Nathan Vernau is a young artist from Ashland, Wisconsin, living and working in Chicago. Combining classic figure-drawing and a highly detailed process of layering and cutting colored paper, Vernau has been attracting attention lately for his bold, graphic, emotive self-portraits. Lovesick, his first solo show in Chicago, is currently on view at Robert Bills Contemporary and features Vernau’s signature works in an exploration of love, dating, relationships, and loneliness. Last week we met with Nathan in the gallery to look at the work, and talk about his influences and identity as an artist.
Do you think of yourself as a Chicago artist?
A Wisconsin artist?
I think of myself as a Midwestern artist. And I don’t really mean anything by that. It’s not a look or anything, more just a fact. And a personality.
And yet we’ve talked before about the influence of the Chicago Imagists on your work, and the kind of visual dialogue you maintain with them.
That’s true. I guess when I look at some of the works in this show again the visual similarity is pretty obvious. I was working at the MCA as a guard during the Jim Nutt show, and I feel like I can see all the hundreds of hours I spent in that gallery just staring at that work.
Jim Nutt, a little light, a little dark, 1986.Colored pencil on paper,
11” x 16”.
Nathan Vernau, It’s the least I can do (Kissy kiss), 2011. Pencil and cut paper.
But beyond the images, I also like that Nutt did that stuff for 30 years and just mastered it.
John Wilde is another local artist I’m interested in. He was a professor at UW Madison, and had been part of this scene of six or seven people from Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago that called themselves something like the “Midwest Magical Realists.” He’s this incredibly gifted technical draftsman but he does these paintings with very weird landscapes and blended half-animal half-human chimera figures, people with wings, birds… Weird stuff.
John Wilde, “Work Reconsidered, Scene II 6, 1942,” 1985. Oil on Board, 11” x 16”.
Who are some of your non-local influences?
Francis Bacon would be a good place to start. I think that’s been the most important influence, in terms of painters, drawers, figurative artists generally. Also one of the most long-standing. There was a friend of mine in school who had a book of Bacon’s work that I remember i would borrow all the time, just to look through. Then about a year out of grad school I took a look at it again when I was starting to try to create spaces in my work, as opposed to just placing my figures in blank spaces like I had been doing up to that point. I wanted to create a set for these characters to inhabit. So I started revisiting the Bacon paintings to see how he was doing this — particularly his stuff from the mid- to late- 70s, when he was working on a lot of triptychs — and I ended up realizing certain elements, like the vibrancy of the colors in the paint, were things that I think may have been lodged in my head and that I had been unknowingly lifting from.
Francis Bacon, Triptych (1974-1977). Oil, pastel and letraset on canvas, in three parts, each 78 x 58”
Nathan Vernau, “Wait until it gets worse,” 2010. Cut paper and pencil.
As far as non-art influences… I don’t know. Probably Conan O’Brien. Not visually so much, but he had an influence on the way I think. I remember as a kid, staying up on a Friday and seeing, like, a robot who was also a pimp. Stuff that didn’t make any sense, stuck together. Ridiculous stuff. Very performative.
PimpBot-5000, Late Night with Conan O’Brien
A comedian is an unexpected influence here. This work seems melancholy and sad. A lot of these characters you’ve drawn — self-portraits — seem despairing, even.
Yeah. My work is very often about personal experiences that are not really very pleasant. But there is still something about them that is a little ridiculous, and they are very performative. I think in a way they’re all attempts to learn from my own failures and mistakes, and to use that myself before someone else could use it to make fun of me.
So did you always focus on yourself as the main subject of your work?
No, actually. It took a long time. It wasn’t until my last year, and maybe even my last semester, of undergrad. And it was all my painting teacher seeing these two small self portraits I had done almost just as color studies and for some reason he pointed them out and said something like “I think there’s something there. I think that’s worth exploring.” Prior to that moment I had wanted to do line drawing or I wanted to design album covers for bands, and I just wasn’t very focused, but once I started drawing myself I felt like I finally had control over what I was making and what I wanted to talk about.
The first time someone asked me why I always draw myself I just blurted out, without thinking, “because it feels like the most honest way to talk about what I want to talk about.” That’s probably still the best answer.
And it seems like you mostly want to talk about relationships.
Because that’s usually what’s on my mind, unfortunately. Not all of the work is about relationships, but a lot of it is. Lately, anyway.
Before this stuff I did a lot work about masculinity, what it means to be a modern man, that kind of thing. I think I was thinking through growing up in rural Wisconsin looking for male role models who were artists and finding… well, none. All my art teachers were women, until college. It was always weird. I’m not a macho guy. I’m not a big dude. I’m not an athlete. I’m not what I’ve been led to believe an average man is, by the people I grew up around, by pop culture. So I did two series with a cowboy hat on, playing on some antiquated ideal of masculinity. The lone ranger type, the kind dude who gets shit done, takes care of himself, is self-sufficient. I always thought that kind of stuff was hilarious.
It seems like performing and performances keep coming up as you talk about your work. Have you ever thought about doing some actual performance?
I have actually been thinking about that. It’s funny, after the opening here a friend said to me “you know, it would be really great if you did a play and you could build these ‘sets’ you’ve created.” I’m still kind of scared of making anything 3D, but it does make sense.
Especially with this work, which is so literally theatrical
Another friend of mine once said to me, “Nathan, you’re a performance artist, you just document it in drawings.” And she was right. It was actually thinking about that idea that turned into the literal stage sets and curtains in these pieces.
There’s also this cinematic element to them — the series of moments of a figure’s movement through time. It’s almost like animation.
Definitely. I thought of it as capturing movement in the simplest way possible. Maybe not the “simplest” way possible — most primitive? — but I wanted people to be able to go back and forth and create a kind animation or movement for themselves. I didn’t want the figures to be static.
Nathan Vernau, “You don’t see, don’t you see,” 2011. Pencil and cut paper.
Chauvet cave (detail), Aurignacian period
I’m curious about where you see yourself in relation to your peers, or to a contemporary art scene.
That’s something that honestly kind of scares me to think about. I don’t know. I feel like a lot of current contemporary art seems to be very academic. It’s a lot of people who can talk circles around their own work using a lot of big words. I feel like I can talk intelligently about my work, but I try to talk about it in a plain language. I’m always a little bit insecure about that. I still don’t know if it allows me to fit into a particular already-established scene or if I’ll have to stand alone.
So how do you respond when critics write about you in this language, and make claims that your work is about the “limitations of truly connecting viewer and artist… the distance from and desire for understanding and communication”? Is it about that?
Oh yeah, it’s definitely about that, I just don’t know how to articulate it the way you guys do. I’ve always said that if I were able to articulate things with words, specifically if I were able to talk right now for three hours and keep people engaged, I’d just be a writer. But I can’t, which is why I do this. I communicate in pictures of myself. And it’s not like I get something on paper and I say, “Here it is! Here I am!” It’s coded and layered and it’s a dialogue with the viewer. It has more meaning for people than if it were just about me. It’s also about them. It’s a starting point for dialogue. That’s what I really want to do in my work. I really want… I’m afraid to say this… I really want attention. And I feel like the only way I can get it is from making art. It sounds so stupid when I say it, but that’s sort of the basis of what any creative person does what they do. I’m certainly making it for myself, but in the end you want to share it with people, and you want people to notice it. So why not get attention? Why not start a conversation with people when you can, the best way you can?
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