Fabian Patzak in Conversation with Elizabeth St. George
Elizabeth St. George (ESG): Fabian, this is the second catalog you have produced. Can you speak generally about some of the new themes, issues, or techniques you are exploring with your new work?
Fabian Patzak (FP): I suppose one significant difference between these new pieces, and those from my previous catalog, Inventing Experience, is that I have begun to focus my attention on actual spaces that exist in reality, rendered with a heightened notion of place and less stylization. In previous works you might come across a rendition of a perfectly symmetrical, stylized window set in the middle of the canvas. With these new paintings the scenes appear more natural and less rigid, albeit still aestheticized.
ESG: With Inventing Experience you were concerned with the emotional resonances of and memories spurred from reactions to specific places. These still interest you here, but rather than the more enclosed and private environment of interiors, or even suggested space, you have opened more candidly to public space. What do you attribute this shift to? And how do you think this has affected the psychological atmospheres you create, or how you go about rendering them?
FP: This shift has in part to do with the fact that I moved back to Vienna after having lived abroad. This allowed me to experience my surroundings with fresh eyes, and it also made me seek out places that transcended local architectural esthetics, thus transporting me back to where I have some sort of emotional connection or memory. This same phenomenon attracted me to Zlín.
I suppose the thing I pay the most attention to in rendering, other than the significance of the motif itself, would be light. Architecture is specific to a particular region and culture and informs your geographic location, light functions similarly. I use light in my paintings much like I use facades, windows and interiors. I am very aware of the light of the places I know intimately – its quality, color, brightness and intensity.
ESG: You mention that you lived abroad. Might I ask where?
FP: I have lived abroad for two extended periods. I spent half a year in Santiago de Chile. Other than Vienna, the city that I am most familiar with is New York and in 2009/10 I was awarded a studio residency there at PS122.
ESG: New York and Vienna are rendered in your paintings and are clearly important to you on a personal level. Can you tell me how you have experienced these cities – what they signify for you – and how this is translated in your work?
FP: My family is divided between the two cities, and they are the places I am most intimate with. In Vienna my grandparents were persecuted, and in New York they stuck around other Viennese people. It just happens that the two cities in my life are New York and Vienna. Many European Jewish families are divided between two or more countries.
ESG: While you have lived in New York, Vienna, and Santiago, you also mention Zlín, which is a Czech city. What significance does it have for you?
FP: I’ve have had a repetitive dream my whole life: I discover a place that is close to home – driving distance – that feels far away in one way or the other. For a while that place was a warm desert, however, sometimes it is a residential area in Vienna that I’ve never seen before but has a kind of young and vibrant American city feel to it. Another dream is that I am riding a subway that connects Vienna and New York. So when I learned of Zlín, and its architecture, it felt like that dream: a place within driving distance from home, that – at least architecturally and superficially – reminded me of a college campus somewhere in the United States.
ESG: For those not familiar with American cities or perhaps college campuses, could you clarify how Zlín reminded you of these places?
FP: The first impression I had of Zlín was an aerial photograph of rectangular brick houses aligned on a semi-circular grid and surrounded by trees. This arrangement of houses is not very common in Central Europe and brought American city planning to mind. On second glance, I noticed that the office buildings appeared to have sash windows – again, very rare in this part of the world. Then there’s the city’s color scheme of brick reds and earth tones. Vienna by contrast is light yellow.
ESG: Going back to your dream, I think it is really interesting and relates quite a bit to your paintings. In many ways they are like dreams. They have the sensation of feeling both near and far and attainable and readily understood, but also detached and complex. Is this something you have in mind when you work, or when you experience new, and perhaps even familiar, places?
FP: The element of dreams is something I relate strongly to. I am a very vivid dreamer and in the past have dreamt of paintings I later realized. I process and respond to everything I experience in dreams so, when it comes to inspiration, I don’t differentiate between the two. To me they function very similarly, except maybe that one is more immediate, less filtered, than the other.
