I thought it would be intriguing to ask painters this simple yet complex question. This query comes with no ground rules—it’s up to each individual artist to find their own approach and direction.
This project will be an ongoing exploration … let’s see where it takes us.
What is Painting?
Featuring Gwendolyn Zabicki
What will you leave behind? I know I will leave a lot of dust, unfashionable clothes, and student loan debt for some poor schmuck to deal with. Hopefully in that mess, there will be something worthwhile. Maybe I’ll leave behind some wonderful, well-adjusted children. Every time I laugh or sneeze or dance or tell a joke, I am reminded of how much I sound and act just like my mom, who sounds and acts just like her mom, and so on forever. Aside from these intangible personality traits (and piles of dusty VHS tapes), will there be anything that future generations will want to keep? If I’m lucky, maybe a few good paintings of mine will survive.
To be a painter is to participate in a human activity that predates agriculture and the written word. Painting is an activity that even your oldest human ancestors would understand. Terra Rosa (genuine) paint, is made from natural iron oxide clays from Europe or the Middle East, and is the same pigment cave painters were using 40,000 years ago. Rose Madder genuine is a plant-based paint that is usually made with synthetic dyes because it is considered an unstable, or fugitive color. The genuine Rose Madder is more beautiful than the synthetic version and what an amazing thing it is to use the same pigment that was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, in the ruins of Pompeii, and in the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. Ivory Black is made from burned bones. How badass is that? It used to be made from actual burned ivory. The genuine pigment is still made in tiny quantities from ivory harvested from animals that have died naturally. (Ask me if you want to know where to get some.) If you buy genuine Venetian Red, know that it comes from the same quarry where Titian obtained his supplies.
Painting connects you to the past, but also to the future. If done correctly, a painting can last centuries. It is an object that survives, like a time capsule, because of its beauty and cultural value. Painting is pre-language. The names and haircuts change, but human drama stays the same.
The wonderful and critical John Berger in his 1972 BBC television series, Ways of Seeing, said, “Every portrait is a record which says, ‘I once existed and looked like this.’” In the third episode he shows us an image of Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance, and while we look at the painting he says, “We realize that like every moment, it was unrepeatable. It is as though she is holding the moment between her forefinger and thumb on the scales of the past and the future. Despite its apparent celebration of property, this painting is about the mystery of light and time.” According to Berger, exceptional painting, painting that goes beyond the traditional function of celebrating of wealth and status, asks about the question of existence and shows us existence as a question.
For me, painting is a way to communicate to an unknowable future. I would like to give these future viewers a little window into the past. I would like them to know that I had a sense of humor, but mostly I would like them to know that I am sorry I missed them. I would have loved them if I had known them.
Gwendolyn Zabicki, Josephine, oil on canvas, 32″ by 24″, 2015
On a flight to Dusseldorf, I sat next to an older woman named Josephine. She had had about four drinks and I had taken a few muscle relaxants and soon we became good friends. She told me she was a professor emeritus at Juilliard and that she was a widow. She wanted to give me all of this life advice and she somehow knew that I wanted to hear it. She told me that the love of her life died 12 years ago, but that being a widow was not that bad. She told me not to be afraid to be alone and she told me to visit her in New York sometime. We met for dinner a few months later. A grand piano filled the living room of her tiny apartment where she played a selection of Chopin and Brahms for me. Josephine told me that Brahms had been in love with a married woman named Clara Schumann, whom he had known for a long time. When her husband died, Brahms was hoping that he and Clara would finally be together and he wrote a song for her. They never married, but they loved each other from a distance for years. It was a strange affair. The remarkable thing is that even if you don’t know the complicated backstory, you can hear the hopefulness in the song he wrote for her. It communicates wordlessly. I wanted to make a painting of Josephine that did the same thing, that captured her in paint as she seemed to me– confident, beatific, and wise.
Gwendolyn Zabicki is a painter from Chicago. She earned her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2005 and her MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2012. Her work has shown at Comfort Station, The Hyde Park Art Center, Gallery 400, Morton College, The Riverside Arts Center, Northern Illinois University, North Park University, Robert Bills Contemporary, and The Bauhaus Universität in Weimar, Germany. She is the founder of the South Logan Arts Coalition and the pop-up exhibition space, Frogman Gallery. Currently, she teaches painting at the Hyde Park Art Center.
The What Is Painting? Project – More Featured Artists