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Rocks, Plants, and Pots — Paul Wackers Paints the Objects That Surround Us

PHOTOS BY ROBIN STEIN

The paintings of Brooklyn-based artist Paul Wackers may reflect a personal taste for the mundane — rocks, plants, pottery — but they are also infused with an energy, unexpected textures, and strange twists of space that open the expressive possibilities in otherwise straightforward still lifes. Wackers, who cut his teeth working for conceptual art pioneer Sol LeWitt after receiving an MFA from San Francisco Art Institute in 2004, is inspired by the three-dimensional forms around him, from an unsung corner of his studio to collections of ancient ceramic shards his native Dutch parents picked up traveling the world. Wackers recently opened his studio to share his works in progress for a new exhibition opening next month at Eleanor Harwood.

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Tiffany Lambert: Great space. How long have you been here?

Paul Wackers: I’ve been in here since 2011 or 2012 so four, almost five years.

Did you build all the furniture?

Yeah, but the stool is IKEA. I have a bunch of them. It’s the best thing IKEA ever made. I use it for everything. All these other things are weirdos I put together. My couch is just a pallet I pulled in off the street.

This building was originally a factory. Do you know what kind?

I’m not 100% but the one weird fact I know is that it was the first building in New York to have central air conditioning but it wasn’t A/C like we know it. They had this way to move the air through the building to get the hot air out and get the cool air in somehow. I Googled the building when I first moved in and it was August and I was sweating my ass off and I was like, “What happened?” The floors were super messed up and grease was completely impregnated in the wood. No matter how many times I cleaned it this greasy soot would come up so some sort of heavy machinery was being run in here. It could be some canning thing, who knows what. The creek is behind us so this is the perfect industrial zone.

Have you always made art for a living? Have you been lucky and never had to have other jobs?

For years, I worked at a video store. That’s what I did through college and basically the entire time I lived in San Francisco. I worked at a video store renting videos and would sell a couple paintings here and there. When I moved to New York, I freelanced, doing art installation and art handling. It’s only been the last two or three years that I haven’t had to do much of that. I’ve been lucky. Sometimes I hear about people I think are way more successful and they do all these other things.

Well, Philip Glass drove a cab into his 40s.

True. I’m sure listening to people informed everything he did. I miss these exchanges that I was forced to have because right now I’m here everyday. Which is why I got a dog. It forces me to get out of here.

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You were recently in Europe and in Ohio?

Yeah, I did a month in Brussels because Alice Gallery had a great apartment and studio situation that I could use. So worked there and traveled a little bit. I went to Morocco and Spain. Then I went to Ohio for a week.

In Morocco, I imagine the landscapes were particularly inspiring?

Yeah it was pretty striking. I went through a decent amount of the country. I only stayed in three cities but I traveled on the train and then I took a trip out to the mountains. I saw these beautiful landscapes and a stark mix of just arid weirdness of rocks and brown and then the mountains and valleys that are just lush green. And then in the cities there’s all this tile work everywhere and all these crazy tropical plants hidden in these interior courtyards. It’s a pretty extreme place, the most peaceful and calm and then crazy. The difference of just opening a door. It’s really, really nuts. It was hectic.

What’s in Ohio?

I did a visiting artist thing at the University of Cincinnati. The ceramics department invited me and I just hung out for five days, made a bunch of work, did some studio visits, and gave a lecture that was terrifying. [Laughs]

Really? Why is that?

Well, it’s a giant auditorium with like a hundred students and maybe 10% want to be there. I think it went fine, it’s just the first time I’d done one that was so official. I’ve done more informal things in people’s classes but never a lecture hall.

I visited once and remember them having amazing facilities.

The facilities were nuts. They had all these crazy 3D printers and weird 2D milling machines. If you have a computer you can just make a car out of clay. And you can use it as a student, which is insane. Then there’s this ceramics department that invited me. It was fun to be there. The few students who were there were pretty stoked. They had this massive kiln room with these giant gas kilns and all this other stuff you can only dream of having.