ESG: When I look at your work, the feeling of isolation is very present. Do you think this has to do with the process of leaving and living in between cultures, or is it something else?
FP: This sense of isolation is very natural for me. The world is very noisy and people are complex, so I have – consciously or subconsciously – chosen to focus my artistic attention to our shared environment. I’ve never been driven to depict people. I have always had a very hard time focusing on the contours and features of a person when there is so much more we are able to read off of them. And this is precisely the challenge for artists whose subject matter is the human figure. I’ve always been drawn to humanity’s immobile traces, the stages we build for ourselves and the sentiments that are attached to them.
ESG: You seem to be drawn to emotional responses spurred by real places, more so than the actual materiality of the spaces themselves. How do you express this and make this distinction in your work?
FP: When you leave the environments you live in something alters in your perception. The streets and buildings no longer have that vast cache of memory, experience and history attached to them, and you are free to project into them. In my everyday life I try to embrace that phenomenon and apply it to wherever I am.
Regarding my work, it has never been my intention to realistically portray my surroundings. Instead I focus on largely architectural and light specific details that transcend locality, and try to highlight these in my renderings. In doing so I pay less – or no – attention to other prominent or significant aspects of my surroundings. In the past this focus has led to my work having been described as “reductionist.”
ESG: Does it matter that your viewers have a similar experience or encounter with your work as you had with the real environment? I suppose in other words – how important is empathy?
FP: In the spring of 2012 I exhibited some of my paintings of sash windows on Austrian buildings at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York. Through a conversation with an opening guest I realized that an American audience doesn’t attach much narrative to sash windows, and that my intention in rendering in a reduced manner an actual, and rare example of an Austrian sash window could not be read. Austrian viewers would have read this type of window as being from abroad. Interestingly, the paintings did in fact read as American scenes to the largely American audience, which – if you take the time to read their location specific titles – they are in fact not.
ESG: This makes me think of the title of one of your 2013 exhibitions in Vienna, In Lieu Of. Of course “lieu” means a place, but in English the phrase means “instead,” or “also.” Can you elaborate on the significance of this title, and perhaps how it relates to the viewer’s experience?
FP: I chose that title for several reasons. The paintings in this exhibition are generally of places that transcend my subjective experience of locality. In a sense they are real local places that become foreign places because of what I project onto them. I am also drawn to the aspect of comparison contained within the phrase. Comparison is a big part of what draws me to my subjects. Lastly, the phrase itself represents an amalgamation of cultures due to the mixture of English and French words.
ESG: You rely on architecture to act as a stage to transmit your interpretations of place and your personal experiences. Yet, you are of course not a trained architect, but studied painting at the Akademie der bildende Künste (Academy of Fine Arts) in Vienna. How do you adjust for the differences in media, both in materiality and dimensional space? I guess I am thinking of the larger scale of some of you more recent canvases. Can you discuss this?
FP: I’ve been developing two distinct approaches to that. One is a more straight-forward, oil-on-canvas approach, and the other an oil-on-wood method that involves surface texture and has an element of drawing to it. The wood pieces are smaller in scale than the canvases. These techniques have their own distinct function and results. When the element of color is important to the composition, I will tend to produce an oil-on-canvas work. If texture and line make up the piece, then it will be on wood.
ESG: I’m very interested in your use of color and light. Your previous series was rather monochrome, but your new work has a different sensibility, a vibrancy, in its use of color. Is this a new interest for you? Do you think this has something to do with your shift to depicting more exteriors, as opposed to interiors, and having to deal with lighting, whether natural or man-made, in a new way?
FP: I have certainly been allowing more colors onto my palette, which I think is an indication of both becoming more comfortable with color on a whole, and my interests in light specific scenes. As previously mentioned, light is very important to me as an indication of location and atmosphere. Some of my recent paintings are dedicated to dusk and twilight impressions, while others take place in plain daylight. Each motif calls for its own specific lighting, which demands its own palette. Sometimes it is precisely the combination of architecture and light that I respond to as is the case in Porch of Pavilion No. 10.
