Escape into Water: Interview With Eric Zener


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“Infinity” by Eric Zener

I noticed that you’re from California and your style of painting has a California-esque quality to it. Your work reminds me of the California surrealists in the 70′s and 80′s to a degree. Were you influenced by them or is there a regional influence in your style?

I suppose at some level what we see influences us, however I can’t really place a particular artist or regional influence on my work. That being said I did grow up in southern California in the 70′s and 80′s; surfing and living with creative parents and artistic relatives. I can imagine the beach lifestyle, appreciation for water and the sense of an “endless summer” has left quite an imprint on me–and ultimately my work.

Your paintings are superb, extremely high quality, almost photographic. Should I attribute this to a kind of realism?

Thank you! Sure, I suppose “realism” is correct. In person they certainly are not photorealistic . . . although I do try to create a great sense of realism with the light, color and movement of the figure, they are “paintings”; full of imperfections and evidence of the human hand.

Your paintings involve beach settings, swimming pool settings, paintings of swimmers. Is this water motif intended and if so why do you paint water? What does it mean to you?

I could expand on this for hours, but in a nutshell water is a metaphor for a place of renewal and personal transformation–both literally and the ephemeral sense of escape we get when we plunge below the surface. I have never intended them to be “sporty” or “fun in the sun” type of images, but rather a reflection on the collective desire in all of us to retreat from the noise of the world.

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“The Beginning” by Eric Zener

You seem to be interested in reflections on water, water splashes, bubbles–is this a technical curiosity or something else? I would say this is the “surrealistic” aspect of your paintings, would you agree?

Perhaps “surreal” only in terms of the metaphor of the imagery. For example, for me, the bubbles represent memories: the past being released or let go. In the water, a sense of baptism occurs (symbolically of course), releasing our air is akin to letting go and moving into something new. For the splashes and diving boards they represent a type of portal to our youth, when life appeared softer and easier. The pool is a place to rekindle that carefree time–too often eroded by age.

Many of your figures are resting near the water or in water. Some seem to be in fact in between worlds–of life and death. Am I reading into things? What is the relationship between your figures and the water they inhabit?

Yes . . . between two worlds. Above the surface we appear “all together”, below we are moving and in a constant state of transformation (symbolically). Things are not as they appear . . . This is particularly evident in the treading water series I have painted. I love how the figure struggling to stay afloat is so rigid and effortful, while the part below the surface is fluid, peaceful and in a state of constant change.

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“Relinquishing” by Eric Zener

Can you talk a little bit about your painting technique and method? How do these great works come about?

I take photos of models in the water and then use them as a reference to make my drawing. Usually a lot changes but it gives me a good starting point. Then I paint an underpainting in grey/blue scale. After that I paint from the farthest point back to the foreground.

Would you say that you are well-known in the art world–New York or California? Looking at your exhibitions dating back to 1988, it seems that your work is a regular fixture in galleries, public and private collections?

Hard to put a label on how well known I am. I have shown in NY and California for almost 20 years and feel blessed to have done so well. Takes a lot to be a house-hold name. I am just concerned with making good art….the rest is out of my hands!

As a recognized artist, do you feel famous? appreciated? understood?

I feel appreciated and understood for the most part.

Why do you create art? Is this something you’ve always wanted to do? Or did it happen accidentally?

I suppose a little of both. I have always found my own escape in art–both as a viewer and a maker. I really got into painting after attending the university while I was searching for my path in life I guess. I got lucky early on with the validation young artists need to keep going.

Why do you choose to create mixed media? Is mixed media something you’re still experimenting with? Or do you feel like you belong more to mixed media than to painting, or vice versa?

I feel I am a “painter” first, although I really love the mixed media process–both as an exploratory perspective and aesthetic. There are some things I just can’t do with paint. I also think it is a good thing for artists to expand their reach. If I wanted to make cookies all day I’d be a baker! :)

I’ve noticed that some of your mixed media resembles your paintings, except distorted in beautiful ways. Is there a technique you use for this? A method or no?

Yes, I intentionally take low res photographs; often with a cell phone or cheap camera and blow them up. I like the artifact element of the distressed photo. It keeps the emphasis on the image and meaning, rather then the quality of the photograph. I hand paint them and cover them in layers of resin. Usually gold leaf as well to allow the light to bounce around inside the resin layers.

I would just like to close by saying I’m in awe of your work and this interview has given me a chance to appreciate your brilliance. Thank you.

Visit Eric Zener’s Website Here.




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  • Anonymous

    The first time I read this interview when it was posted, I was blown away as to how all aspects of Mr. Zener’s work had been so meticulously covered. Essentially, this is one of my favorite interviews on Escape Into Life. Via the interviewer’s (Chris Al Aswad’s) scintillating questions, I as the reader, came to truly appreciate the layered essence behind Eric Zener’s paintings. Chris, I congratulated you then and I’ll congratulate you again now! #TYCHRIS

    And Mr. Zener’s work is awe inspiring indeed! I love how he uses water as a metaphor “for a place of renewal and personal transformation–both literally and the ephemeral sense of escape we get when we plunge below the surface.”

    Also appreciate the metaphors of “bubbles” as “memories” (i.e. letting go.); figures suspended between two worlds (how they appear on the surface and below the surface.) Best of all, these paintings are a celebration of the wonder that is water: a precious element we often take for granted!