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When you do your ceramics, where do you make them?

Right now I’m in between spaces but I was working out of this studio in Greenpoint. A friend is setting up a new studio so I might do that part time because I don’t really need full time access. Ceramics has a few different requirements because you need a way to fire it and then you need good access to water. So sometimes the studio spaces you can find are not ideal. My friend just found a space and they’re going to build it out. It sounds pretty promising so we’ll see what happens.

What’s the new, in-progress work that’s up on the wall?

I’m going to San Francisco for a show at Eleanor Harwood in May and I’m just getting that started. This will be our fourth or fifth solo show together, but she’s moving into a new space so it’s going to be a whole new experience because it’s three times the size and pristine. Should be exciting. I’m going to try to do paintings and also a bunch of ceramic objects to go with it. So that’s what I’m just sinking my teeth into right now. I have two paintings finished, which are hiding back there.

I was curious if you could talk about the connection, or non-connection, between the ceramics and your paintings. Do they support one another or are they two completely different ways of thinking and working?

The ceramics are relatively new compared to the paintings. Three years ago I was kind of burnt out in the studio just painting all day so I decided to take a ceramics class because I always thought it would be really fun to do. I did a class in undergrad and I really liked it and I remember it was fun to make these useful things. There’s something magical about that whole transformation of clay to a solid object. So then I signed up for a regular class at this little studio in Williamsburg. It was me and a bunch of old folks just hanging out in this little pottery studio. I was already painting a lot of vessels — that aesthetic of hand built things was in the work already because it was already so much like my home space or spaces people live in or inhabit. It was funny because it definitely seems as though it almost happened in reverse; I figured out the aesthetics that I wanted for the ceramics before I got to it and then I was like, “Well I’ll take the class so I’m not bullshitting when I paint them.” [Laughs]

As I went along I started thinking, “Well I painted that, let me see if I can make it.” A lot of them I just couldn’t make because either I’m not good enough or it’s just physically impossible because in ceramics you have to deal with physics, weight, gravity. So it became this weird thing to pull objects out of the paintings and create them and then also make some object or vessel form and be staring at it in my studio and then it moves into my painting. It becomes this unending cycle of things I imagine in the flat turning into the round and then the opposite way.

Is there always this conversation between real and imagined?

I don’t really think of them as though, “You have to find this object in the painting.” I don’t want that. One thing I haven’t figured out entirely is how to display the ceramics with the paintings. I think the show “Thank You for Being You” at Morgan Lehman was done well because it was so structured and ordered that it didn’t seem fussy. It was very presented and I think it expanded the space that was in the paintings. The relationship isn’t supposed to be 1:1 but just add that other layer. And I’m not 100% on what it means yet because it is still so new. Each time I show the ceramic pieces I try a different approach to how it’s shown to understand what it is on it’s own or how it really fits. The first time I showed them in Toronto it was almost this tableau and they were all set up and it almost looked like a painting in 3D. Then I did a show in San Francisco with my friend Jessica where it was all ceramics and none of my paintings. We worked on pieces together and then we each had separate pieces. I didn’t have the painting to prop everything up. It was just the clay. So it’s always been different.

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Are you interested in the function of the objects that you paint? Or the distortion of an object’s function?

That’s definitely what initially drew me to ceramics. All these pretty straightforward vessels — all these pots or a vase or a bowl or planters are a big part of what I end up painting. Growing up I was always so surrounded by my parents’ weird collections and tchotchkes and stuff that they’ve picked up throughout their travels because they’ve gone all over the world. My mother was a stewardess back in the 60s and my father was in the army and a doctor in Holland so he would have a lot of down time and would fly with my mother. They would go to all these crazy places. They were always interested in history and ancient peoples so they would pick up these artifacts. A lot of that would be pottery shards or different vessels or some kind of thing that was very utilitarian but has this crazy story and a past to it and this imprint of something bigger than itself. I would always stare at them and have these fascinations about whatever ancient world was touched or used by it.

