Friday, June 10, 2011

Grasping For One Another: Artist Nathan Vernau

“Let me go grab even more stuff,” Nathan said to me. I was sitting at his coffee table trying not to let my mouth sag onto the pile of his work. Nathan Vernau moved to Chicago after finishing his MFA at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He participated in a widely lauded group show at Robert Bills Contemporary, curated by gallery director Emma Stein, and will appear in the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival later this summer. Last year, he appeared on the cover of New American Paintings. News about his upcoming shows and festival appearances can be found at his website.

But look. I’m burnt. I’ve tried to write this piece five times, and endured total accidental deletion of 1500 words that I thought were finally adequate to the task of describing what Nathan’s work “is.” I haven’t written anything but a piece on Ren and Stimpy in two weeks as a result. And once again, I find myself not saying what I want to say about the piles of pictures that lay in front of me on Nathan’s coffee table.  So I’ll just say it: Nathan’s work is vital, urgent, unnerving, and deeply felt.

And there’s a lot of it.

We started talking about one of his most recent pieces, "You Don’t See, Don’t You See," which seems to embody many of Nathan’s current and ongoing formal and thematic concerns. An elaborately posed pile of contorted self-portraits holding blankets and wearing bunny hats emerges out of the bottom of the frame. The figures have their backs turned to what appear to be open windows, illuminated dimly by tautly hung light bulbs caught mid orbit as they swing in almost perfect circles. The density of the textured surface does not adequately show up on screen. In person, the work is layered, and the blue windows seem to open into a space behind the surface. Only when face to face with Nathan’s pictures (say, on a coffee table in his Avondale/Logan Square apartment) does the meticulousness of his penciling and the complex layering of his collaged arrangements become evident. His figures seem to emerge not just vertically, but also outward from the picture plane, though they remain caught, held down, stuck. This stuckness—and the expenditure of physical effort in defiance of paralysis—runs through much of Nathan’s work. His pieces explore the limits of expression and the often violent desire to be heard/felt/seen/understood.

The roots of Nathan’s particular means of working through these themes can be found in an early series of self-portraits with pink balloons. Nathan sits shirtless in a chair, reading a book, playing with a pink pistol, and wearing a cowboy hat. Surrounded by balloons that respond to his mood and gestures, Nathan cycles through a series of emotions that range from patience, to an all out explosion of pent-up energy. The series climaxes with “God-damnit it’s About Time – Let me Celebrate,” in which the figure leans back and laughs, as if firing the gun in the air. But at the end of this outburst, there is a return to indifference or moody contemplation of one’s inability to effect lasting change upon the environment. Nathan “hangs his hat and sighs” in the aftermath of what proves to be an ineffective or inconsequential outburst of emotion. Two important themes become apparent in this early series.

The first is the degree to which Nathan thematizes performance as a means of communicating artistic meaning. In the balloon series, several objects make appearances. In addition to the balloons themselves, the gun, hat, and shorts reappear in several of Nathan's work. A "cast" of recurring props including hearts, the bunny hat, paper bags, and more recently envelopes create a sense of continuity across time in Nathan's body of work. But more importantly, they convey a sense that the self-portraits are always in a sense a stage for the artist to express some kind of mediated truth about himself. We are always receiving Nathan in a staged setting. In "Still Life Portrait," Nathan makes this even more apparent. Covered with a paper bag, he is effaced and surrounded by objects that stand in for him in the artistic space. What does it mean to be a prop or performer in one's own work?

This question becomes more urgent when we consider the ways in which we play roles in our ordinary interactions with one another. Much of Nathan's recent pieces seem to grapple with the idea that we are always performing--that all communicative or relational actions require a sense of subservience to the limitations of language. And that therefore we are always grasping at shadows of ourselves and others. In "Constant C-O-N-T-A-C-T," the figures seem to be reaching toward an open window, where strings (tied to what? Are these light switches that will provide illumination? Are they helium balloons that will provide escapes) evade capture. Regardless, they are grasping toward some kind of connection even as the strings seem to be wafting in the breeze. Connection remains just beyond our capacity.

In "Lett 'er Tell Me," which Nathan describes as a riff on his own experiences sending email messages in the online dating world, he gets at this idea from the opposite end. Here the figures are lamenting the lack of response to a message sent into the world--the failure to receive confirmation of emotional connection. In both cases, the thing to mourn is the ultimate impossibility of coming into contact with some object or person. The titles of both works are thus ironic. They gesture precisely toward the impossibility of contact or unwillingness to contact.

Yet Nathan's work insistently pursues contact in spite of these failures. In "As Much as I'd Like to Be I'm Not in this Picture," Nathan sums up a sentiment at the core of his work. What does it mean for the artist to be in his work?  Perhaps it is just a sense of "all-rightness" with the idea of the inadequacy of language--but a simultaneous impulse to continue to struggle for communication. The artist will not convey any true sense of self or identity. True contact might not be possible. But in Nathan's work, we get the sense that it's worth it to keep trying--on the off chance that, in our efforts to grasp for one another, we might actually touch.

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