Hunting: Ben Grzenia in Conversation with Zach Van Horn
Zach Van Horn and Ben Grzenia were the joint winners of the 2018 artcritical prize awarded by faculty vote ahead of the Annual Student Exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Both were graduating students of PAFA’s MFA program. The artcritical prize – consisting of an interview in these pages with an agreed upon writer – has been awarded at PAFA since 2015, and has also been a featured prize at the New York Studio School Alumni Exhibition since 2017. For the PAFA 2018 prize it was decided that the winners would interview one another.
ZACH VAN HORN
I know your background is more based in Design before studying at PAFA. Could you talk about some of the differences and similarities (if any) between studying design and studying fine art?
In design, I was built into the idea that I could not hold my work as something sacred. I had a professor in my undergrad that would tear people’s work apart without giving us a reason, and we had to respond to it with new approaches and ideas. It was harsh, but when we followed through with another approach, it often ended up as a better result. I had to expect changes from the customer and work around their expectations. The practice helped me with criticism and allowed me to take everyone’s feedback into consideration. It is so easy so convince ourselves that we made something great, when in reality it can always be something so much better. The opportunity to make something better will always be there, so why not attempt to take in what others are seeing?
Entering graduate school as a designer was both a blessing and a burden. The problem was that my history in design kept me under the impression that I was making work for someone else. I wasn’t sure what I should create and why it should be created.
What I knew was that I wanted to get my hands dirty. I was excited to break away from the cleanliness of my graphic design past. I lived in the print shop and dove into various techniques until I felt confident enough to make something that was beyond a print experiment.
Printmaking seems like a logical transition stage from design to fine art. Could you elaborate more on what printmaking has given you to become a better artist?
Printmaking made me realize that I enjoy the process just as much as the result. When I had my first successful edition of screen prints, I was ecstatic. It took an ample amount of work to get there. I had to research all of the elements in screen printing before I could get to that moment. It was certainly difficult since I had to work within a timeframe to have something to show my critics. It turned out that I was enjoying each part of the process. The steps were all different but equally important in order to get the print completed successfully.
That said, there was so much failure happening. I was also cursing to myself and crying often. The joy and struggle in learning printmaking was reminding me of a part of my life closer to home. I had moved from Wisconsin, where I have close ties with my family. A hunting family. My dad had taught me everything about hunting, a process-heavy lifestyle that needs to be done carefully and thoughtfully in order to have a result that is successful. It takes a lot of patience, practice, and a lot of passion. When I realized that having a process that made me feel parallel to another process closer to family gave me comfort; I was able to start making works that reminded me of home when I was far away.
The potential pain of failure is definitely a strong reason to why someone might not try something new or push themselves but it seems invaluable to have failure, especially as an artist. I was wondering if you could talk about some of your biggest failures and what lessons you learned from them, if any?
I was learning about pouring heavy amounts of acrylic and water-based binders on one of my larger wood panels. I should add that I previously often used a safe route of making sketches in photoshop to have an idea of what I wanted to paint, but this was going to be a test of impulse. I had bought a $200 gallon of paint and wanted to try to cover the entire panel. I made a few calls to the company I bought it from asking how much of the paint I should use. They suggested using the whole thing. After the call I got confident and poured the entire gallon on to the surface. Terrible idea. My adrenaline was in full force. I was sweating like crazy trying to get the entire panel’s surface even. It turned out that the panel was slightly warped, so the paint started to pool in certain areas. As I tried evening it out paint would drip off of the sides and onto the floor. It took me way too long to sweep that up, and when I swept it some of the dust particles landed on the wet surface. Many delightful swear words followed. I eventually got to a point where I was somewhat okay with the surface and let it dry overnight. Once I felt calm enough to walk back in to check on it, I opened the door to my studio and it looked puke-worthy. There were cracks in the paint, the pooling still managed to happen, dust particles everywhere. I was looking at $200 drain down the gutter in front of my eyes. Adrenaline in full force once again, I had to destroy it. I started ripping paint off of the panel like a bear fighting a locked fridge full of candied bacon.
That moment was one of my greatest accomplishments. I was finding lovely textures and colors that were showing from hidden layers in the ripped painting. I discovered beauty hidden in destruction. It allowed me to accept moments that can’t be controlled. This brought me back to thinking about home. My father has been struggling with COPD, a lung disease that limits what he can do physically as time passes on. It has been a challenge to cope with, but its a situation that has allowed us to further appreciate the memories that we spend with one another. What I originally thought was an expensive punishment became a new aspect of my familial narrative and the memories they contain. My work is heavily inspired by shared moments.
Was coming to Philadelphia for Grad school your first time being far away from your family for an extended period of time?
It sure was. It’s similar to walking away from a painting to understand it more. The distance helped me realize that living in the realms of graphic design and the great outdoors felt like turning a switch on and off between different worlds. It was too separate. Going to graduate school allowed me explore the range between the two, and to find ways to blend them together. I was able to discover artists that danced with a spectrum of ideas in their work, such as Alex Dodge, Jacques Villeglé and Didier William (can I call out my own professor?). The distance also helped me realize my individuality and upbringing in nature. I appreciate it so much more now. I am currently traveling in the middle of nowhere in Canada, but they’ve recently installed satellite internet in the cabin. This place used to be off the grid and allowed visitors to immerse themselves into the outdoors. Now everyone is checking their emails every morning. Going off the grid should be the next big trend.
It sounds like your art practice is a form of therapy for you. Would you agree? It’s a common critique of art that practicing art is narcissistic in the face of climate change and the current political climate. I struggle with this in my own practice and I was wondering if you do as well?
I often see my studio practice as therapy, no doubt. The process of creating and displaying my personal work has helped me form an output for my anxiety and hankerings. I think it’s okay to be moderately selfish in your studio in order to communicate ideas and locate those who share passion about the work that you create. Selfish but genuine. There is a complex web of similarities and differences among us. Anything we create becomes political. I would be lying to you if I said that I loved everything I saw in a museum. I tell my friends and family that it’s really okay to not like a lot of work in a museum. I am just glad they are there to discover what they do like. It is personal treasure hunt in a way, right?
And yes! I struggle with the macro/micro dilemma all of the time. One moment I’m dancing and giddy about where my next piece is going, and the next I’m grabbing my hair desperately asking “What am I saying?” The beautiful part is that we get to ask; to react and make discoveries. My work often comes to a point that is out of my control and the best reaction is to just accept it. The work needs to speak for itself, to further define me and my actions. I still have a hard time coming to terms with that. I will spend the rest of my life art making. It has helped me deal with the inevitable struggles that revolve in and outside of the studio.
What are some of your next goals/desires/plans in your studio?
I was very lucky to have resources at PAFA to make meaningful pieces. My next goal is to start my own print shop! It will include processes I enjoy and also new ones to explore. I would like to sink my teeth into risography: a revived-retro process that produces copies from a stencil that is a blend of screen printing and photocopying. I am excited to collaborate with my wonderful partner, Diana Chu, on self-published books, zines, prints, and paintings together and have multiple outputs for our ideas. We really want to reach out to the community and get others involved that have similar passions. I’m confident we’ll be able to reach out, it will just take time. Patience is key.