So I paint a lot of these things that have that aura of being really normal and standard but if you know what it is you would have a clue as to what its bigger purpose is, which is always so interesting to me. When you go to a natural history museum and there are these fragments, all of a sudden they construct a whole village out of one thing and tell you this big story. I like the idea that these really ordinary things must mean something. I like to play with that. And function is a big part of that. Something that’s useful is way more valuable to people who have to struggle with their days rather than just a piece of beauty. But it’s nice if it’s both.

How do you arrive on the subjects you paint? You’ve been incorporating rocks and mundane objects for a while?

When I moved to California I started painting all these landscapes dealing with that world around me, that vastness. I was just drawn to it after being on the East Coast where you see a wall of trees, or just houses. So I did these landscapes mixed with that interest in these lost cultures. I would paint these tiny imagined structures or sticks that were tied together or piles of stones that might have some crazy function or some bizarre cult’s secret fort or something. Slowly I think I just got closer and closer to painting interior spaces and with that I started painting my spaces, my home or my studio or those things I have a more immediate connection to and things I could manipulate more easily. I can shift little pieces incrementally. When every painting is dreaming up a world it’s a lot of work.

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It’s probably different for all your works but what is your typical process? It looks like you do some sketching.

You have a good insight into the beginning of a painting. Usually I’ll figure out roughly what sort of structure it’s going to be. I start with that or a color. Is it going to be a solid color or a more washed out, messy background? It’s usually building from as far back and slowly get to the front of the painting. Usually I’ll have my own space as the reference or a very loose sketch. Then I get the stage set and I just jump into it. Sometimes I’ll sketch out some objects with chalk to see how it lays. I have been doing some ink on paper and drawings as preliminary pieces for work. I want to have a couple different directions set before I start working because sometimes I take the drawings directly into the paintings. It’s just black and white in the ink drawings and then I can deal with it texturally and compositionally and not have to make the color choices while I’m working. So then when I switch to painting, it’s really about just trying to play with the color.

How do you pick the colors? There’s something realistic but also off at the same time.

A little keyed up maybe. I try to keep them as close to real and believable as I can but definitely try to push certain elements to try to draw your focus or unsettle it somehow. Otherwise it’s just really straightforward. It’s just my studio and I should just take a photo of it. But if I’m painting it, I can manipulate these things, which is much more interesting and maybe less intuitive, which is where I have fun in painting. Why not make this thing hot pink underneath so all of a sudden you have this crazy shimmer that isn’t really there but adds to the energy or life that’s in this thing.

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The grid system — is that something you do with all the works?

Some of the last paintings I made, it was almost like there were three or four paintings on top of each other. You’re looking through a room and maybe there’s a bookcase with a large sculpture in front of that and they’re all touching each other and interacting and making other shapes. The grid will give it some sense of structure.

With the layering of perspectives — it’s layered but it’s also flat — are you looking at Japanese works? Or do you not see that connection?

It isn’t something I’ve been actively thinking about but I do enjoy that way of creating a landscape. That weird way of explaining space through its composition — higher up is far away — as opposed to actual is interesting. They have a nice way of hiding things inside other things and I’m always interested in that.

For the show you have coming up at Eleanor Harwood, is there a central theme you’re working towards?

I’m trying these more layered and weird perspective paintings. A lot of past paintings have been very front on, a very organized display and I feel like these new paintings are going to be, hopefully, a little more complicated and intricate in their visual play. It’s really a continuation of what I do. I don’t think each show is a new idea or a brand new question each time. I think it just slowly evolves that way and it’s just a never ending thing rather than a thesis question. As I get a couple paintings in I’ll see a theme or some sort of mood that will show up that I’ll focus on more but I haven’t gotten to that point yet.

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