ESG: While you take special care to render surrounding environments, you tend to emphasize architecture, or perhaps we could even say technology, as a marker of space more than the natural environment. Although humans clearly make a cultural impact on their natural surroundings and have strong emotional connections to it, why do you think that architecture and technology function as an important transmitter of culture and the identity of place?
FP: I am extremely aware of my built surroundings. Growing up in cities you are in constant contact with architecture. It is the stage on which you act. I have an artist friend who that grew up in a log cabin in the Ozarks but lives in Vienna. For him his woods are his medium, and he uses tree bark, grasses, wild mushrooms, and twigs – to name just a few elements – in his work that he brings back from his visits home. This is particularly interesting since Vienna is surrounded by woods, but they are not his woods. As a visual artist you can’t help but be aware of, and influenced by, your surroundings.
ESG: Many of your environments are seemingly anonymous, but in many ways you are fixated with the specificity of place, especially in the titles and in the detailed nature of your renderings. Is this opposition intentional? How do you balance these conflicting ideas, and what draws you to this process?
FP: I grew up in between two worlds. Geographically, I was in Vienna, but the environment around me was that of the American School. Additionally, English was my first language, both in school and at home since my mother was born in New York. Those formative years in that international environment were very influential on how I continue to experience the world. It demonstrated that you can take a piece of architecture in a specific geographic region, fill it with objects and people from other parts of the world, and create a microcosm of culture – much like how embassies and military bases function. On top of this, I had my relatives in New York who, uprooted by National Socialism, lived in their own internalized versions of Vienna. I quite literally grew up in a culture within another culture. When it came time to graduate high school and enter the Academy of Fine Arts, it felt as different as moving to another country. There was so much I had to learn about where I had been living my whole life.
The reason the motifs themselves speak to me is their seemingly ambiguous geography. I have recently taken to leaving in architectural elements that hint at local traditions. In Schnitzel on Wagramerstrasse I even go so far as leaving in the signage advertising schnitzel, thus embracing my own bi-cultural identity.
Since my renderings exaggerate this air of geographical ambiguity, it is all the more interesting for me to reveal their specific geographic locations. My hope is that this allows the viewer to perhaps consider his or her own environment in a different light and ground the work to a shared presence, rather than existing as mere poetic figments.
ESG: As someone who grew-up with an international perspective, I wonder if your engagement with the anonymity of space has something to do with the feeling of being uprooted, caught between two worlds, and perhaps not being able to engage completely with either one?
FP: Yes, that is certainly true. Although I never had to emigrate like my grandparents did, I “inherited” what my mother likes to call the “immigrant’s dilemma” – the sensation of not feeling completely at home wherever you are.
ESG: Because your work so clearly reflects your personal relationship with, and impressions of, built space as both a container and signifier of experiences, some might interpret your work as biographical, or perhaps of a documentary nature. How does that idea sit with you?
FP: My art teacher in high school taught me that you couldn’t separate the artist from his or her culture. I didn’t fully understand what that meant at the time, and later, in art school, the predominant feeling was the more conceptual one’s work is, the better. So for a while I tried to reframe my interests in theoretical terms, rather than personal ones. Since then I’ve learned that my work becomes more interesting and accessible if I reveal my personal motivations that inevitably stem from the culture, or cultures, I come from. The theoretical element can peacefully co-exist with that.
ESG: I think its also a marker of maturity and just growing up, coming to terms with who you are and feeling comfortable to express that knowledge. What’s interesting, and truly challenging, is that you give your viewer room to experience that along with you, as well as to explore this for themselves. So perhaps theoretical or biographical is not the best way to think about this series. What would you like your audience to take away form your work?
FP: If I can evoke a memory, feeling or emotion having to do with a place, then I feel grateful to have reached someone.
All images © Fabian Patzak