In a break from studio visits, this entry of The Semi-Finalist centers on Rachael Zur’s tactile and moving show, “Artifacts of Affection,” at Gallery 114. The exhibit showcases her willingness to be fearless and tender as well as her ability to be experimental and grounded in tradition. I’ve become familiar with Zur’s work over the last year or so and I’m always drawn to the way her shaped paintings of everyday objects take on an otherworldly presence and defy immediate categorization. The mix of ordinary objects with disembodied arms, wings and organs suggests stories and relationships that I want to know more about.
Ghosts I Make About You, plaster, wood, acrylic, spray paint, resin, 2019
Zur is also a poet, and I thought it would be fitting to start off this interview with a poem that implies through language something similar to what she’s getting at with her inventive and expressive paintings.
905 Second Street
By Rachael Zur
in the shed, crooked nails left to be hammered out
tell me of that person’s life during the Great Depression
I found a wooden block in there with “be my valentine” carved on it
I kept it, because its clumsiness felt familiar
under the house my husband found a gas pipe plugged with a wine cork
I guess this is how people solve problems
when I painted over the wallpaper in the bedroom
I could see that there was a second layer of wallpaper beneath it
our relationship with homes is symbiotic
the building shelters our bodies, and we slow the house’s demise which comes long after us
The Semi-Finalist: When I was at your show, "Artifacts of Affection," I was thinking about how fearless you are with materials. Usually I can tell if something is a painting, a sculpture, etc., but I couldn’t immediately figure out what your objects were made of. There’s a blending of materials and sensibilities in this show that’s really exciting; can you talk about how you arrived at this stylistic choice?
Rachael Zur: It’s probably helpful for me to first explain what the paintings on the walls are made out of; often enough, when looking at a photograph, people assume the work is entirely ceramic. However, the forms are cut out of corrugated plastic or wood and then wrapped in plaster gauze. Most often I paint into the plaster while it is still wet, with acrylic or spray paint. Sometimes I attach a ceramic piece or fabric into a larger work, but the plaster is wonderful for blending the edges between materials.
The stylistic choices that I’ve arrived at now were born out of wanting to hold together both an enthusiasm for multiple ways of handling materials and media, and my love for painting. For a couple of years, I’ve been interested in my paintings occupying a space between sculpture and installation—while primarily being in the language of painting. Elizabeth Murray, Frank Stella, and Sam Gilliam have been influences for me in thinking about the structures that can hold a painting. While I’m invested in constructing irregular structures to paint on, I’m equally interested in how a simple contour line can convey a form on a flat surface.
1936-2019, plaster, acrylic, spray paint, resin, fabric, 2019; detail of 1936-2019.
"The stylistic choices that I’ve arrived at now were born out of wanting to hold together both an enthusiasm for multiple ways of handling materials and media, and my love for Painting."
S-F: I saw that Amy Bay described your show as “tender” in a post on Instagram. I thought that was such a perfect word to sum up your subject matter. Tell me about your work's relationship to people, domestic spaces, and memory.
RZ: Traces of the love that people have for each other lingers long after they are gone, it’s something that can be felt in old buildings or domestic objects. I’m interested in how affection can be held in the most humble and outdated objects.
I am specifically drawn to depicting the objects in living rooms, whose predecessor in pre-Civil War America is the Parlor Room. Out of the many functions that the Parlor Room served, one of them was preparing the bodies of loved ones for burial. I do find a tenderness in those preparations being carried out at home. Lacking those customs, I’ve turned to honoring those whom I’ve lost through depicting items from their living rooms. I have allowed for the spaces belonging to different loved ones to merge in the work, and as my grief eased, I saw that I was in fact making work about the affection held in homes belonging to (mostly) women who had profoundly impacted my life.
Immemorial Couch, plaster, wood, netting, acrylic, spray paint, resin, fabric, 2019
I’m also interested in how memory relates to the function of seeing. Much of what is seen is reduced to an abstraction in the eye before it is understood by the brain, the brain compares the abstraction to memories of similar, known objects in order to see the new object. It’s a very precarious process! The white forms painted on the walls are abstractions of the plaster paintings. At the same time, those forms increase in their legibility when the viewer looks at the works hanging on adjacent walls.
Longing Syndrome II, plaster, wood, acrylic, spray paint, resin, 2020
S-F: I’m always intrigued by artists that can turn a gallery into a theatrical setting for their show. I don’t think of you as making installation art (maybe I’m wrong!), but you’ve managed to transform Gallery 114 into a space that amplifies the themes that run through your work. How did this come about?
