA Student Nick Van Zanten

In the lobby of Art & Design Exhibition Hall at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a grid of four photographs depict fabric bundles suspended and intertwined in an interior hung with small painted mirrors. Upon further exploration and navigation to the fifth floor, the mirrors documented in the photographs still exist, but the fabric has disappeared confounding familiarity and memory. UIC MFA student Nick Van Zanteen’s installation It Had to Be There was selected by Gallery 400 staff and Art & Art History faculty as the Fall 2017 Lobby Competition Winner, and Van Zanten’s work is exhibited during the duration of the Fall semester. With open studios right around the corner, November 30, we chatted to Nick about about ideas behind It Had to Be There, the MFA experience, artists he’s looking to, and what’s next.

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Nick Van Zanten, It Had To Be There, 2017, inkjet prints, acrylic on acrylic mirror

This project uses the practical function of the lobby as an origin point for navigation around the building as a means to investigate subject positions in relation to photography, space, and memory. The work consists of four photographs in the lobby—each with one CMYK channel removed—and four paintings rendered on mirrors and placed in the hallway on the fifth floor of this building, in front of the elevator and by the entrance to the Great Space. The secluded mirror paintings are visible in the photographs, which are in fact taken looking through them at an installation of fabric. However, when viewers seek out the site pointed to in the photographs, they discover only ghostly echoes—a space not immediately recognizable, yet hauntingly familiar. Regarding this work, the artist says: “Schools are spaces of memory, particularly for students, who spend a brief but significant time in them. When we revisit these spaces, we experience the memory again, yet in so doing we change it slightly. These pieces... being performative, fugitive, and site-specific, [can] act as a machine for creating such feelings of remembrance, even though the memories [will] be false.”

Does It Had to Be There come from a larger conversation in your works about memory and absence? 

I’d been working separately with photography and fabric for about a year now. This piece built off of earlier site-specific pieces where I built a sculpture that was responsive to its environment, photographed it, but only showed the photographs. The sculpture was removed and lost, except in reproduction. The original idea came from having moved here from New York, which meant that, even more than before, I was experiencing a lot of art only through photographs. The mediation of the experience struck me, and I wondered what it would be like to make work that only referred to another ineffable artwork, as so many other experiences we have do. In a way, this builds on some of my earliest serious work from when I was finishing undergrad. I started making paintings that poked fun at how econometrics and graphs are supposed to convey to us massive ideas about the recession. I turned graphs about millions of suffering human beings into pleasant abstract paintings. The inability to fully convey meaning is something that I’ve always been interested in when making my work. It Had to Be There builds on that and adds memory with it existing in two parts, enabled by its placement in the lobby. Almost always are you only in the lobby because you need to get somewhere else. With these photographs, I wanted to direct you to a certain place in the building, but once you get there your expectations would be mistaken. There are still mirrors, and D-rings, from the installation, but the things seen in the photographs through the mirrors are gone. With the photographs downstairs, now all you have is your memory of the image to compare.

Have your previously create site-specific works? 

Yes – I’ve done a few site-specific installations, a lot of which seem to involve fabric in some way. I've been working in fabric for awhile, and I separately started making these absent installation images about a year ago. This is the first installation where the fabric is just in the image. Most of my recent installations were built, like this one, just to be photographed and then removed.

Preferred media to work in? 

I’m working in many media right now, probably too many. I was an oil painter for many years, but lately I’ve mostly been sewing fabric and taking photographs. Part of why I came to UIC was that I wanted to try other media, because that’s very difficult when you’re on your own.

New Work
Nick Van Zanten, Formfit - Skirt, 2017, printed lycra, polyester stuffing, canvas, hardware, acrylic on wood, and artist made garment, 64 x 64 x 23"

When did you realize you wanted to get your MFA? 

About four years out of undergrad, I was living in New York and working as art handler. My painting practice seemed hopelessly stuck. I had lot of friends who had gotten or were pursuing their MFA’s, so it seemed like a good solution. I wanted to try new processes, which is easier at a school where you can get advice from faculty and use school equipment and facilities rather than buying things outright. 

Do you have any insight into your MFA experience so far? 

I’ve learned an incredible amount and changed a lot. It’s been very frustrating at times, because of the simultaneous demands that I make as much work as possible, think about it as much as possible, and do many other things as part of my education. But the readiness of feedback, and the elevated and broadened discourse around the work, has been really refreshing. I’ve also taken it as something of a license to try and fail at things, which has been great, and also very stressful.

What artists are you looking to? 

John Chamberlain, Mika Tajima, Fischli and Weiss, and a lot of photographers – such as David Hartt, Sarah Vanderbeek, Michele Abeles, Letha Wilson. I also get a lot of inspiration from Memphis design and from trips to Discount Textile Warehouse, on 21st St. in Pilsen. Steven Parrino is someone that I can’t seem to get away from. Many people – that’s by no means a complete list, but those artists have influenced this piece or my present work.

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Nick Van Zanten, 11:16am / 172˚ from Incomplete Documentation III (Light-Specific) series, 2016-17, digital photograph, 21.5 x 14.25"

How has your work evolved during your time at UIC? 

It’s changed enormously. When I first came here I was making paintings that were silkscreened in layers of plexiglass boxes. The first thing I did when I got here was to start casting in cement, for some reason which pushed me from just making three-dimensional paintings into making sculptures. From there, I started making zines of pictures of sculptures and paintings, which led to photography. In my first year I branched out a lot trying all sorts of new directions. Now I’m trying to integrate the various strands of my practice, such as the soft sculpture and photography, more fully. I want to do more physical manipulation of the photographs or more fully realized situations for them. The Graham Foundation’s David Hartt exhibition is in a way about photographs of a place that you can’t get to, but there’s a very different effect because of how he’s surrounded the photographs with sound and furnishings. I want to make the parts of my work fit together better in the present.

Where can we see your work next? 

I’ll be having a show here in Chicago in February, at Paris London Hong Kong on Chicago Ave. For that and for my thesis group show, I’ve been working on soft paintings that are accompanied by handmade garments that I can wear. I’m making a few of those and some additional photographic pieces for these two shows, and my thesis show will probably include some zines and cast cement pieces.

Will your studio be open during Open Studios ?

Yes – it’s 5201, right by the elevator on the fifth floor. I’ve got a great view of the skyline. And the second part of It Had to Be There, the mirrors and D-rings by the Great Space, will still be up. I also have two pieces in the Great Space itself, where there’s a curated MFA show. There will be a pile of floppy fake wooden boards (actually made when I lived in New York) and another of cement packing peanuts (made this past year). They should complement one another.

Nick Van Zanten was born in Chicago in 1988. He earned a BFA from Pratt Institute in 2011, and is currently pursuing a MFA and is slated to graduate in May 2019 from the University of Illinois at Chicago. His work has shown nationally including solo show at Shoot the Lobster, New York, NY, and group shows at Fjord in Philadelphia, PA and Martos Gallery in New York, NY. Van Zanten’s work was reviewed in the Art in America, and he has taken part in residencies at Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Wassaic Project.