RZ: To borrow from what you said about the theatrical setting, color sets the stage. The lavender walls allow the silhouettes of the plaster paintings to be very legible up close, but fainter from further away. The painted walls definitely amplify the main theme of the show: the residue of lives lived and the affection that can still be felt in humble objects. The lavender color shifts from grey to pink depending on where one stands and in relation to the works that it's near. The shifting in color works well with the elusive feeling of work that holds both the presence and absence of an individual.
"...color sets the stage."
After developing the visual language for this body of work, I began looking for ways in to make works that related to pieces I had already made. I thought about how these works could exist both singularly and directly next to each other. Leading up to the show, I spent a lot time in my studio placing these works near each other at different heights to see how that impacted how I moved from piece to piece.
I don’t want to take anything for granted with how a show is installed. I consider the space fully and respond to the architectural features that I will be forced to work with. One of my favorite moments in the show is the placement of Small Ghost End Table above the vent in the gallery wall. The vent is not really something that can be ignored, so I embraced it, placing the work above it as if it had just landed there.
Small Ghost End Table, plaster, corrugated platic, acrylic, spray paint, resin, 2019; Rachael Zur at Gallery 114.
"The vent is not really something that can be ignored, so I embraced it, placing the work above it as if it had just landed there."
Installation view with Matriarch (foreground) and A Place to Rest Your Crown (middle ground); wall drawings.
S-F: I know that you’ve had a chance to work with some really amazing people as part of your recent MFA program. Can you talk a bit about that as well as your background, education or any other formative experiences that you think are relevant?
RZ: My bachelor’s degree is from the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. I completed my MFA in the Low Residency MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago last summer. I learned so much from each teacher that I worked with in grad school and feel very fortunate to have studied with each of them. I worked most closely with Jessica Jackson Hutchins and Kristan Kennedy--my mentors for the parts of the year I was in Portland. Kristan helped me to move my painting practice away from rectilinear supports, and to consider how works can relate to each other in an exhibition. While working with Jessica, I was building sculptures to hold my late father’s ceramics. It was a challenging project emotionally, but also formally, because my father’s work was already complete and in an aesthetic that doesn’t immediately pair well with my own. While working with Jessica, I was able to better understand what my standards are with regards to art making, and to tune in to my own voice.
In addition to my formal education, my father’s ceramics left an indelible mark on me as an artist. My dad passed away when I was an infant. I grew up longing to connect with him. His ceramics were a way for me to have a connection. I could trace where his hands had been on a piece, or spend time looking at the work to learn how he built it. At an early age, I learned that an art object can tell a viewer a lot about its maker--this is one reason why I’m so invested in texture and leaving traces of my touch, because that’s part of the legacy that my father left for me.
The Other Side of the Door, metal doorknocker, wood, plaster, gauze, acrylic, spray paint, 2020; wall drawing.
S-F: You also write poetry and have some on your website under the appropriately understated tab: "unseen labor." I think it's so interesting when an artist has a strong connection to language because it seems like such a different part of the brain! Did these interests - the visual and the literary- develop side by side or at different points in your life?
RZ: It’s a very different part of the brain. Having a writing practice is a recent development. I’ve struggled with dyslexia since I was a child and that has made it difficult to have confidence in my writing. Initially I was hesitant to go to grad school because I was terrified of the writing component. Gregg Bordowitz, who is the director of the Low Residency MFA Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, told me during my first semester in the program that he thought writing could become an important aspect of my practice. At the time, I completely disagreed with him. After working with Pamela Sneed and Corrine Fitzpatrick, I found ways of working with language that felt akin to my visual art practice by finding odd couplings of ideas, and by being earnest and direct.
Even the wall color surrounding the title of Zur's Gallery 114 show was carefully considered.
S-F: What’s next for you?
RZ: This December I’m in a group show called Domestic Landscapes curated by Carissa Burkett at Chehalem Cultural Center, in Newburg, Oregon. My husband and I are homeschooling our three kids this year and I will be taking them with me on a residency at Stay Home Gallery in Paris, Tennessee in spring of 2021. I have a two person show with Ruth Ross in June of 2021 at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida.
You can see more or Rachael Zur's work at https://www.rachaelzur.com/ and on Instagram at @rachaelzur.
Below are a few more images of Zur's show at Gallery 114, courtesy of the artist.